Interview with Sarah Ferguson, ABC 7.30

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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3 August 2022

SUBJECTS: Defence Strategic Review announcement; Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan.

SARAH FERGUSON, HOST: Defence Minister Richard Marles joins me now live from Canberra. Minister, welcome to the program.


FERGUSON: Isn't it clear from everything that you and the PM said today that the country within a 10-year window of doing harm to Australia is China?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Defence Strategic Update two years ago made clear we are within that window. And it's the whole landscape that we face but this is a critically fundamental observation that was made two years ago and the question that is then left begging is what are we going to do about it? What is going to be the response to that? That's why this review is so important to look at how Australia can be best positioned.

FERGUSON: Forgive me for interrupting there but is there a reason why you won't use the word China? You've already said China's rapid military build-up gives you sleepless nights. It is China tonight that’s about to start live drills around Taiwan. Just to confirm, the primary focus of the Defence Review is China?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, China is seeking to shape the world around it in a way that we've not seen before. That is happening. And that creates real challenges for us. Not least because China is our largest trading partner. But you're right in observing that the military build-up we've seen from China is the biggest military build-up that we have seen occur in the world since the end of the Second World War. That means something. And in the face of that, it is really important that we are in a position to make sure that Australia remains safe and that we have a potent Defence Force that can do that job. That's why this review is so important.

FERGUSON: Let's talk about that safety, because if a serious threat to Australia emerges, as you fear, within that 10-year window, you won't have the assets that you say are vital to Australia's defence - that is a fleet of nuclear submarines. How vulnerable is the country in this critical window?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, that's a very good question. And you're right as well in saying that the next generation of nuclear-powered submarines is beyond that 10-year window. It's why what we saw under the former government, over the last 10 years, has been such a failure in national security. We lost precious years over the last 10 years in seeking to have Japan build our next generation of submarines and then walk away from that, do a deal with France then rip it up.

FERGUSON: And yet the Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, said that he was on the verge of a deal with the US that would fill that capability gap. Is that deal a possibility, was it a possibility, or is he overstating it?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me put it this way. There is nothing I've been briefed on since becoming the Minister for Defence which would bear out what the Leader of the Opposition has said. I think the truth is that in terms of the legacy that we had been left by the former government was the next generation of submarines, the nuclear-propelled submarines not coming into play until the 2040s. What that really means is over the last decade of dithering we have seen a capability gap of almost 20 years open up and that's really now the challenge for us to close. And, again, this is in a context where it was the former government's own review which made clear that we're within that 10-year window. That's why this work is so important.

FERGUSON: Let’s talk about the current Review. The Prime Minister said today that a key aspect of the Defence Review will be interoperability with allied military forces. We understand that means the US military of course. Does that mean giving up some of Australia's sovereignty?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: No, but sovereignty is a really important question in the midst of this. And we need to have interoperability with the United States. We have a lot of close operations, close exercises with the United States. We have a number of the Australian personnel who are embedded within the United States’ system and indeed some in reverse. We get enormous benefit out of that and that really is, if you like, the practical expression of our alliance with the United States. Within the context of that, having sovereignty really matters, and submarines are a good example of that. We need a sovereign capability to not just be there to help contest in any contested environment, but to help build our strategic space for both diplomacy and trade. And that needs to be a sovereign capability.

FERGUSON: Let’s stay with sovereign because if Australia's forces become so locked in to the US military machine, doesn't that mean that you'd be pre-committed to any regional conflict the US became involved in?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: No. And that again is a very important question and very important to hear this answer. In terms of any engagement that Australia participates in, that is a sovereign decision of our country. And it has always been thus, right through the history since the Second World War. If you look at the most recent engagements, in Afghanistan for example, all of that, ends up being a sovereign engagement by Australia and it's very important that that is maintained. I've seen firsthand how that must occur in terms of the initial commitment, but even during the commitment, that there is a sovereign control that's exercisable by any Australian Government in respect of our Defence Force. And of course that's a precondition of how we would operate.

FERGUSON: But you may have heard the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last week, General Milley, who said in the event of a conflict in Asia, he would expect - the US would expect - Australia to be shoulder to shoulder with the US, as in previous conflicts in the region. Is that your view too that we would be shoulder to shoulder?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean we have been shoulder to shoulder with the US in the past. The answer to the question is we will always make the decision about our future engagement in the national interests and in our own terms and based on our own sovereignty. Our alliance with the United States is obviously of fundamental importance to us moving forward. And it always will be -

FERGUSON: Does that mean that you see things slightly differently to General Milley, that shoulder to shoulder is not a foregone conclusion here?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I don't think General Milley was suggesting it was a foregone conclusion and I don't think there was anything in General Milley's answer that suggested Australia should forego its sovereignty in the decision-making we will take in the future.

FERGUSON: Penny Wong has been trying to reduce tensions in the region. Did Nancy Pelosi's visit increase the risk of confrontation?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, ultimately, the engagement from the United States and Nancy Pelosi in visiting Taiwan is really a matter for the US and Taiwan, so I'm not going to comment on that, and neither has the Foreign Minister. What's really important to say is that from Australia's point of view, we obviously do want to see the world acting in a way which reduces tensions as much as possible. We maintain the policy we always have, which is that we do not support any unilateral changes to the status quo on either side of the Taiwan Strait and that’s a very important principle here.

FERGUSON: Would you consider a visit to Taiwan yourself?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'm not planning to visit Taiwan. Our fundamental principle is that we do not support any unilateral changes to the status quo on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

FERGUSON: Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott went to Taiwan to make a speech. If Peter Dutton wanted to go to Taiwan, would you support that?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: That is a matter for them and I'm not about to suggest that we're telling members of other parties where they can or can't go. What I can do is speak for the Australian Government and the position of the Australian Government is, as I've said - and one of the implications or consequences of having a view which is that we do not support any unilateral changes to the status quo is that the One China policy, which has been a feature of Australia's relationship with the world and relationship with China since the 1970s remains in place. And that's been the policy of governments of both persuasions in this country.

FERGUSON: Defence Minister, thank you very much indeed for your time. Goodnight.




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