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The Hon Richard Marles MP
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister for Defence
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
02 6277 7800
14 June 2022
Much has been said and written about the weekend meeting between the Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles, and senior Chinese Defence official, General Wei Fenghe. It was the first face‑to‑face encounter between the Ministers from both countries since relations soured nearly three years ago. The Defence Minister is now in Japan, and he joined me a short time ago from Tokyo. Richard Marles, thanks for joining AM.
Pleasure, Sabra. Good to speak with you.
You’ve said this meeting with General Wei was a critical first step. What happens now? Is there any indication that China will drop its sanctions against Australia?
There was a desire in the meeting that we had on both sides to have the relationship put in a better place and beyond the question simply of defence, and having the entire bilateral relationship put in a better place. And the door is open to having further meetings. I think we do need to just understand that the relationship has not been in a good place at all, and this is only a first step and there’s still a long way to go.
There are reports that Australia will keep transiting through and over the South China Sea and the Paracel Islands. Those acts anger China. Australia is not deterred?
We’re definitely not deterred, and we have made it clear, and I spoke with Minister Wei about this, that we have a deep interest in the South China Sea. Most of our trade goes through that body of water. The global rules‑based order in this instance, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, is fundamentally important to us, because it’s what provides the freedom of navigation and allows our trade to occur.
Essentially, though, regarding China, Australia’s position hasn’t changed even though the Government has, and without giving ground to China, is there a reset happening?
It’s a good question. It’s important to understand that in terms of substantive policy, there hasn’t been a change. We want to assert our rights in places like the South China Sea. We see the importance of a global rules‑based order in the Pacific and we spoke about that as well. This is a part of world that obviously matters deeply to Australia, and we do want to be working with the countries of the Pacific so that we are their natural partner of choice. All of that remains the same; none of it has changed and Australia will continue to pursue our national interests in respect of all of it.
But I think what has changed is tone. We’re going to go about our relations with China but our relations with the whole world in a way which is sober, professional. We understand the importance of dialogue where we believe in the power of diplomacy, and that point was made clear. I actually made that clear in the speech that I gave at the Shangri‑La Dialogue. So, it’s an important change in tone, but the substantive national interests that Australia has, that we’ve had over the last decade, we see us still having, and we will pursue with rigour.
You also met with Solomon Islands Defence Minister Anthony Veke. Have you sought assurances that Solomons won’t allow a Chinese military presence or a de facto base on the island?
Yeah, I had a good meeting with National Security Minister Veke, and that was the first ministerial-level meeting that our countries have had since the announcement of the agreement between Solomon Islands and China. The Minister reiterated to me that there was not an intention in Solomon Islands to have a foreign military base in its country. We were heartened by that, and I made that clear.
I also made clear that we want to work closely with Solomon Islands, as we have, to be their natural partner of choice; and we understand that’s not something we get by right and we need to do the work, we need to earn this, and we need to and we will. And there was – that was a well-received message.
On asylum seekers, we’ve heard reports that 300 Sri Lankans are trying to get – have been trying to get to Australia by boat in recent weeks, with people smugglers claiming they’ll get here because the Government has changed.
People will not be coming to Australia by boat. We will continue the take‑back operations which were happening under the former government, but we will continue them, and we will continue them without hesitation.
And it’s really important that people understand that we’re doing this from an ethical standpoint. Strong borders are what empower governments. Strong borders are what empower multi‑country government agencies like the UNHCR. Strong borders are what put people smuggling out of business, and that is a barbaric trade which leads to many, many people dying and we are not going to have that happen. When one thinks about that, maintaining strong borders is really the only ethical, humane stance that can be taken, and that’s what we will be doing.
Richard Marles, thanks for talking to AM this morning.
I appreciate it, Sabra.
Richard Marles is the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.