Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
dpm.media@defence.gov.au
02 6277 7800

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7 June 2022

KIERAN GILBERT:

Acting Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles. Thanks for your time. Despite that aggressive act that we saw from the Chinese in the South China Sea with our surveillance aircraft, will those missions continue?

RICHARD MARLES:

They will, and it's really important that they do. The South China Sea is a really important body of water for Australia because most of our trade goes through the South China Sea. So as a nation, we are deeply invested in the global rules-based order applying to this body of water. We're deeply invested in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides for freedom of navigation on the high seas. And so we're going to continue to be involved in activities which ensure that those rules apply, what our aircraft was doing during that incident was the kind of routine work that we've done over the course of decades. We're acting within our rights at international law. It's really important that we continue to do so.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The P - 8 surveillance aircraft was intercepted, how close did it come to a calamity?

RICHARD MARLES:

It was a very dangerous incident and the J - 16 flew very close to the P - 8. And in flying in front of it and then releasing the bundle of chaff, that was a very dangerous moment. As I said yesterday, our crew responded in a really professional way, in a way which makes us all feel proud. But the aircraft was put at risk and lives were put at risk.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Do you think the fighter jet pilot sought to bring down our aircraft?

RICHARD MARLES:

I don't think that's what was happening, but this was a dangerous incident and the lives of our crew were placed at risk and that's unacceptable.

KIERAN GILBERT:

How much risk is there that these sorts of flare-ups lead to something that can get out of control? It's a very risky scenario.

RICHARD MARLES:

I think it's obviously really important that there is the best dialogue that we can have so that risk is not there. But it's really important that we are asserting our rights in the South China Sea because it goes to our national interest. If you think about all of our trade to China itself, but to Korea, Japan, both of those three countries are in the top five trading partners. All of that trade traverses the South China Sea. It's a body of water which matters greatly to Australia's national interest. And it's very important that we are playing our part, along with other members in the global community, in asserting the global rules based order in respect of the South China Sea.

KIERAN GILBERT:

And our government, our Defence force has made its displeasure known. What sort of representations have been made to the Chinese?

RICHARD MARLES:

Well, we made representations through our Defence force and I instructed that to occur. It was important that they understand that we had real concerns about this incident and about the threat that it represented for the safety of our crew.

KIERAN GILBERT:

We've seen other aggressive actions with a Canadian aircraft on a UN mission, actually, around a similar time, a German vessel was harassed by PRC fishing boats a couple of months ago. Does this tell you that it's not a rogue pilot involved here, that this is a coordinated intimidation?

RICHARD MARLES:

I think what we've seen from China over a number of years now is an attempt to assert sovereignty in respect of the South China Sea, which is inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We've seen China seek to militarise the South China Sea in a way which is unhelpful. It's really important in the face of that that we meet that challenge because that's where our national interest lies. And when we talk about Australia facing as complex a set of strategic circumstances as we have since the end of the Second World War, which is statement in which I very much believe, this is the reason why, as China seeks to shape the world around it in a way that we've not really seen before, it does throw challenges up for Australia, which is really important that we meet.

KIERAN GILBERT:

In this sort of scenario, we're not being singled out, are we? While we see it happen to our aircraft, it's happened to Canadian aircraft, German vessels. It's not something where Australian capability’s being singled out.

RICHARD MARLES:

I don't think it's particular to Australia, but I think we do have a particular interest in the South China Sea because of the extent to which we have our trade traverse it. And obviously there are other countries who have trade going through the South China Sea as well, for whom that body of water is very critical to their national interests as well. But from our point of view, it matters that there is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, that our trade is able to traverse it in accordance with the rules as we understand them under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And that's why it's really important, in turn, that we're engaging in activities which exercise our rights under the global rules-based order, and that's what we've done for decades, and that's what we'll continue to do in the future, notwithstanding this incident.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi used the last leg of his Pacific tour to say that China wants to see a reset in relations with Australia, where we should find common ground, where possible, to resolve differences. So that language is quite different to the other behaviours we're seeing. Do you have any hope of a reproachment between Australia and China?

