Press conference, IISS Asia Security Summit, Singapore

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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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12 June 2022

RICHARD MARLES:

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. It's been a very busy few days at the Shangri La Dialogue and let me start by thanking Dr John Chipman and IISS for hosting the dialogue and for having me here. Over the last few days, I've met more than 15 defence ministers from the region. Two prime ministers, Prime Minister Kishida of Japan and Prime Minister Lee of Singapore. Met the defence ministers of our trilateral partners, Minister Kishi of Japan and Secretary of Defence Austin of the United States. Met with the Five Powers Defence Arrangement, which is the oldest piece of defence architecture that we have within the region, which has now had more than 50 years in place. I met most of the defence ministers of ASEAN. I've also met with the defence ministers of the Pacific who are present.

The dialogue has been an opportunity for Australia to affirm its commitment to the global rules-based order at a time when the global rules-based order is being placed under pressure. The war in Ukraine has made it clear that there are countries, in this case Russia, which seek to challenge the global rules-based order. But the global rules-based order, the idea that countries are able to negotiate their differences with each other on the basis of rules as opposed to the basis of power, is what has underpinned prosperity and stability within our region. It has been absolutely fundamental to the economic success of East Asia. It's been fundamentally important to the economic success of Australia. When you think about the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides for the freedom of navigation of vessels around all the oceans of the world, but including the South China Sea, you realise how completely important and fundamental this is to Australia's national interest.

We also meet at a time where there is significant military build up. Indeed, the military build up of China is the largest build up of military that we have seen since the end of the Second World War. Now Australia completely understands the right of countries to modernise their military. But this must happen with transparency. It must happen in combination with reassuring statecraft, so that neighbours and other countries have a sense of comfort about their own future and destiny in the face of that. Australia has engaged in the modernisation of its own military. We've been doing that as a prudent response to the strategic circumstances that we have found. But in doing that, we have been completely transparent about the reasons why and what we are doing, and in so doing, making it clear that this not only provides for the security of Australia, but in giving a much better balance of power within the region, provides for security to the region as well. The dialogue was also an opportunity for me to meet with my Chinese counterpart, Defence Minister Wei, which I did earlier today. It's three years since defence ministers of our two countries have met. This was an important meeting, one which the Australian government welcomes. It was an opportunity to have a very frank and full exchange in which I raised a number of issues of concern to Australia, including the incident involving Australia's P-8 aircraft on the 26th of May and Australia's abiding interest in the Pacific and our concern to ensure that the countries of the Pacific are not put in a position of increased militarisation.

This was an important meeting between two countries of consequence in Indo-Pacific region. It was a critical first step and as Secretary Austin observed after his own meeting with Defence Minister Wei, it is really important in these times to have open lines of dialogue. Australia and China's relationship is complex and it's precisely because of this complexity that it is really important that we are engaging in dialogue right now.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, you've outlaid, you’ve made out a pretty expensive plan for Australian defence capability. Does that grow to any mismatch with your friends across the ditch in New Zealand? And how does that affect the work that the two militaries are able to do together if you have that sort of gap in capability?

RICHARD MARLES:

Firstly, we really value obviously our relationship with New Zealand. I don’t think there are two countries in the world that are closer than Australia and New Zealand and we particularly value the relationship between our two militaries. The Anzac spirit goes to the core of both national, the character of both nations, and that is felt right through to today. We welcome our engagement, which is really close, very organic with the New Zealand Defence Forces. And as we move forward in terms of modernising our own military, that's completely consistent with the relationship that we have with New Zealand and the continued interoperability between our two defence forces.

JOURNALIST:

How did General Wei react when you raised those issues like Pacific expansion and interception of the plane and sort of dramatic behaviour in the South China Sea?

RICHARD MARLES:

This was an important conversation, but beyond what I've already said, it's a conversation which I intend to keep private.

JOURNALIST:

Can you say how long were there, or give us the details on how long you were there? Was it in his quarters or in your quarters?

RICHARD MARLES:

On Friday night, at the dinner, General Wei and I both met, we were sitting on the same table. We both agreed that it was important that our two countries meet. That's how the meeting came about today. It was hosted by China. The meeting went for more than an hour. As I say, it was a really important meeting, an important first step. I don't want to disclose the details of the meeting beyond those which I've already said. You can obviously ask questions of China in terms of their contribution to it, but it was a full and frank discussion which we feel is a very important first step.

JOURNALIST:

What will be the next step if that was the first step?

RICHARD MARLES:

We want to take this in a very sober and very deliberate manner. We don't underestimate the difficulties that we've had in our bilateral relationship. The fact that this is the first meeting at a ministerial level in almost three years is very significant. We will take this as a step-by-step process, but the fact that we've been able to have this meeting today is an important step in the process.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, could I ask a couple of questions on that meeting and how things proceed from here? Does the Australian government have some broad conception, some roadmap about how to move forward now? Are there particular priorities, for example, about issues that need to be resolved first and how that's going to move step by step? Secondly, if I could ask a question in the interest of transparency. Now, you've been talking about the AUKUS nuclear-propelled submarine proposal here, I’m guessing that Minister Wei also raised that. What's the new government's rationale for going ahead with this proposal to seriously consider nuclear-propelled submarines. What do they bring to Australian defences? What's your rationale for them?

