National Press Club Address, Canberra, ACT

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The Hon Peter Dutton MP

Minister for Defence

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26 November 2021


At the outset, I want to thank National Press Club, its CEO Maurice Riley and the members of this national institution for inviting me back here today.

I acknowledge the presence of the Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, Secretary of the Defence Department, Mr Greg Moriarty, the Chiefs of Australian Defence Force services Distinguished Guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Today Australian Defence Force personnel and Australian Federal Police Officers have deployed to the Solomon Islands, putting themselves in harm’s way in the cause of helping a friend in the Indo-Pacific.

This year, 250 Australian Defence Force personnel risked their lives in the Kabul evacuation, bringing 4100 people, predominantly women and children, to safety.

Some 24,000 of our troops and 440 Defence Department staff helped underpin the Government’s successful response to the COVID pandemic under operation COVID-assist.

More than 522 personnel were deployed on classified operations abroad, protecting Australians from terrorism through Operation Augury, preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through Operation Argos and advancing our national interests in regional peace and security.

Many thousands more have worked from here in support of their efforts.

And, over the last two years, Australians have seen ADF personnel, including reservists, at work in their communities throughout the 2019-20 bushfire season and during the New South Wales floods earlier this year.

As we approach Christmas, most of us will look forward to celebrations and time spent with family and with our friends. But it is not always so for our defence personnel.

Men and women of all services routinely spend long periods separated from their family while on deployment. It is for them and it is hard for their families.

They endure sacrifice on deployments overseas and responding to natural disasters at home.

For some families, the sacrifice lasts long after their loved ones have gone – in this regard, I acknowledge the start of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide today.

Our obligation is to do everything within our power to improve the situation for those and their families who live with the scars of war and conflict far beyond their service.

This Christmas, I encourage Australians to stop and think of those ADF families who are once again enduring sacrifices for our nation.

The primary duty of any government is to protect its citizens.

Without security, prosperity is impossible. And without sovereignty, you don’t have a country.                                 

Australians understand this. And they respect governments which make the tough but necessary decisions to deliver security and defend our national interests.

That’s what the Coalition Government has been doing since we came to office.

In 2013 we inherited a policy and humanitarian catastrophe. Labor’s weak security policies had resulted in 50,000 people arriving illegally in Australia on more than 800 boats. At least 1200 men, women and children tragically drowned at sea.

We made the difficult decisions necessary to regain control of our sovereignty, by securing our borders and breaking the people smugglers’ business model. It was something that many claimed could not be done.

We went on to establish the Home Affairs portfolio, bringing together Australia’s key security and law enforcement agencies.

During my tenure, we cancelled more than 6,300 visas of dangerous non-citizen criminals.

We removed from our society scores of criminals convicted of child sexual abuse, domestic violence, assault and armed robbery.

Home Affairs and the ABF also seized record amounts of illicit drugs, tobacco and firearms.

Most importantly from my perspective, the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation helped to remove more than 230 children from harm in the last financial year alone.

The Government’s strong stance on countering terrorism has also yielded success, with 21 imminent attacks being disrupted since 2014.

More than 140 people have been charged as a result of 70 counter-terrorism operations around Australia.

Terrorism, however, has not been the only tool of those who seek to strike at the heart of our democracy.

Our nation is weathering an onslaught of espionage and foreign interference activities at levels greater than at the height of the Cold War.

We have been determined to expose and expel those who seek to undermine our sovereignty and meddle in our democratic institutions and way of life.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme has shed sunlight on the activities of foreign principals which were once conducted in the shadows. And the Espionage and Foreign Interference Act 2018 has broadened, amended and introduced new offences to protect our society.

The Government’s Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 introduced a register of owners and operators to protect our national assets in the electricity, water, gas and ports sectors from espionage, sabotage and coercion.

And this week, the Government passed legislation to strengthen and expand the scope of these protections.

The National Security Committee of Cabinet took the contentious but necessary decision to ban high risk vendors from being involved in the rollout of Australia’s 5G network.

The state-based cyber threat posed to our essential services and infrastructure is very real.

In June last year, the Prime Minister warned of Australian organisations being targeted by a sophisticated state-based cyber actor. This widespread cyber targeting remains ongoing.

