“There is nothing but goodwill towards India”

Brendan Nelson: “The last thing that should ever be considered in relation to Iran is some sort of military offensive.”   | Photo Credit: — Photo: R. Ragu

Kesava Menon

Brendan Nelson, Australia’s Minister for Defence, speaks on bilateral relations and on his country’s ties with China. Excerpts from an interview during his recent visit to Chennai:

Dr. Nelson had served earlier as Minister for Education, Science and Training after his elevation to the Cabinet in November 2001. A general practitioner, Dr. Nelson was the youngest doctor to have ever been elected to the federal presidency of the Australian Medical Association. He was first elected to represent the Sydney electorate of Bradfield for the Liberal Party of Australia in 1996.

What does the finalisation of the Defence Information Sharing Agreement signify?

Our Prime Minister signed with your Prime Minister last year a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation between India and Australia. There was some tension in our relationship in the 1990s. I need to reassure your readers that there is nothing but goodwill from Australia and the Australian Defence force towards India and its defence capabilities. Since the signing of the MoU last year our Chief of Defence has met with your Chief of Staff; we have also had the first face-to-face senior air force dialogue; we have agreed to undertake high altitude training probably in the next month or two; we have also agreed for the first time to participate in a naval exercise — a joint exercise with the Indian, Singaporean, Japanese, and the U.S. navies directly involved. We are also supportive of India holding a naval expedition in early 2008.

The Information Sharing Agreement, which we have been negotiating for more than a year and a half, provides us with a formal and legal framework within which the military establishments of two countries and militaries can exchange classified information in relation to failing states for example. We have a number of failing states in our region, the Southwest Pacific and South East Asia. India has an enormous amount of experience in this area so it is a matter of sharing information and assessments about failing states. Also in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency in which India has an enormous amount of experience. We wish to exchange maritime surveillance information. We collect a great deal of information on the East Indian Ocean. We are dealing with drug traffickers, smugglers, piracy and those sorts of issues.

The world is getting small and it is important that as India looks increasingly towards East Asia and the Pacific Rim and looks to its own security we in Australia can play a role by providing information on our region and vice versa. It is also about giving us the capacity to build on peacekeeping, humanitarian and disaster relief which both of us do. One other thing we are looking at, which really came out of the informal discussion that I had with [Defence Minister] Minister [A.K.] Antony and the [Defence] Secretary is that if we are having these high-level discussions whether or not we could put those together in an annual bilateral dialogue between military and non-military leaders in defence.

To talk about the naval exercises involving the U.S., Japan, Singapore — is this the first time that India and Australia are participating together?

It is the first time that Australia has participated.

What I meant was, is this the first time the Indian and Australian navies are jointly participating in such exercises?

I think so. We had exchanges and ship visits. I think we had lower level naval exercise. I think we are moving to a slightly higher level, which is a good thing.

Does this have anything to do with the Proliferation Security Initiative?

No. It doesn’t. Well, it doesn’t directly. One of the things is after President Bush announced the PSI after the G8 summit in Krakow in 2003 we were one of the first ten countries on board. We believed very strongly in PSI. There are now over 80 countries that participate either directly or as observers. It’s very important that we appreciate, whether we are Indians or Australians, that we face common threats in the sense of proliferation and terrorists getting access to WMD and the precedents of their moving around between different countries and regions of the world.

So I do encourage all countries including India to think about the benefits of observing those kinds of exercises. It is entirely a matter for individual nations to decide. The PSI kinds of exercises are not about in any way interfering in internal affairs or modus operandi or doctrine or anything like that with any other nation state. Nor is it about establishing any sort of new bureaucracy — that will not work.

But as we found in 2004 with the interception of the BBC China [a ship] in the U.S.-led joint operation, which disrupted the A.Q. Khan network that, as you know, had centrifuges going to Libya — that’s probably the best example of how the PSI can help protect nation states and innocent people from terrorist acts. The disruption of the A.Q. Khan network is obviously of significant benefit to all of us. As I understand India does not at the moment participate in PSI and I completely respect that. But it is a very useful exercise. I don’t think the joint naval exercise coming up is specifically PSI.

Now you visited China and the People’s Republic has some misgivings about PSI. It is also perceived as a means to contain China. Did the PSI figure during your talks in China?

Well I have never been aware of the Chinese believing that PSI is some sort of a threat to them. In fact, I have not discussed PSI with the Chinese but I would be surprised if China was not generally supportive of at least the objectives of the PSI. What China is concerned about is the notion of a quadrilateral strategic dialogue, which includes the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. I have advised the Chinese … I have explained what the trilateral strategic dialogue is about. Why we have established the TSD and the basis on which Japan and Australia have a common interest. We are democracies; we are committed to basic human ideals and the freedom of man; we both have alliances with the U.S.; the three nations have a significant interest in security issues in North East Asia; the U.S. and Australia also want to see the normalisation of the Japanese Self-Defence Agency and we would like to see Japan increasingly use its technologically sophisticated and substantial defence capability for peacekeeping, stabilisation, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance in our region. For example, Australia deployed 480 of our soldiers to southern Iraq to protect 650 Japanese engineers. Now, Japan has an interest in establishing quadrilateral strategic dialogue. Australia is comfortable with exploring the notion of a quadrilateral strategic engagement on trade, economic matters, at most peacekeeping activities. But we do not support a quadrilateral strategic dialogue. That is not because we do not want India to be involved in things we are doing, quite the opposite. But we do not want to distract from the key objectives on the basis of which we formed the TSI. We also think that the quadrilateral would duplicate the multilateral arrangements that already exist, for example the ASEAN Regional Forum. Also we do not want to be part of a quadrilateral strategic dialogue on, of all things, security issues if it actually contributes to concern in the region, principally from China. We have a mature and growing relationship with China. We want to grow our defence relationship with China from what is currently quite a low base. We would like to see China start to engage its navies in counter-terrorism, maritime security, peacekeeping, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance.

What is Australia’s position on the confrontation with Iran?

The last thing that should ever be considered in relation to Iran is some sort of military offensive. It is extremely important for the region and the world that all of us — Australia, India, China, Russia, the U.S. — that we have common goals and a common approach. That it come through the United Nations Security Council. That everything is done diplomatically, economically … through every means possible we get Iran to comply with the IAEA.