RICHARD MARLES:

Okay, let me deal with the first. We have made really clear that the relationship with China is broad and it is complex. China is our largest trading partner and we value a productive relationship with China, and it's a point we've made for a long time. But that said, we have a whole lot of national interests and we aren't going to waver from asserting those in the strongest possible terms. And I've described today how important for us the rules-based order is in a range of areas, but particularly the way the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea applies freedom of navigation to the South China Sea.

We've made it really clear about the importance of not militarising the Pacific. We've made it really clear our intention to revitalise our relationships with the countries of the Pacific, which you have seen with the energy and the way in which Foreign Minister Wong has gone out into the Pacific and got those relationships going again. So our focus is going to be on taking Australia forward and our place in the world in that way, and we do, consistent with that, want to have a productive relationship with China. So we will keep working as we can to try and have that evolved in the context of making it very clear that this happens without any conditions at all. That in moving forward, while there is a change of tone, there is absolutely no change in the substance of Australia's national interests.

That brings me to the question that you ask in respect of AUKUS and its capacity to deliver for Australia nuclear-powered submarines. There is no more important platform that Australia has to build its strategic space than a long-range capable submarine. The Collins-class submarines have done a magnificent job and continue to do a magnificent job. But when they were originally conceived it was imagined the end of their life would be in the middle of this decade, in just a few years time. Now, that's clearly not going to happen now, in the sense that as a result of the former government, we don't have a successor submarine ready to go in the next three years. But it is really important that we are working on a long-range capable submarine which can be a successor to Collins, and having nuclear propulsion is fundamental to that. When you think about Australia's geography, where we are in the world, an island nation, capable long range submarines are completely essential to building our strategic space. And that's why we'll be very focused on delivering a nuclear-powered submarine for the country and making sure that capability gaps are minimised in the meantime.

JOURNALIST:

Are you still talking with the folks at Lockheed about the combat system and what kind of payment you might need to make [indistinct].

RICHARD MARLES:

There has been a conversation with Lockheed. I'm not about to go into that here, but there [indistinct] with Lockheed.

JOURNALIST:

Is the idea of getting two Virginia-class subs off the shelf or whatever by 2030, is that a genuine possibility? You met with Secretary Austin and you talked about getting nuclear-powered subs earlier.

RICHARD MARLES:

Well, you're referring to the comments that were made by the Leader of the Opposition, the former Defence Minister. Let me say a couple of things about that. The Leader of the Opposition was sitting in my chair just a few weeks ago, and as such, he was privy to our nation's most important secrets, as he should have been. Those secrets should not be used for political gain. Those secrets should not be used in a partisan way. What we are seeing from the Leader of the Opposition is just not consistent with his statements when he was the Minister for Defence, and they are certainly not based in the facts as I now understand them. It's really important for everyone to understand that we are going through a process with the United Kingdom and the United States where there are a number of options on the table in working with the US and the UK around a future submarine solution. And all of those options remain on the table.

JOURNALIST:

Minister. I'm based in Washington, where there's increasing talk about whether 2027 is a very dangerous window for Taiwan. In that context, and the fact that your relationship with America is getting closer and closer and closer, and it's obvious today with the exchanges from the Chinese and Secretary Austin yesterday, the US and China are not getting any closer on Taiwan. Do you feel like you have an obligation to explain to the Australian people what Australia's role would be if there was a war over Taiwan?

RICHARD MARLES:

We're not going to get into hypotheticals.

JOURNALIST:

Well, it's not a hypothetical. It's something that could happen in the future that will affect the people in your country.

RICHARD MARLES:

Well, using words like ‘if’ and ‘could’ is by definition a hypothetical, and we're not going to go get into that. But let me make this clear. Australia supports a one China policy. Australia does not support Taiwanese independence. We have good relations with the people of Taiwan. What we don't want to see is any unilateral action on either side of the Taiwan Strait, which changes the status quo. And what we do want to see is that the situation for the people of Taiwan is resolved through peaceful negotiations, and that's our position in relation to Taiwan. And in truth, that's been a long-standing bipartisan position within Australia for decades now, and it will remain that going forward.

JOURNALIST:

A few years ago, people weren't worried that the invasion of Taiwan could happen within a couple of years. They are now. So, doesn't that dynamic of that equation change in terms of what you need to say to the population about what your role would be?

RICHARD MARLES:

Well, I reiterate the position that I just articulated in respect of Taiwan. We really welcome America's engagement in East Asia. That is fundamentally important that we have America engaged in this part of the world. America has been a critical power in East Asia since the end of the Second World War. Obviously, our alliance with the United States is central to our worldview, central to our national security, and we regard it as having been no more important, as important now than it's ever been. The alliance is as important now as it has ever been, and we're very focused on that. So that's where Australia sits in respect of our position in relation to the one China policy. That's where Australia sits in respect of our position on our alliance to the United States.

END

 

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