8 December 2022
SUBJECTS: AUKUS Defence Ministers’ Meeting; Australia-US Alliance.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Thank you everyone for being here today. The last two days have been hugely significant and very successful. AUSMIN yesterday was a meeting the character of which was a real sense of alignment between the Albanese Government and the Biden Administration. Flowing from that, a sense that there was an opportunity to really do much more between our two countries to put the trajectory of the Alliance on a significant upward lift. And the importance of doing that now is manifest given the precariousness and the complexity of the strategic circumstances that we face. At the heart of what occurred in AUSMIN was really seeking to operationalise the Alliance in a much greater way.
And then today we've had the AUKUS Defence Ministers’ Meeting, it's the first Defence Ministers’ Meeting, as part of the AUKUS arrangements. There is an enormous sense of shared mission and momentum across all three countries, in having Australia acquire a nuclear-powered submarine. And the significance of that step shouldn't be lost on people – there's only been one occasion where a country has shared that capability with another and that was the United States with the United Kingdom a long time ago. This will be the first time that has happened since then, with the United Kingdom and the United States working with each other, and Australia, to have us acquire a nuclear-powered submarine. And that will completely transform our military capabilities, it will completely transform our strategic posture, it really will evolve the character of our nation. And so it is enormously significant.
Today, what was clear from our conversations is that the optimal pathway is now crystallising. And we're on track to being able to make the announcement that we planned in the first part of next year. In both meetings, I really want to take a moment to just thank all the officials who have done so much work over the last few weeks, months, but really over the last couple of years to bring this about. We are indebted to them. And it's all happened in a very short timeframe, but to get to where we are at now is a huge achievement, and they really deserve the thanks of our nation.
JOURNALIST: Secretary Austin yesterday was very emphatic about not allowing Australia to have the capability gap. Does that mean he has offered and be willing to sell or lease submarines to Australia that have been made in America?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, as I said, we'll announce the optimal pathway in the first part of next year. The important step that came out of today's meeting really is that we're on track to being able to do that. As I said, the optimal pathway is now crystallising. I'm grateful, though, for the comment that he made yesterday, because I've said repeatedly that one of the questions that needs to be addressed in the whole process of determining the optimal pathway is dealing with any capability gaps. And again, I've made it clear that what we will announce next year is how we deal with that question, and we're certainly in a position to be able to do that.
JOURNALIST: There was also talk about the B-21, and I know you said you at least found it aesthetically pleasing –
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It is aesthetically pleasing.
JOURNALIST: An impressive piece of machinery. Secretary Austin says you haven't asked, they're waiting to get them operational for themselves. And when we are talking about that capability gap, could it be that gap is plugged, as you put it, either by long range bombers or long range missiles in the interim, if they can be put together faster than the nuclear-powered submarines?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: So the B-21 is definitely a cool looking aircraft but, like we should just remember that literally the Americans have just announced it themselves and are getting it operational, so there's no conversations about B-21s.
Look, pillar two of the AUKUS arrangements is looking at other capabilities, making sure that what the AUKUS arrangements do is have our countries – our three countries – really be much more seamless in the way in which we share information and technology so that we can evolve new technologies as quickly as possible for all three countries. That doesn't go directly to any capability gap in respect of submarines. But it is about trying to enhance our overall military capability.
I think in respect of submarines, we are focused on trying to obviously get a nuclear-powered submarine capability as quickly as possible, I've said that previously. To the extent that there is any capability gap that arises, really by virtue of the last decade in respect of determining where the country goes with submarines, we want to have an answer to that question as well. And I feel confident we'll be in a position to answer that when we make our announcements next year.
JOURNALIST: Just in terms of the cost of the submarines Minister, some estimates, including, I think, the Congressional Budget Office recently suggested that each boat could be seven or eight billion US dollars each. So whatever the final number is, of course, it's going to be enormous, can the government rule out any future special tax increases to pay for the submarines? And more generally, when will the government address the cost of the boats?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the cost of the submarines is something that will form part of the announcements that we make in the first part of next year. That'll be in general terms, because, by definition, we're talking about a very long program, which goes over decades. And as we go through various budget processes, and we're dealing with the next four years, in terms of the forward estimates, you'll see costs associated with this program start to appear in the forward estimates. But a sense of scale will form part of the announcement that we make in the first part of next year.
JOURNALIST: But that's no taxes to account for higher costs in (inaudible)?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: No, I mean the cost of this is something that we have said will be addressed in the announcements that we make in the first part of next year, and that's what we’ll do.
JOURNALIST: And Minister, can I just ask, are there any things out of today's meeting with AUKUS that you can tell us that might be options for deliverables in AUKUS? So, for example, might there be still an option to have a trilateral design of the subs? Or might there be, you know, Japan included in some elements of AUKUS? Or, was there anything announceable out of today?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I know this is deeply unsatisfying – we will be ready to make the announcement on track next year. And, really, that's the most significant thing. As I say the optimal pathway is now crystallising. So we do have a sense. But there's still a process to go through with all of our governments in terms of making the decisions around this and we need to respect that process before we're in a position to make any announcements about what that optimal pathway is.
In respect of Japan, because it’s a question which has been raised, you’ll appreciate there are two pillars to AUKUS - the first is submarines, the second is other technologies. Obviously, Japan is not seeking to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, so it's really in respect of pillar two that we would be talking about Japan. We are working to try and have pillar two in a place where it is actually delivering new capabilities for our three countries. And we're open minded about expanding that in the future. But what we need to do in the here and now is actually get pillar two into a position where it's delivering for the three countries first. And what we're seeking there – I think this is really at the heart of pillar two, and there was one conversation about this – is making sure that there is as seamless an environment as possible in relation to the sharing of information and technology. That we do deal with questions and barriers within all of our systems, which exists at the moment, around military technology and military information so that we can be in a position to be working much more closely together in relation to this and that enables much (inaudible).