Over 300 organisations have been impacted, including government, industry, political parties, education, health, essential service providers and operators of critical infrastructure.

The Government is pushing back against these kinds of threats by bolstering the nation’s resilience to cyber-attacks.

We established the Australian Cyber Security Centre within the Australian Signals Directorate, which monitors threats 24/7 and helps defend Australia in cyberspace.

In 2018, the threat had expanded so significantly that ASD’s remit was enhanced to include offensive cyber.

It has since disrupted the activities of online extremists, curtailing their ability to spread hateful ideologies through the internet. ASD has also disrupted state-based actors and organised criminals conducting cyber-crime and espionage.

Realistically though, we are a finger in the dike, with a cyber tsunami on the horizon.

As a long-standing member of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, I have been privileged to be part of a government which has, time and again, responded and adapted to these threats and many more.

We have cut a path through troubled and uncharted territories, always toward peace and security.

As the regional environment deteriorates, and as dark clouds form, this task has become more important than ever.

Today, we face the most significant change in our strategic environment since the Second World War.

Once again, Australia finds herself in a region at the very epicentre of global strategic competition.

A region witness to a military build-up of a scale and ambition that, historically, has rarely been associated with peaceful outcomes.

And a region where tensions continue to rise, in a manner exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The question we must ask ourselves is, how did this happen?

By now we are all familiar with the frequent claims of the Chinese government that it is committed to peace, cooperation and development.

We are advised that it wants to uphold and ensure stability and prosperity in our region and the world.

Chinese government tells us, will cooperate with other countries to maintain freedom of navigation and safety of maritime routes, and address peacefully territorial disputes through dialogue and consultation.

‘Win-win cooperation’ and ‘progress’ are much used terms in Chinese government’s vernacular.

And yet we bear witness to a significant disconnect between words and actions, between the rhetoric and reality.

Along with peoples of the Indo-Pacific and the world, Australians have watched on as the Chinese government has engaged in increasingly alarming activities:

The occupation, fabrication and militarisation of disputed features to establish 20 outposts in the South China Sea.

The rejection of The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration 2016 verdict on claims of historic rights in the same sea – a verdict binding on all states party to the arbitral ruling, one of which is China itself.

Sending increasing numbers of military jets into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.

Using militia-crewed fishing vessels to intrude in The Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Imposing a national security law upon Hong Kong, doing away with the solemn international commitment of the 'One Country Two Systems' framework.

Escalating tensions on China’s border with India and in the East China Sea with Japan.

Inflicting tariffs and bans on Australian imports – like barley, beef, coal, lamb, lobster, timber and wine – for political purposes, undermining collective faith in China’s commitment to global free trade and investment.

The fabrication of a propaganda image depicting an Australian soldier murdering an Afghan child.

The issuing of a dossier of 14 disputes with Australia – a list of grievances which imply our nation should refrain from making sovereign decisions and acting in its self-interest.

And its Ministry of State Security engaging in repeated cyber activities against foreign government and commercial institutions – which multiple nations, including Australia, publically called out in July.

Regrettably, China is using its increasing power – in security, trade and economics, media and the internet – to compel compliance, at the cost of respect.

As China has engaged in these worrying activities, it has also rapidly expanded the size and capabilities of its military.

Today, China has the largest navy in the world.  Some 355 ships and submarines.

Its naval battle force has more than tripled in size in two decades.

Averaged over the last four years, China has built new naval vessels to the equivalent tonnage of the entire Royal Australian Navy fleet every 18 months.

By 2030, China’s navy is predicted to number some 460 vessels.

China has two other fleets subordinated to its armed forces – a coast guard that has doubled from 60 to 130 1000-tonne ships in around a decade and a maritime militia that routinely has 300 vessels operating in the Spratly Islands on any given day.

The coast guard alone possesses capabilities and maintains an operational tempo on par with some Southeast Asian navies.

China has amassed more than 2,000 ground-launched ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles, with a range of up to 5,500 kilometres.

Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile – estimated to be in the 200s last year – is projected to reach between 700 and 1,000 warheads.

Every major city in Australia, including Hobart, is within range of China’s missiles.

Australians expect their Governments to speak frankly about the challenges our nation faces.

