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The Hon Richard Marles MP
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister for Defence
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
02 6277 7800
31 August 2022
STIG ABELL, HOST: Good morning to you, Richard.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Good morning, how are you?
ABELL: Very good, thank you. Britain and Australia obviously have very, very close links, long been close allies. What we're talking about in The Times today mentions a collaboration to do with nuclear submarines. How significant is it? Is anything shifting at all in this area?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's very significant for Australia. It gives Australia a capability and takes us down a road that we've obviously not walked before in terms of having nuclear powered submarines. And that capability is being delivered to us through two of our closest friends, in the United States and the United Kingdom. And I think what this is really doing is taking the oldest relationship that Australia has with the United Kingdom, breathing new life into it and making it a relationship which is fundamentally important for us in the contemporary world. And I think beyond that, what's really important is that as we see the global rules-based order being placed under pressure in Eastern Europe with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but also in the Indo-Pacific, as China seeks to shape the world around it in a way that it's not really done before, this is a moment for friends to work closely together and that's exactly what we're doing.
ABELL: Is this a new Cold War, do you feel, in the Indo-Pacific, because what we're talking about here, nuclear powered submarines, Australia getting that capacity for the first time, that's in order to show strength towards China, that's a very Cold War mentality, do you feel that it's right to categorise relations in that way?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I don't think that's exactly right. Certainly the way we describe it is that our strategic circumstances are the most complex they've been since the end of the Second World War. Part of that complexity, of course, is because China is Australia's largest trading partner. So we have a very significant economic engagement with China and that's very different to the way the world operated during the Cold War, where there was very little economic engagement across both sides. And so to that end, we often say that we value a productive relationship with China and we would like to see the relationship in a better place. But having said that, as we look at the way in which China seeks to shape the world around it, as it asserts a sovereignty over the South China Sea, which is really inconsistent with how we understand the rules of the road, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, freedom of navigation, that does present challenges for Australia as a trading island nation. And it's really important that we are articulating our national interests very strongly when that differs from the actions of other countries, including China.
ABELL: A flashpoint in that part of the world may well be Taiwan, and we've talked about that a lot in this program, not least when Nancy Pelosi visited, and there was a heightened tension around it. There is this question that emerges; what would the west do if China did seek to take Taiwan militarily? Does Australia have an official policy on that? Do you know what you would do? Would you provide military support to Taiwan against a military incursion by China?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, we try not to speculate about hypotheticals. Our view is that what we don't want to see is any unilateral change to the status quo which exists across the Taiwan Strait. And what that in turn means is that Australia, like many countries, has a One China policy. We recognise One China, we recognise Beijing as its capital and we've been doing that since the early 1970s, and none of that changes. I think articulating it in that way and seeking not to see any unilateral changes across the Taiwan Strait is really the best course for trying to promote a return to more normal and peaceful activity around the Taiwan Strait. But obviously what we have witnessed in the last couple of months and the increased activity of China is concerning. And it's really important, again, that those rules of the road, the UN Conventional on the Law of the Sea, freedom of navigation, that all of those rules operate in and around Taiwan as well.
ABELL: You use the phrases like challenges and complexities, use very diplomatic language, understandably so. We're about to have a new Prime Minister who I suspect is not particularly diplomatic despite being the former Foreign Secretary. Liz Truss, she wants to categorise China as an "acute threat". That's the phrase that she uses. Is that something that you would share as an assessment of China as an acute threat or is your trading relationship such that you have to be more cautious?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think I've described China in the way that we seek to. We definitely see that the way China is operating and the way it seeks to shape the world around it does give rise to real challenges for Australia. And we are very firm and strong in standing up for our national interests in respect of that. Having said that, we in our own country have seen language used by the former Liberal government in Australia which we didn't think helped the tone of the relationship necessarily. And so from our point of view, what we've done as a new government is tried to change the tone, be respectful in our language, be professional, be sober, be diplomatic. We really do believe in the power of diplomacy, but at the same time make it clear that while the government in Australia changed back in May, our national interest didn't. And we still retain very strong national interests, particularly with freedom of navigation. When you think about the South China Sea, it's not an esoteric concept for us because most of Australia's trade goes through that body of water. So it really matters that those rules continue to apply and we're going to stand up for them.
ABELL: But you are softening your language, if not your position. It's interesting because the previous administration, Australia wanted to contrast itself with New Zealand, it felt like. New Zealand wanted to have a slightly more productive relationship with China and the Australian government as was, really drew a line and said, ‘no, no, no, they're too soft on China, we are much tougher on China’. Are you aligning yourself more with the New Zealand position?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't accept the dichotomy or the spectrum that you've established there. I actually think what we are is very tough in asserting our national interest. I don't think that is assisted by yelling at the world. I actually think that matters in terms of getting the hard power equation right, for example. And that means we are really focused on making sure that we are modernising our military. And that's part of why I'm here right now, making sure that we can get nuclear-powered submarines in place so that we do build the strategic space which enables us to assert our national interest. And we are very strong in respect of that. We believe in the power of diplomacy. We think a sober, professional, diplomatic tone is the best way in which we can advance our national interests. We do, if you like, take a leaf out of Teddy Roosevelt's book - speak softly and carry a big stick. That is, in a sense, how we think about it and that's how we are pursuing our national interest.
ABELL: Just before you go, you've shown your diplomatic ability already this morning. You're a new Labor Government in Australia, about to have a new Prime Minister in this country, very much a Tory’s Tory, Liz Truss. Do you think you'll be able to do business with her?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, if Liz Truss prevails next week, I'm certain that is the case. I had the good fortune of meeting Liz as the Foreign Secretary at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali in Rwanda, a couple of months ago. We had a really productive meeting. I think Liz Truss has, I think, great affection for Australia and obviously we have great affection for the United Kingdom. And so I'm sure if Liz Truss prevails, she's somebody we can work well with.
ABELL: Richard Marles good to speak to you today, thank you for joining us.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thank you.