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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Preview of Upcoming Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations

Matthew J. Matthews
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Washington, DC
October 9, 2015

Date: 10/09/2015 Location: Washington, DC Description: U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew J. Matthews briefs journalists on the upcoming Australia-US Ministerial Consultations at the Washington Foreign Press Center. - State Dept Image

2:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: [I’m Mark Zimmer,] Media Relations Officer for East Asia and the Pacific at the Foreign Press Center. We’re very pleased today to have Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. senior official for APEC, Mr. Matt Matthews. He’s going to offer a preview of the 2015 Australia-U.S. Ministerial consultations.

We’re on the record. We’re going to record this. We’ll put out a transcript later. We are not broadcasting this event. We’ve got a New York office on the line. If anybody has a question, they’ll come up to the screen, so we’ll do it that way. We’ve got about a half an hour today, and again, we’ll ask the Deputy Assistant Secretary to make a statement and then we’ll open it up for questions. Thank you.

MR MATTHEWS: So again, all right. So I just wanted to say, first of all, I’m really delighted to be here and we are very excited to be welcoming Foreign Minister Bishop and your new Defense Minister Marise Payne to Boston next week for the AUSMIN. This is our 30th AUSMIN, and we are also celebrating the 75th anniversary of U.S.-Australian relations – very close relations. And it is also the 10th anniversary of the signing of our Bilateral Free Trade Agreement which was signed back in 2004.

Accordingly, we are very excited to be holding this important meeting in Secretary Kerry’s hometown of Boston, and we’re very pleased to welcome the new defense minister there, to congratulate her as the first woman in Australia to hold that position. We hold AUSMIN each year to reaffirm the close bilateral relationship and a strong military alliance between Australia and the United States.

Over the past 75 years, Australia and the United States have become indispensable global partners. I think as you all know, the United States is Australia’s largest foreign direct investor with I think somewhere on the order of $760 billion in investment in Australia. We are your third largest trading partner, if I’m not mistaken, and you are our 11th largest export market. So there is a very important economic relationship that underpins the relationship. We also have a million and a half tourists travel between the United States and Australia every year – something that we encourage all people to do. And there are 13,000 students studying in both our countries as well.

Both countries engage in robust exchange in the areas of science and technological innovation, ranging from neuroscience to clean energy to information technology, and of course, our space-related cooperation that NASA has been doing in Australia for years that goes back to the time before they made the movie “The Dish,” right? So it’s like if you’ve ever been outside of Canberra and been to visit that site, it’s kind of classic.

Australia and the United States have also a shared history of sacrifice across the globe, and we have dedicated ourselves to maintaining peace and security throughout the world, and that has been enshrined in our 1951 security treaty. But I would say that it’s clear that even today Australia is contributing significantly to the coalition to fight ISIS, to provide personnel and aircraft to the coalition for air combat and support missions. And Australia and the United States also continue to work as partners in the Asia Pacific region to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight with respect to international law and unimpeded lawful commerce.

Australia and the United States worked together tirelessly with a number of other Pacific nations to successfully conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership just earlier this week, and we will continue to promote this agreement as one of the most expansive, high-quality trade agreements, and as a major opportunity to increase commerce, investment, and create jobs with increasing prosperity for all those participating economies.

America is a Pacific nation. Its future is very closely tied to the Pacific. The Australians are some of our closest friends there, and in fact, our closest friends in the world. We are delighted to host them for AUSMIN, and at this time I’d just like to open it up and take your questions.

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary, I’m Michael Vincent [of ABC Australia].

MR MATTHEWS: It’s – just to downgrade myself to my proper rank, I’m a Deputy Assistant Secretary.

QUESTION: Mr. Deputy Assistant Secretary – (laughter) – so, look, are you expecting any what you guys like to call deliverables out of the meeting at AUSMIN or is it kind of expected to be a sort of, I don’t know, what’s the --

MR MATTHEWS: I think the best way to describe AUSMIN is a chance for our senior leaders at [the] cabinet level to get together and ensure that our comprehensive understanding of the way we look at the world and the challenges we face are really tightly matched. Naturally, during the course of the year we have many interactions at lower levels in the U.S. and Australian governments between our diplomats from State or military folks from DOD. But this is the premier event which really kind of sets the general framework and where both sides can reassure each other that we do – are coming from the same place. And where there needs to be discussion, then discussion takes place.

QUESTION: So when you – sorry, guys, just a quick follow-up on that. When you say reassure each other you’re coming from the same place, you mean on policy goals and --

MR MATTHEWS: Yeah, I think --

QUESTION: -- on defense and trade and that sort of stuff?

MR MATTHEWS: Yeah, we actually – we don’t really need to assure each other, since we really are very tightly intertwined and we have a very close set of views about the challenges we face in the world. But it provides – as issues arise and as they will, it provides that opportunity to be discussing them at a senior level. And I think it’s always a very healthy thing to do. That’s why we do it on a regular, annual basis.