To not ring-fence them from difficult issues or insult their intelligence, as Paul Keating did here a few weeks ago.

Both the Prime Minister and I have spoken about how the times in which we live have echoes of the 1930s.

The world would be foolish to repeat the mistakes of the 1930s.

We live in times of high tension, but the region is not on an inevitable path to conflict.

But only if all countries of goodwill ensure together we do our utmost to steer clear of the cliff face. 

Were conflict to come about through misunderstanding, miscalculation or hostility, it would be calamitous for us all.

Australia’s position is clear: conflict must be avoided.

To echo the sentiments of former Prime Minister Robert Menzies:

We are for peace. We seek the deep, still waters of universal peace.  We are anxious to live at peace with our neighbours.

Australia has welcomed China’s rise as a major economic power in the region.

We want China to continue to do well economically.

We want to see the Chinese people continue to prosper.

Just like the more than 650,000 Chinese-born migrants living here in our country, and more than 1.2 million people of Chinese ancestry who call Australia home.

These are wonderful Australians who value hard work, family and the rule of law, and are some of our most successful migrant stories.

We want a productive trading partnership with China – one that mutually benefits both our peoples.

We remain hopeful that the Chinese leadership has the foresight to choose this path; that it takes the road of diplomacy and negotiation, consistent with international law.

But the lack of transparency in its rapid military expansion, coupled with a pattern of coercive behaviour, is fuelling concerns in many countries, across many oceans.

How can the region be assured China seeks reunification by peaceful means, or that there is a limit to its territorial ambitions?

What kind of relationship does China truly seek with its neighbours, Australia included, when it backs aspirations of regional leadership with grey-zone cyber effects and economic intimidation?

Can there be truly mutually beneficial cooperation when the terms are dictated by one side?

Senator Wong would have you think I should not be asking any of these questions or call out China’s behaviour.

In my view, acquiescence or appeasement is a tactic that ends in a cul-de-sac of strategic misfortune or worse.

Just look at how China has exploited prolonged efforts to agree a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to expand its territorial occupation and militarisation of the region at cost to the security of ASEAN and to the region.

I believe we should call out actions that are destabilising and contrary to the interests of Australia and the region.

We do this because the Australian people expect it of their Government.

But we also do it because we must amplify voices silenced by coercion, yet which seek the same peace and stability as us.

And because in speaking out, we provide space for others to also voice their concern.

While the current debate is about Taiwan, the analysis must be more honest.

Yes there would be a terrible price of action, but the analysis must also extend to the price of inaction.

If Taiwan is taken, surely the Senkakus are next.

Please don’t rely on your imagination.

The Chinese government could not be any clearer; not always with their words, but certainly with their actions.

The point I make is the regional order on which our prosperity and security is founded would change very quickly.

In the absence of a counter pressure, the Chinese government becomes the sole security and economic partner for Indo-Pacific nations.

That is a perilous military and economic situation for our country and many others.

Does the Chinese government wish to occupy other countries?  Not in my judgement.

But they do see us as tributary states.  And that surrender of sovereignty and abandonment of any adherence to the international rule of law is what our country has fought against since Federation.

It has come at great human cost and any repeat of the mistakes of the 1930s would again exact a great cost on our country and many more.

It is why speaking up and being heard now is essential.

We are successful if we adhere to what we know is right and we do it with great friends.

Any wise government knows you can’t base national security policy on wishful thinking.

It must be based on objective facts, and an honest appraisal of the circumstances. 

In the face of aggressive behaviour and great uncertainty, nations will quite obviously and naturally seek to buttress their own defences and strategic alliances.

AUKUS - the enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States - is one such initiative to strengthen regional stability.

The first major announcement under AUKUS was significant – Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

But there is much more to AUKUS.

First and foremost, AUKUS is a partnership based on deepening our three countries’ cooperation on security and defence capabilities and our values. 

AUKUS will allow us to better share leading-edge military technologies and capabilities between our three countries.

It will bring our researchers, scientists, industry sectors and defence forces closer together.

It will see us initially collaborate on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities.

In the longer term, there are significant opportunities for even wider cooperation.

The AUKUS partnership should come as no surprise.

In the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, the Australian Government was very clear.

Australia has a highly effective, deployable and integrated military force.

