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The Hon Richard Marles MP
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister for Defence
4 August 2022
SUBJECTS: Defence Strategic Review; Nuclear-powered submarines; Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan; South Korean Defence Minister visit to Australia.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Richard Marles is the Defence Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and our guest this morning. Deputy Prime Minister, welcome to the program.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Patricia. How are you?
KARVELAS: I’m good. You heard the former military chief saying the deteriorating strategic environment facing Australia is the worst he’s seen in his lifetime. How worried are you?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s a very serious comment from a very serious person who’s seen a lot. And when you think about Angus Houston’s career, the fact that he was the Chief of the Defence Force during our engagement in Afghanistan and all that occurred in that period, for him to make those comments is really significant. But I think he’s right. You know, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update observed for the first time that that 10-year warning period that we’ve always assumed that we would have if anyone meant to do us any harm, that we are now within that 10-year window. And, really, that leaves a question hanging - given that, what are going to do about it? And that question is really the work of the Defence Strategic Review which is going to be undertaken by Sir Angus Houston and Professor Stephen Smith.
KARVELAS: The thinking in defence circles has been that Australia doesn’t have to be able to win a war against China so long as we present a difficult target. What level of military capability do we need for that?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that is a really accurate statement of what our strategic objective is here. It is about making ourselves a difficult target, as you say. And I think that then does require us to think about what is the purpose of the ADF and what does it need to have at its beck and call in order to achieve that objective? And we need to be thinking about that over a much shorter time frame than perhaps what we have used to be thinking about it. A lot of the platforms that we pursue, naturally, are pursued over a very long period of time. We’re going to need to continue to do that, but we’re clearly going to need to have capability over a shorter term which makes us a difficult target. And, again, that’s exactly the work that we want this review to do.
KARVELAS: The force posture review will report at the same time as the nuclear submarines task force. The ageing Collins-Class subs present our biggest capability gap. Are you going to have to buy an interim option, or do you believe the life of the Collins-Class subs can be extended?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the life of the Collins-Class will be extended. That’s certainly going to be a part of dealing with the capability gap. But whether that does the whole job is another question. And, again, that is a really important question that needs to be answered by the work that’s being undertaken with our partners in the United States and the United Kingdom under the banner of AUKUS around the development of our future submarine capability. And that work will happen concurrently with this review. And there’s an importance in that because it’s really critical that the Defence Strategic Review, the work that Sir Angus and Professor Smith are doing, is cognisant of what’s happening in terms of the path we’re walking down in respect of our submarines and vice versa. And so both bodies of work will report at the beginning of next year, and I think together they will set the foundations for defence policy in this country for a very long time to come.
In answer to your question about the capability gap, what we have asked the work with AUKUS to consider is not just which submarine we ultimately go with, but how quickly we can get it, and to the extent that there’s a capability gap that opens up we want them to be completely open-minded in terms of whatever we need to do to plug that gap.
KARVELAS: You said last night the next generation of submarines would not be available for a decade. So could current generation subs be available more quickly?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean, our submarine capability right now obviously is Collins. As I said, part of the answer of the capability gap is going to be extending the life of Collins. That’s the situation that we’ve now been put in, and that’s really a function of the failures of the former government in its handling of the submarine procurement.
KARVELAS: But if I can return you to the question – I don’t mean to be rude – current ones?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, but it’s important to understand that, Patricia, because it really was, you know, the walking down the path with Japan backing out, the signing of an agreement with France, ripping it up five years later, all of that has opened up this capability gap. The difficulty is that any submarine, conventional or non-conventional, takes a long time to construct. And so, you know, clearly extending the life of our existing Collins submarines is – we are in a situation where we have no choice but to do that. The question is whether that on its own is enough, and, as I say, that’s a question which will be examined by the work that we’re doing under the banner of AUKUS.