QUESTION: Australia has a new prime minister and also a new defense minister. What are the U.S. Administration’s expectations of relations going forward with Australia? I mean, I’d note Tony Abbott – I think it would be widely accepted he ensured there was strong relations between the U.S. and Australia under his leadership.

MR MATTHEWS: I think we are very confident that through the decades and through changing administrations on both sides the relationship has been extremely robust, and we fully expect that they will continue to be so. We have a very talented team led by Prime Minister Turnbull, and I’m sure we’ll have excellent interaction and the relationship will continue to be as strong as ever.

QUESTION: So you’d expect continuity?


QUESTION: The ground beneath these meetings is shifting rapidly, though. Isn’t it because apart from the change of leadership in Australia, the situation on the ground in Syria has massively changed in the past couple of weeks. Is that going to be a focus of the talks?

MR MATTHEWS: I think it’s – first of all, I would say that the grounds for the relationship are firm and stable and sure. They’re globally based, they’re regionally based, and they’re bilaterally based. So that’s a really strong, stable framework in which we operate in. There are challenges that arise like Syria, ISIL in particular. And how we go about meeting that challenge does present new problem sets to solve, but I think you’ll find that the United States and Australia are working quite well together in dealing with it.

QUESTION: Will the talks – do you expect the talks to focus on how the Australian contribution to the coalition fighting ISIL can operate alongside other coalition members, led by America, in parallel to another war going on being led by Russia?

MR MATTHEWS: Well, they may get into issues like that. I don't know specifically whether that will happen. ISIL and Syria will be on the agenda to discuss. But certainly to date, that coalition has been working effectively, and whatever challenges we face in managing our coalition activities side-by-side with increased activity from Russia – well, if that comes up, that would be perfectly natural and --

QUESTION: You talk about Australia and the U.S. having similar objectives, and I think an example used was freedom of navigation in the Asia Pacific waters. I assume you meant --

MR MATTHEWS: Anywhere in the world.

QUESTION: Yeah, the South China Sea is obviously very topical at the moment. What role do you see Australia playing in helping to ensure there is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea?

MR MATTHEWS: Well, in the case of the South China Sea, there has been rising tension over the past several years due to the fact that there are multiple overlapping claims, and China has taken a more aggressive stance in asserting its claims. The United States has a very clearly defined position. We don’t take a position on territorial claims themselves, but we take a very strong and clear position that resolution of any of those claims has to be done consistent with international law, and it has to be done in a way that is free from bullying or coercion and should be done consistent with international institutions that are aligned to help deal with them.

So I think we have sought in international fora, including the EAS, including the ASEAN EMM, etc, to enunciate that position. And we have called upon likeminded nations to do the same to ensure that the temperature and the level of tension is reduced by all parties adhering to reasonable means of addressing their overlapping claims, those that are consistent with international law.

We have also asked that all activities in the South China Sea that would intend to change facts on the ground, to change their positions, be halted, and we call upon China and other claimants to adhere to that halt. And we appreciate it when other nations in the region share in promoting that view as a way of lowering tensions in the South China Sea.

QUESTION: So Australia, in other words, being an advocate --


QUESTION: -- of the similar values that you were just espousing now.

QUESTION: Given the Secretary’s very necessary focus on Syria and before that – well, and continuing, I imagine, dispute in Israel and around – in these talks, will he seek to reassure Australia of the State Department and the Administration’s ongoing commitment to a Rebalance?

MR MATTHEWS: I think you can be well assured that the United States’ Rebalance takes place within the framework of whatever other challenges we face. The United States has a fundamental position, which is that the future growth of the world is centered in Asia. The highest, the greatest amount of global growth will be occurring in Asia and America as a Pacific nation with deep ties throughout Asia, and we need to have our efforts and our resources applied commensurate to that problem and to those opportunities. So you can fully expect the Rebalance to continue, and I’m sure the Secretary will make that clear statement.

QUESTION: Could you just – on that, can you just explain to us whether there will be any discussions about an increase of rotation for U.S. forces to Australia as part of the Rebalance or whether there’s going to be any other increase in joint exercises with neighboring countries of Australia, say Indonesia, which I think the U.S. is, I think, going to be hosting next month?

MR MATTHEWS: Well, I don’t know all the specifics about future plans for rotations, but under the general force posture agreement I think there is a longer term plan currently there – the rotations involve about a 1,200 Marine – is that right? – in and out of Darwin on a rotational basis? And over time that builds up to 2,500. So it would be perfectly natural that folks are talking about how you actually do the implementation of that plan. But I don’t know the specifics of how they plan – that’ll be done between the defense minister and our Secretary of Defense.