But it is not adequately equipped to deter attacks against Australia or its interests in a much tougher strategic environment.

The Defence Strategic Update underlined this Government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for our own security, including with respect to deterrence.

As the update noted, our ADF ‘must be able to hold potential adversaries’ forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance, and therefore influence their calculus of costs involved in threatening Australian interests’.

It is these capabilities that can deliver deterrent effects against a broad range of threats, including preventing increasingly coercive and grey-zone statecraft activities from escalating into conventional conflict.

The decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines with our US and UK allies supports this intent.

And it is therefore not a change of strategy announced by the Prime Minister last year.

Rather, a change in the tools we need to implement it.

AUKUS is not a partnership which seeks to impose an agenda on other nations in the region.

Rather, it complements a broader network of partnerships – like ASEAN, the Five Eyes, the Five Power Defence Arrangements, the Quad and other like-minded arrangements – which are committed to promoting sovereignty, security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

AUKUS is one part of a framework of decisions the Government has taken to strengthen Australia’s defence posture.

When this Government came to power in 2013, defence spending was at the lowest levels since 1938.  At around 1.5 per cent of GDP.

We’ve lifted it beyond 2 per cent of GDP.

Indeed, it will continue to climb.

We’ve built three Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers – the most potent warships ever operated by our Navy and among the most capable in our region.

In support of our fifth-generation Air Force, forty-four of a planned seventy-two F-35 Joint Strike Fighters have already taken to the skies.

In February 2014, we approved the purchase of eight P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance and response aircraft. 

And in February 2016, we approved an additional four of these highly capable planes.

All twelve Poseidons are now in service with the RAAF.

Rheinmetall Defence Australia has been contracted to deliver and maintain 211 Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles for the Australian Army.

The first was delivered in September 2019 – only 13 months after the contract was signed. 

And in May this year, Rheinmetall completed its Block 1 delivery of twenty-five vehicles.

The construction of our fleet of Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels in Adelaide and Perth is progressing well.

In the cyber domain, individual units have been established for the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as one for the joint force.

The Government’s investment of $15 billion dollars into cyber and information capabilities is helping to protect deployed ADF personnel and their platforms, improve Defence’s network resilience, and make security upgrades.

We are investing billions of dollars into maintaining, upgrading and building new barracks, training areas, ports, wharves, airbases, and other defence infrastructure across the country.

Right now, Defence is responsible for 175 major and minor projects to an approved value of $121 billion dollars.

Tellingly, the most strategically significant projects – which fall under acquisition category one, or ‘ACAT I’ – have increased in number from eleven to twenty-one over the last 10 years.  

The defence capability intentions outlined in the Defence White Paper, Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan are unquestionably ambitious.

They’re ambitious because that’s what is necessitated by our strategic circumstances.

Because we must ensure our men and women in uniform have the cutting-edge defence capabilities they need to defend our nation and its interests.

And that’s why we’re accelerating several defence plans, including through AUKUS.

Especially the development of asymmetric capabilities, as I mentioned earlier.

We’re pushing ahead with the $1 billion dollar national guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise.

Long-range strike capabilities, precision weapons, and hypersonic missiles are transforming the nature of warfare as significantly as the first rifles or the Maxim gun.

The Government is similarly prioritising integrated air and missile defence – like the $2.7 billion dollar Joint Air Battle Management System.

Our investments are also contributing towards the creation of autonomous craft and remotely piloted drones.

This month, two Loyal Wingmans – the unmanned aircraft being developed by the Royal Australian Air Force and Boeing Australia – successfully completed flight missions.

The key advantages of autonomous capabilities is that they can be produced in quantity and relatively quickly and inexpensively.

Their loss or damage is also more tolerable.

The strategic intent behind the Australian Government’s record investments is to drive new determination and speed into delivering defence capabilities.

We seek to build a sovereign industrial base that grows our self-reliance and leverages our close technology and industrial collaboration with key allies and partners.

Defence and defence industry can no longer be satisfied with a ‘business as usual’ mindset.

Instead, they must be driven by a mission of utmost national significance and urgency.

The Government’s investment in defence capability must engender faster delivery, greater competitiveness, and new innovation.

We want foreign primes to bring Australian businesses more tightly and numerously into the fold. 

