Interview with Scott Emerson, Radio 4BC Drive, Brisbane

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The Hon Peter Dutton MP

Minister for Defence

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21 February 2022


Peter Dutton is the Minister for Defence and also the Member for Dickson, north of Brisbane and he's on the line now. Minister, thanks for being on 4BC Drive.


My pleasure Scott, thank you.


Can I just go to the claims that have broken this afternoon from the Chinese over this incident, they're now claiming it was an act of provocation by the Australian plane, the RAAF plane, because it flew too close to the Chinese ship. Your response to that?


Well Scott, it hasn't come out of the Government per se, it's come out of the Global Times which is the sort of propaganda piece owned by the Communist Party and well-known for all sorts of wild claims, exaggerated claims and this one is a false one as well.

So there was nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the path that the surveillance flight had taken, the RAAF surveillance flight. The two ships from the People's Liberation Army were coming down through the Arafura Sea – so the northern approach to our country – and a completely appropriate and normal practice that the P8 surveillance flight would go across those two boats and take photos and monitor where it is that they're heading, and they've obviously then gone across the Torres Strait and down into the Coral Sea. So that's a concern in itself, but they're in Australian waters and there's nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the RAAF's work and the wonderful work that they do.


Just tell me exactly what did happen from Australia's perspective. As the RAAF plane came close what did it encounter from the Chinese ship?


Well the Chinese ship was able to direct a military grade laser at the P8 plane and that can result in some of the instrumentality being damaged or the radar being damaged on the plane. It can blind the pilot or the crew in certain circumstances on the plane, so it's quite a dramatic step for the vessel to take and fortunately in this instance our RAAF personnel weren't injured, but that's the reality. It's a very provocative step, it's unsafe, it's unprofessional. There are many arrangements in place where two ships will pass by in close proximity, but still maintain a certain amount of space between them, and similarly with planes.

I think there's obviously a lot of aggression coming from China, just not in our region, but if you look to what's going on in the East China Sea at the moment, hundreds, literally hundreds of PLA vessels that are part of a militia, bumping up against the Coast Guards from Japan, the Chinese troops are along the Indian border, we know that Indian troops have died at the hands of Chinese troops there in the last few years. So this is of course a conduct, not just against our country, but against many others.


You said in the interview just a moment ago that it was a provocative move, it's also been described as an act of intimidation. Does it reflect the state of relations between Australia and China at the moment?


I think it reflects the state of relations between China and many other countries, including Australia, at the moment. President Xi has taken China on a very different path than his recent predecessors.

We know that in the South China Sea, despite assurances to President Obama at the time, China has now militarised 20 points of presence in the South China Sea. They're trying to establish a military port in Papua New Guinea, and they've established one in Sri Lanka elsewhere. They're exerting economic influence and coercion over countries like Australia and many others where they suspend trade or trade in particular commodities to try and put pressure on that country and they're involved in corrupt payments, they're involved in cyber-attacks, including in our own country during the course of COVID, trying to steal records and information.

So it's not just Australia and people who think that our relationship has changed because of anything Australia has done, I mean that is just plain wrong. The Japanese have not taken any action against the Chinese and they're still the subject of these sorts of attacks and pressure and we're seeing it in over a dozen countries around the world.


But that is the accusation, that not just Australia, but particularly you as Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, that your language that you've used about China has made the situation worse, where a different approach might have eased back those tensions. What's your response to that?


Well I just don't think anybody can point to a period where appeasement has worked, Scott. We're respectful of the relationship, we want a strong relationship with an important trading partner, but we aren't going to compromise on our values. We aren't going to compromise on our adherence to the rule of law and we expect other countries to abide by the same.

Australia has excellent relationships with most countries around the world, but in the situation where China is performing these sorts of acts, as I say, not just against Australia, but against many other countries, President Xi has just announced this close working relationship, this partnership with Russia. Every other country has condemned Russia for their actions in relation to Ukraine and China has essentially provided words of encouragement to Russia.

This is a problem of China's making, not ours and my judgment is that over the course of the last 10 years we haven't said much because we're hoping that China would change its conduct or change its behaviour, but that hasn't happened and over the course of the last 10 years all they've done is build up their military assets. That's why the Prime Minister and I quite deliberately have referred to this as a period similar to the 1930s.

You can't have a country militarising 20 points of military presence in the South China Sea. They're amassing nuclear weapons, missiles, hypersonics, and as I say, the explosion of their activity in the cyber space is quite remarkable.

So I think we need to be realistic about where they are and if people think that just by saying nothing is going to resolve the situation or hope that China changes its course of behaviour, I just don't think that's a reality and I think we're better off to have sunlight, we're better off to speak about it and hopefully that encourages China to change its own behaviour.

I'm still worried, for example, about – very worried – about young protesters in Hong Kong who were taken away by the police that were sent from Beijing and we've never heard of them since. We've got an international tennis star who claims that she was sexually assaulted who's had to retract that statement, is not allowed to leave Beijing and there are many, many cases like it of the human rights abuses.

So we need to make a judgment about whether we're just better to say nothing or to call out the behaviours and hopefully put international pressure on China to change their ways in relation to Australia and many other countries.


I'm talking to Peter Dutton the Minister for Defence. Minister, you mentioned Russia there.

There's reports today that US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to a summit over Ukraine. Does that give you some hope that we're not going to be going to war, well at least Russia and the Ukraine are going to go to war, given the warnings you were making I think on Friday, saying, "Look, I think we're just days away from military action"?


Well Scott, I fear the worst in relation to the situation in the Ukraine. I think the amassing of troops surrounding Ukraine, the build-up of vessels in the Black Sea by Russia, the cyberattacks that we've seen on Ukraine, all of that points to one outcome.

There's not, I don't think, any credible evidence that you can point to at the moment that says Russia is prepared to step down. Like everybody else I hope and pray that they do and hopefully this means some opportunity for them to change their position and a peaceful outcome arrived at because if they don’t, we know that we've seen these scenes play out over the decades. We'll see bombs inadvertently dropping into hospitals or schools or childcare centres or heavily populated neighbourhoods and families and women and children will be the real victims of this.

We want to see war averted obviously, and if President Biden and President Macron can come up with some solution and some way out of conflict then, of course, the world would be indebted to them.


You've made it very clear that we won't be sending troops over to any conflict, but what military assistance could Australia provide if a conflict does break out?


Well Scott, as you say we've been clear that we're not sending troops all the way across to the Ukraine. This is an issue predominantly for the European community to step up, and many of them, but not all of them have been able to do that and to try and exert that pressure on Russia, and the United States and in particular the United Kingdom, have really gone in quite hard to try and maintain peace.

So there is some assistance that we can provide through some of our technical expertise around the cyber space and some of those defences. There's some effort we could provide to Ukraine around some low-level equipment etc; perhaps some supplies support to them to recover from any attack that may take place. So there are different opportunities for us to look at which we're doing at the moment, but we haven't made any final decisions in relation to what that might look like.


Peter Dutton, thanks for being on 4BC Drive today.


Pleasure, Scott, thank you.


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