RICHARD MARLES:

Look, I think the relationship is challenging. I don't think there's any point in pretending it's otherwise. We will seek to go about our foreign relations in a way which is professional, which does invest in diplomacy in these matters. I think a lot about President Teddy Roosevelt, who talked about go quietly in the world carrying a big stick and you will go far. That was his view, and that I think is what will inspire the way in which we go about our foreign policy. But where our national interest is at stake, we will be completely uncompromising in pursuing our national interests as obviously, we have to be.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Chinese Ambassador has talked about reopening dialogue, that China might be open to that. Is that something that this government that your government will pursue? And I know you're attending the Shangri-La dialogue, a major defence dialogue in Singapore this week. Will you seek out the Chinese representatives to have a discussion?

RICHARD MARLES:

Look we have a number of bilats that we are seeking to organise. China is not one of them. We will be focusing on pursuing our national interest. The language that we are going to use is going to be sober. We're not into the chest-beating that we've seen from the former government over a long period of time. We're into meaningful action, and that's where we will be focused in pursuing our national interest.

KIERAN GILBERT:

So you're not seeking a bilateral, is there a chance that on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue you might have a chance to reach out to the Chinese officials?

RICHARD MARLES:

Look, it's a busy conference and there are a number of bilaterals that we are pursuing, as I say, China is not one of them. Our focus right now is on making sure that we get the actions right. So we're not going to engage in the chest-beating that we've seen from the former government. But our focus is on making sure that we get the actions right. That's why we have, in a very sober way, try to describe what has occurred in the South China Sea and make it very clear that we're not going to be deterred from pursuing those actions in the future because they matter to us. We're going to make sure we get the hard power equation right by dealing with the question of our submarines going forward. The capability gap that the former government has opened up for the country is a real problem. It's a problem that needs to be solved and it's very much at the front of my agenda. And we need to make sure that we are engaging in our near region, in the Pacific in a way which earns the right or earns the trust, I should say, of the countries of the Pacific such that we are their natural partner of choice. These are the things that we are going to focus on which are based on our action. We are not going to engage in the chest-beating. We are going to be about the doing.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Prime Minister is in Indonesia today, hence you’re acting Prime Minister. Do you see Indonesia, the vast archipelago not far to our north, I mean, obviously, it's important in an economic sense, 270 odd million people, but in a strategic sense, it's also crucial. Is it fair to say that Indonesia and ASEAN more broadly tend to be a bit more cautious in pushing back against China, I guess? Do they agree with us in terms of our concerns about China's aggression?

RICHARD MARLES:

As I analyse it, I actually think that we share a lot in common in terms of the strategic circumstances that our countries face. I would say that in respect of ASEAN generally, I would say that in respect of Indonesia, specifically. Indonesia is a critically important country for Australia always has been, obviously, and it was Paul Keating who really saw the importance of the relationship, but particularly the importance of having a shared security engagement with Indonesia and there is a close relationship between Indonesian military and our own and that's something we would want to continue. I think it's important that we breathe new energy into that side of the relationship, as we do with the economic side. It is good that there is a free trade agreement now with Indonesia, but we've got to actually materialise that with more trade and the truth is that our economic relationship with Indonesia over the journey has been underdone and it's really important we get that to a different place, both for the benefit of Indonesia and ourselves.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Finally, Defence Minister, we're here in the Defence Headquarters. You've decided to have your office, a permanent office in Canberra here in the building along with the top brass and the senior members of the Defence Department. Why is that?

RICHARD MARLES:

Well, I think it's important that we're not, as Ministers, separate from the Department that we are sworn to administer. That's certainly how I see it.

KIERAN GILBERT:

You're the first Defence Minister to do it, as I understand it.

RICHARD MARLES:

That's my understanding too, but I felt that it's a very important thing that I'm here that it's not a question of when we meet with the top brass, do they come to see me or do I come to see them? We are one and the same. This is the Department that I've been sworn to administer, this is the place that I want to be based. These are the people that I want to get to know, rub shoulders with, see me around and understand their work better. For me it was a very important statement, but I think it will be, it makes sense in terms of the mission that I've been asked to do, which is to administer the Department of Defence.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Acting Prime Minister, Richard Marles. I appreciate your time, thanks.

RICHARD MARLES:

Thanks Kieran.

 

END

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