And we want to grow Australian primes. 

Defence investment supports over 100,000 jobs across the economy and is a significant part of the Government’s economic plan to rebuild from COVID.

To integrate them as part of defence supply chains.

To share intellectual property.

Because the growth of Australia’s defence industrial base - be it our sovereign capabilities, our capacity to contribute to high-value and high-tech defence projects, and our nurturing of skills- will complement, rather than compete with, the industrial bases of our allies and friends.

And it will hasten, rather than hinder, the mutual defence capability objectives of like-minded countries.

As the Government proceeds with its defence capability plans, we will expect more rigorous accountability from defence industry.

We will have less tolerance for project lags.

And, if necessary, we will cut our losses and withdraw from underperforming projects.

This firmer approach is commensurate with public expectations, a new sense of urgency stemming from the deteriorating situation in the Indo-Pacific, and the consequent need to rapidly acquire defence capabilities.

As Minister for Defence, my attention has been on ensuring Defence gets on with its core business.  To sharpen that focus.

We must remember that the ADF is, first and foremost, a military force.

It is a force that enables Australia to lift more than its weight in contributing to regional stability.

But there’s no point mincing words.

Alone, our Defence Force cannot compete head-on with the military force of a major power.

Thus, we must complement defence capabilities with strong relationships of substance.

Partnerships among like-minded countries which are focused on the great endeavour of maintaining peace in our region – not nationalistic opportunism.

We’ve been doing this at the bilateral level.

With countries in our Pacific neighbourhood, in the Indo-Pacific region, and further afield.

And through arrangements like the Five Eyes, ASEAN, the Five Power Defence Arrangements and NATO.

Noticeably, like-minded countries are coming together as part of a network of complementary partnerships.

It’s a constellation which is growing stronger and more cohesive.

Australia has a robust defence relationship with Indonesia.

That was evident during my meeting with Defence Minister Prabowo in September.

We’ve agreed to undertake new training initiatives and operational activities, including in cyber security cooperation.

Japan and Australia will soon formalise a Reciprocal Access Agreement, paving the way for advanced defence cooperation and streamlined processes for deploying forces into our respective territories. 

This will be the first such agreement Japan has made with an international partner since 1960.

Australia and India are also tightening their defence ties.

When speaking with Minister Singh in September, I extended an invitation to India to join future Talisman Sabre exercises, which its military officers observed this year.

Australia will also augment its defence diplomatic representation in New Delhi to nurture greater information sharing and coordination on maritime security.

There are many other countries in the region we’re also cooperating closely with on defence.

Singapore, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea – to name a few.

European interest and engagement in the Indo-Pacific has also stepped-up compared to only a few years ago.

Ultimately, regional stability requires the United States to be completely engaged in the region.

To continue to protect the peace and prosperity it has engendered – and from which all have benefitted – since the end of World War Two.

This is exactly what the United States is doing.

November 2021 marked the 10th Anniversary of the US Force Posture Initiatives in Australia.

Over the past ten years, we’ve seen the US rotational force in Darwin grow from 200 to more than 2,500 Marines.

And we’ve seen US aircraft take to our skies for manoeuvres with the Royal Australian Air Force.

In September, Defense Secretary Austin and I agreed to build on these initiatives.

To improve our air, maritime, land and logistics cooperation through enhanced US presence and new joint exercises.

Every aircraft type in the US Defence Force will cycle-through Australia at some point.

I will have more to say on Alliance cooperation in coming months.

Ladies and gentlemen, Australians expect their Government to deliver on national security.

Because when the Government delivers, Australians can get on with their lives.

As our nation has encountered new threats, the Government has taken the necessary steps to keep Australians safe and secure.

Breaking the business model of people smugglers.

Thwarting terrorism.

Removing criminals from our shores.

Countering child exploitation.

Obstructing organised crime.

Fending off cyber-attacks.

Foiling foreign interference.

And safeguarding our critical infrastructure.

Now, as we contend with escalating tensions in our region, the Government is doing everything necessary to make sure Defence gets on with it core business.

To deter coercion.

To prevent conflict.

To preserve peace.

To prepare for whatever may be on or below the horizon.

In a time of great uncertainty, Australians can be certain that the Government will act to keep them safe.


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