Doorstop interview, Washington DC

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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dpm.media@defence.gov.au

02 6277 7800

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11 July 2022

SUBJECTS: The Indo-Pacific; AUKUS; Nuclear-powered submarines; Pacific Islands Forum; Climate change.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you spoke about needing to avoid a catastrophic failure of deterrence. What would that failure look like in the Indo‑Pacific?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think it’s really important that we maintain a balance within the Pacific and within the Indo-Pacific. And we’ve seen what happens when that is not in place. We’ve seen that with Ukraine. And it’s why whilst Ukraine is a long way from Australia, we see that the issues engaged in Ukraine very much speak to Australia’s national interests. And that’s why it’s so important that we maintain a balance in the Indo-Pacific and why Australia is a country, with others, that does everything it can to protect and build the global rules-based order.

JOURNALIST: Minister, Keating has spoken to the Chinese Ambassador a few days ago. Have you spoken to him since? Has he given you any advice?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Sorry?

JOURNALIST: Paul Keating spoke with the Chinese Ambassador a few days ago. I’m just wondering if you’ve spoken to him since and has he given you any advice?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I’ve not spoken to Paul since then.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you said previously that you doubt Australia would be able to build it’s first nuclear submarine by the previous government’s deadline. How will the US help Australia cope with the capability gap while we wait until 2040 for the submarines?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, it’s a really good question. After a decade of false starts from the former government – they were going to do a submarine with Japan, they walked away from that, they entered into an agreement with France, they ripped it up – we now have the better part of a 20-year capability gap in the sense that Collins was imagined to come out of service in the middle of the 2020s. And, really, as we’ve come to office it’s clear the former government had left no other alternative or nothing else on the table than the successor, the nuclear‑powered submarine, coming into play in the 2040s. As we go through the process now of looking at which solution we pursue, we also want not only to determine that solution but to work out is there any way in which that can be brought online much sooner than the 2040s and to the extent any capability gap is there, what are the means by which we can close it. None of those questions have obvious answers. It’s part of the work we’re doing right now. But as we announce in the early part of next year as to what capability – or what submarine – we will be pursuing, we really want to have answers to all of those at that point in time.

JOURNALIST: Have you discussed while you’re here, or will you discuss, acquiring two submarines remade in the US, as Peter Dutton has suggested, while local capability is being developed?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Again, the former government had not really advanced any proposition beyond acquiring the capability in the 2040s. We want to be talking with both the United Kingdom and the United States about how we can get that first submarine earlier. And to the extent there is any capability opened up, what we can do to close it. And our mind is very open about all the possibilities that we need to be looking at in order to close that capability gap. And I’ll certainly be talking with people here this week about that, as I will with the United Kingdom.

JOURNALIST: Would one of those things be looking at a design which would allow all three countries to operate it – United Kingdom, Australia, US – if there was a submarine?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, we’ll be working through exactly which option we choose in the process that’s underway at the moment. And we hope to have an answer to that in the first part of next year.

JOURNALIST: But is that something you’ll look at while you’re here? What are you trying to learn or to try and understand while you’re here in the US, precisely?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean, there’s a few things to say in answer to that –

JOURNALIST: Just in relation to submarines, obviously.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Okay. Well, in relation to submarines, looking at where we’re up to with AUKUS, looking at where we’re up to in terms of the process that is being undertaken right now, which is a joint process between ourselves, the UK and the US, around determining which platform we actually go with, but how soon we can get it and to the extent that a capability gap is opened up how we can plug it. All of those are questions that I’m seeking to advance with my counterparts over the course of this week.

JOURNALIST: You’ve said today that the US looks to Australia as a leader in the Indo-Pacific. But what more do you want to see from the US side?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I think the US does look to Australia as a leader in the Pacific amongst Pacific Island countries. And I think there’s lots of capability that the United States obviously brings to bear that we can engage in the Pacific. We obviously, as I said in my remarks earlier, have an interest more generally in seeing American presence in the Indo-Pacific retained. And I think we need to be active within the alliance to make sure that that happens. And there’s lots that we can do to encourage that. Now, America resources – the Indo-Pacific Command very significantly is the largest command of all the combatant commands that the United States has - but it’s really important that we continue to have American engagement in the region. And that’s not just in terms of its defence footprint, as important as that is, but we also need to be encouraging America to pursue its presence in the Indo-Pacific economically as well.

JOURNALIST: Kiribati has pulled out of the Pacific Leaders forum. How would the US and Australia respond if they allowed China to develop and expand an airstrip there?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s obviously going to be sad for the Pacific Islands Forum not to have Kiribati present. Kiribati is a valued and central member of the Pacific family. I’ve been to Kiribati on many occasions, and I know the country well. I think it’s really important that Australia is doing everything it can – and we are – to make sure that we are promoting Pacific unity under the banner of the Pacific Islands Forum. And we will continue to do that.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just in your speech then you were mentioning that the Pacific Islands thought climate change was the biggest threat, more than China. Do you agree with that? Do you think that climate change is a bigger threat than China to the Pacific?

And just secondly, inflation has become a major concern around the world. How much does that bear on the way you think about defence capability and the costs of footing the bill?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, to deal with the second question first, obviously, cost is a big issue in every part of the budget. And, you know, we’re a government which has inherited a trillion-dollar debt from the former government. And that obviously puts a whole lot of constraints on the way in which we think about managing the budget. That said, we have been really clear about our commitments in respect of Defence spending. We will fund the pipeline of investments in the Integrated Investment Plan, albeit we will apply a critical eye to the specific components of that plan, and that will be part of what the Force Posture Review does. We will have our spend at 2 per cent of GDP.

The first question was on?

JOURNALIST: Climate change.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Climate change is absolutely the biggest issue which faces the peoples of the Pacific. I mean, it’s an existential issue and it is felt viscerally within the Pacific in a way which is hard actually for us to understand unless you’ve been there. I mean, I’ve had the experience of being in Kiribati, actually, a low-lying coral atoll nation, seeing the water at high tide enter a person’s kitchen. I mean, when you are living that, you are experiencing the effects of climate change in a way which is completely different to how most of us see it, albeit that we are all seeing it in terms of the change of climate more and more. But it is a –

JOURNALIST: More than China, though?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is the single biggest issue which faces the Pacific, and it is why we have put such a prominence on it. And the point I made in the speech today but in so many of the remarks that we’ve made, Australia is back at the table in terms of global leadership around action on climate change. We are that in terms of our own domestic policies, we are that in terms of our global advocacy. But part of what we see as being fundamentally important to that is that we have a responsibility to help the Pacific tell its story as countries who are on the frontline of climate change.

ENDS

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