QUESTION: Okay, but there’s no – like I said at the outset, in terms of deliverables from this meeting, it doesn’t sound like there’s going to be any major changes to it being defense agreement, be it personnel rotations, [inaudible], be it intelligence sharing, or not that you’d probably discuss that with us anyway. But it doesn’t sound like apart from just checking in the head of (inaudible) or whatever which is coming up in November, there’s – it doesn’t sound like there’s going to be any major announcements.

MR MATTHEWS: Well, I think what you would expect is that their discussions will focus on the implementation of the force posture agreement as it stands.


QUESTION: Just back on the South China Sea, there’s been reports in the last 24 hours that the United States is planning to sail warships in a peaceful nature within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands. I mean, would Australia have any role in such a maneuver, or is our role more limited to a more advocacy, diplomacy role that you sort of alluded earlier? Is that where our sort of strength comes into any situation such as that?

MR MATTHEWS: Well, I guess first and foremost I’d just say that the United States has a longstanding robust freedom of navigation program and you can expect that to be ongoing. The United States has naval resources in the South China Sea in any particular day, but I don’t and cannot comment on any specific plans. For Australia’s plans, I refer you back to the Australian Government.

QUESTION: On that, do you expect Australian Government plans to change underneath the new leadership. Obviously not the underpinning of the relationship, but say contribution levels to the coalition joint effort. Is that a matter you expect to be discussed?

MR MATTHEWS: I hate to say it, but I just – I’m not sure of whether that is on the agenda or not --

QUESTION: There was some --

MR MATTHEWS: -- and whether that – how that would be affected. I mean, I would again refer you to the Australian Government on what its plans are for its future assignment of forces for particular coalition engagements.

QUESTION: It was reported some weeks ago in Australia that Australia requested the United States in turn request that Australia contribute to their coalition – contribute fighter aircraft. Can you comment on that?

MR MATTHEWS: Well, what I would say is that we are in a coalition. We welcomed Australia’s decision to participate. That’s a decision for the Australian Government, and we’re happy that they are a part of that coalition.

QUESTION: You can’t comment on the – how that came about?

MR MATTHEWS: I’m not clear on the specifics, but a decision was made by the Australian Government and we’re happy they’re a part of the coalition.


QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: You go, Michael. It’s all right.

QUESTION: All right, just quickly. I’m just trying to (inaudible) out what we’re going to be doing next Tuesday. So aside from discussions about the coalition (inaudible) coalition in Syria and Iraq outside the South China Sea and these sort of defense issues, force posture discussion (inaudible). Are there any other major defense issues or any – are there any other major foreign affairs issues that you think we should aware of ahead of these talks?

MR MATTHEWS: Well, like I say, like, the – I guess the three major brackets of things to discuss in AUSMIN are bilateral issues broadly speaking. You’d expect that TPP and discussions about TPP, although it’s now concluded – we’re all celebrating that conclusion, but all of us have work to be done to do the legal scrubs and then begin moving that agreement through the ratification process. I would expect that’ll come up. You can expect that there will be regional discussions, as we said, as well as broader global issues. And among global issues, that can cover the – a very broad array. With COP 21 coming up towards the end of the year, I think you should not be surprised if the issue of climate change and commitments on climate change going forward comes up as well.

QUESTION: Since the new government’s taken power in Australia, some foreign policy experts, not all, have suggested or speculated that Malcolm Turnbull may have a more independent foreign policy of the U.S., not to say he wouldn’t be still a strong supporter of the U.S.-Australia alliance. He has strong relations in China. Is there any concerns within the Administration about that particular speculation?

MR MATTHEWS: I don’t think there’s any concerns in the Administration on the strength of the U.S.-Australian alliance, period.

QUESTION: Is countering violent extremism slated to be a matter of discussion?

MR MATTHEWS: Yeah, countering violent extremism will be a topic of discussion. As you know, it’s a challenge and the amount of disruption taking place in the Middle East – in Iraq and in Syria – the problem of foreign fighters, fighters going to the Middle East and at some point returning is an issue of real concern to nations around the world. That would naturally be something that you would expect will be discussed in the course of the AUSMIN discussions.

QUESTION: In particular the issue of foreign fighters and what --

MR MATTHEWS: I would just say that would naturally be an element.

MODERATOR: So we have a last question, maybe?

QUESTION: Is there going to be – I believe there’s going to be a review of the troop levels in Afghanistan. I think it’s been hinted at by the U.S. Administration. It’s been reported in Australia that Australia is considering, I think, retaining high levels there if the U.S. does. Could you comment on that?

MR MATTHEWS: I really can’t. That I will refer you to the Defense Department on.

MODERATOR: Michael, anything final on your side?

QUESTION: No, I’m good. But I think that’s a very good overview of what we’re going to get. I appreciate your time, Deputy Assistant Secretary.

MR MATTHEWS: It’s my pleasure to speak to all of you. Take care.


QUESTION: See you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Michael.

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