JOURNALIST: And just on the three-way design, sorry.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Again, that's a question which goes to what the optimal pathway will be, and that's something we'll announce next year.
JOURNALIST: Emmanuel Macron said somewhat cynically, that AUKUS will never happen. How do you feel about that comment in light of your meetings over the last few days?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, all I can say is that having gone through the last two days, but obviously not just the last two days since, really, coming to government more than six months ago, there is an enormous amount of work which is being undertaken. We’re not, by any means, taking for granted the scale of the challenge here. I mean, this is a huge endeavour that the nation will be pursuing. I mean, I’ve had the opportunity of visiting Barrow in England, which is where the Brits make their nuclear submarines. And on Monday, I went to one of the facilities, Electric Boat in Rhode Island to see the Americans doing their work as well, in building Virginia class submarines. This is a huge endeavour that we are embarking on. When you see those facilities operating, you realise exactly what we are trying to achieve here. So not for a moment do we take it for granted. There is an awful lot of work that we need to do, but it's doable. And it's doable in a context where there is a real sense of shared vision and momentum, which was very evident in the room today.
JOURNALIST: There was a notable difference in tone and specificity between the Australian and American delegations yesterday out of the meeting. Although Australia spoke about general geopolitical risks in the Pacific, America named China as the cause. And then the joint statement, again, named China as something that was of concern. Was that a deliberate tactic by the Australians to not name China? And is there pressure from the American side for you to call China out more explicitly?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: There’s no pressure. Australia is pursuing its own strategic policy and its own foreign relations and its own diplomacy. We've been pretty clear about all of that. I mean, we have seen China seek to shape the world around it in a way that we've not really seen before over the last five to 10 years. And that does present challenges for Australia, we've said that repeatedly. We've talked about the fact that China is engaging in the most significant military build-up of any country since the end of the Second World War. That's something that we have talked about. And obviously they are factors in shaping the strategic landscape in which Australia exists. But, it's not the only factor. And ultimately, what we're trying to do is put Australia in the best possible position by which it can navigate the world. Now we seek to stabilise our relationship with China, we want a better relationship with China, we've made that clear too. And we value a productive relationship with our biggest trading partner. I mean, all of those things are consistent with what I've just said. It speaks to the complexity of the relationship which exists with China, again a comment that we've made repeatedly.
But ultimately, what we're doing here is trying to make sure that Australia is a confident, empowered country, which is able to determine its course in the world, in circumstances where we do face a very complex and precarious strategic circumstances. That goes to the announcements that we made yesterday in relation to greater force posture cooperation with the United States, and we are heading off to Japan tonight, we'll be talking to the Japanese about that as well. It goes to the work that we're doing through AUKUS in terms of providing Australia with a nuclear-powered submarine capability.
JOURNALIST: Just on the technology barriers that you mentioned, dealing with the technology barriers. The statement yesterday was pretty vague about what that looked like, has the US side actually explained to you what concrete actions they will take to deal with issues like ITAR that will otherwise present problems for AUKUS?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It's a good question, and there's been a lot of conversation about it. It's been a big topic for us over the last couple of days, as it was when I was here in July. I’d make a couple points: firstly, at the highest levels of policymaking, speaking with Secretary Austin, Secretary Blinken, but also in the conversations that we've had with the White House, conversations that have been had with Congressional leaders, there is I think a unanimity of purpose in wanting to create the kind of seamless environment that I've described, where information and technology can be shared much more freely between our two countries. Not for a moment do we underestimate the complexity of bringing that about within the American system. And so we've, I think, got really good indications from the Americans about their desire to work on this and work on this with vigour. And we will just keep pursuing this with them. But it's a very important step for both our countries – well for all three countries really – to take. And I should just say, it's not all on the American side, either. I mean, that can be a trap to fall into to focus on that, but we've got to make sure that we're getting our own house in order in respect to this. And I know that the UK feel the same.
JOURNALIST: Just on that, is that enough for you, though? I know you said the other day that desire and goodwill and purpose on this is kind of a bit useless if it's not happening quickly enough? Like, do you feel they are dealing with it urgently enough to kind of get through those barriers?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I do, is the answer to that question, and again, it's a good question to ask. But I take encouragement out of the last couple of days, in what has been said to us, that we will see movement here.
JOURNALIST: Yesterday we had the announcement that there's going to be increased troop rotations and more of a US presence in Australia, that seemed to be a reiteration on last year's pledge. Was there an increase in the previous year that we just didn't know about? Or is it something we're still waiting to come on track?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I guess, again good question because it was one that was asked yesterday. I mean there has been, I think, a growing engagement with American presence in Australia, and we want to expand it. Certainly, expanding force posture cooperation was a key outcome of the AUSMIN meeting, and we hope it will be a key outcome of our meeting tomorrow in Japan. And it's really important that we're able to take to the meeting in Japan the outcome from yesterday, which in essence is an invitation from Australia and the United States to Japan to do more force posture cooperation with us. But you've seen a growing – I mean, the Marine rotation in Darwin has continued to grow, we've seen aircraft, across the domains progress being made. And the discussions that we had yesterday within AUSMIN, in terms of this question, was looking at doing this across all three domains. And so that's very important (inaudible). Thank you.
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