The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Online

By Nick O'Malley

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has at once welcomed reforms of American signals intelligence gathering announced by President Barack Obama and insisted that Australia’s current level of oversight was appropriate during a speech in Washington, DC.

“We welcome President Obama’s statement last Friday on your signals intelligence reviews,” she said, referring to the announcement that that the US would not longer target friendly leaders’ personal communications, and would increase oversight of the gathering of private citizens phone data.

“Our Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that he remains satisfied with the robust oversight and collection management arrangements that apply to Australia’s activities,” she said.

Ms Bishop took the time to condemn Edward Snowden, whose leaks prompted America’s review, as a man who was continuing to “shamefully betray his nation while skulking in Russia”.

“Snowden claims his actions were driven by a desire for transparency, but in fact they strike at the heat of the collaboration between those nations in world affairs that stand a the forefront of protecting human freedom,” she said.

Speaking in a press conference earlier she said she was surprised that any responsible organisation could label him as some kind of hero. “This is unprecedented treachery and what Edward Snowden has done has put lives at risk has sought to damage relationships at risk and has sought to damage the standing of the United States as the stabilising influence for global peace.

Asked if lack of oversight of America’s massive signals intelligence operations had damaged relationships in the region Ms Bishop said she had had a “very productive” meeting with the US National Security Advisor, Susan Rice. She said Australian officials had given input on the reviews announced by the US last week.

In her speech at the Alliance 21 conference hosted by Sydney University’s United States Studies Center with the DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ms Bishop said intelligence collection and sharing was not discretionary, but an “imperative” that saved lives.

But she said the Australian government, like the US, must make the case to the public as to why its intelligence gathering was important.

She noted the importance of decreasing tension between China, Japan and South Korea to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. China’s announcement of an Air Defence Zone in the East China Sea and the recent visit by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine had both contributed to recent increased tension, she said.

Many of those at the conference discussed whether or not it would be possible for Australia to at once sustain increasing economic ties with China and closer security ties with the United States.

Speaking on a panel the former US Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he was concerned that Australia was failing to live up to it alliance responsibilities by not spending enough on defense. “To the extend that Australia is not seen as doing [its] fair share in the alliance, it puts a little pressure on the implication that America will always be there [for Australia],” he said.

America has long called for its allies spend at least two per cent of GDP on defense. He welcomed increased defence spending under the Coalition government, but said Australia would have to increase spending by five per cent per year for several years to reach that level.

But he rejected the notion that Australia could not at once deepen its security relationship with the US and its economic ties with China. Noting Australia’s wealth of resources and its sparse population he said Australia’s close relationship with China gave it increased security to engage in business with China.

Speaking on the same panel Australia’s former Defence Minister and ambassador to NATO and the UN, Brendan Nelson, also rejected the argument that Australia could not pursue both relationships. He describing this as a false notion embraced by some prominent members of the Australian commentariate. Those who argued the point tended to believe that Australia’s interests could be best served in future by focusing on the relationship with China at the expense of the US alliance, he said.

In an interview with Fairfax Media later he rejected the criticism that Australia somehow “freeloaded” in the alliance, saying while he lamented defence spending cuts under the Labor government the two percent measure did not properly reflect Australia’s contribution.

Speakers at the conference expressed concern that the increased tension in East China Sea could make Australia’s dual effort harder. In a question from the floor Stanley Roth, the chief Asia expert in President Bill Clinton’s State Department, said he feared the risk of an incident between the Japanese and Chinese air forces sometime in 2014 in the East China Sea to be as high as 50 percent.

Mr Armitage said that as it straddled the region that has become to be known as the Indo-Pacific Australia found itself a the center of a “cockpit of neuralgia.”

And both Mr Armitage and Dr Nelson had criticism for the so-called “pivot” to Asia and the Pacific. Mr Armitage described it as the right policy poorly executed and badly articulated. He said when it was announced in 2011 far too great an emphasis was placed on its military aspects, to the concern of old allies in Europe and rising powers in the pacific. He believed the emphasis had been corrected with the new focus on trade aspects of the strategy, particularly the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Dr Nelson said that President Obama’s speech to the Australian parliament in 2011 articulating the pivot had left many in Europe, especially those states that depending on the US as the NATO anchor state “flabbergasted.” Few in attendance believed the TPP would be ratified this year, with some panelists suggesting that even 2015 or 2016 was too optimistic, especially given that 2016 is an election year in the United States.

This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.