KARVELAS: Okay, so current generation subs and whether they will be available more quickly is what they’ll be looking at?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, they’ll look at every option. But the point needs to be made that building a nuclear-powered sub or a conventional sub takes a long time. Building submarines takes time. And that’s the issue that we face no matter which we way go in terms of those interim solutions. And that’s the dilemma that the country’s been placed in by the failures of the former government.
KARVELAS: China is responding to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan with the largest live fire military exercises since 1995. One Taiwanese commander says it amounts to a blockade of the island. How worried are you about the potential for escalation?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, obviously we’re taking it very seriously and we are monitoring events very closely. I mean, that’s self-evident, really. I think what you can be clear of in terms of the Australian Government’s response here is that we will engage on this as we will engage with the world in a very calm and measured way. Our position, which we’ve said repeatedly over the last few days but over a long period of time now, is that what we want to see is that there be no alteration to the status quo which exists on either side of the Taiwan Strait. And in that sense the One China policy which has been, you know, the bipartisan position of governments of both persuasions in Australia since the 1970s remains the case.
KARVELAS: Okay. So do you think there was a breakage with that?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, can you say that again?
KARVELAS: Did the visit lead to a break of that previous stance?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not about to comment on the visit of Nancy Pelosi. Ultimately that’s a matter between the United States and Taiwan –
KARVELAS: But you wouldn’t have done it?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not going to comment on it. From our point of view what matters is that we do not see unilateral changes to the status quo on either side of the Taiwan Strait. That’s really important. And from our point of view obviously, we are monitoring these events very closely. We are taking them very seriously. You couldn’t do otherwise. But we will engage in this in a very calm and measured way.
KARVELAS: In an effort to calm the situation, the Foreign Ministers from the G7 nations – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US – released a joint statement saying China’s escalation risked destabilising the region. Do you back this in?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, I come back to what I’ve said – we don’t support a unilateral change to the status quo. And that’s the position that the Australian government has.
KARVELAS: But do you see this response from China right now, these military exercises, as unnecessary?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Again, we want to see tensions reduced, not increased. That is to state the obvious. We want to see matters de-escalated rather than escalated. So that is the very clear position that’s been stated by both the Foreign Minister and myself. And that’s Australia’s position and that’s the lens through which we see what other countries are doing.
KARVELAS: The Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says visits like Nancy Pelosi’s are important because the more China succeeds in isolating Taiwan the more likely it is to feel free to use force. Does he have a point?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, I think we need to be engaging in this issue in a very measured way. That’s the position of the Australian government. We are not about to tell people that they can or can’t go to Taiwan. That’s not our position. And there are many people from the Australian Parliament who have gone to Taiwan. And obviously, we have a strong engagement with the people of Taiwan, and that will continue. But we need to be engaging here in a very measured way and in a way which has underpinning it the longstanding principles which have been the bipartisan policy of this country for a long period of time.
KARVELAS: Just finally, and briefly, you’re hosting the South Korean Defence Minister in Canberra this afternoon, then in Geelong in Victoria. What’s the purpose of his visit?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, our relationship with Korea is very important. I think given the complexity of our strategic circumstances, which we share with a lot of countries in the region and in large measure we share with Korea, one thing is clear, and that is the closer we can be with like-minded friendly countries the more we should be doing that. And Korea is certainly one of those. We signed a strategic partnership with Korea at the end of last year, and I had the pleasure of meeting the Defence Minister, Minister Lee, in Singapore a couple of months ago and look forward to continuing that friendship with Minister Lee, and in doing that looking at ways in which we can expand our engagement with Korea. Korea for the first time will be participating in Exercise Pitch Black, which is our major air exercise later this month happening out of Darwin. That’s the first time they’ll be participating in that. And in a defence materiel sense we are going to Geelong tomorrow, to my home town, where Hanwha, which is a Korean company, is building the self-propelled Howitzers out at Avalon. And we’ll be visiting that. So there’s a lot of engagement with Australia and Korea and that’s very much in our national interests to be building that relationship.
KARVELAS: Deputy Prime Minister, many thanks for your time.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, PK.
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