15 March 2023
SUBJECTS: AUKUS; Downing of US drone
KARL STEFANOVIC, HOST: The historic AUKUS agreement and the magnitude of the trilateral partnership is really only just being realised. But it's not all positive. China declaring Australia is making a quote “expensive mistake”. To discuss, we're now joined by the Acting PM and Defence Minister, Richard Marles from Avalon in Victoria, who's been a busy boy. Richard, good morning to you. A Russian jet has collided with a drone over the Black Sea. First up this morning, are you anticipating any kind of reaction from that?
RICHARD MARLES, ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, I've seen the reports this morning. I don't have any information that's not in the public domain. It is a very concerning development. What seems clear is that the American drone was operating an international airspace, which it was perfectly entitled to do and was able to do lawfully. You do see interactions between militaries in international airspace on the high seas, but there's an expectation that that happens in a way which is professional and what's clear here is that Russia has not acted in that way. And I think this is another example of Russia simply not playing by the rules of the road. And actually, that's what underpins the whole conflict in Ukraine. That's why it's very important that we continue to stand with Ukraine. But this is a very worrying development and Russia's got some explaining to do.
STEFANOVIC: Back to AUKUS. China is retaliating this morning, saying it's on – this Cold War arms race. How does that sit with our new era of diplomacy?
MARLES: Well, we are focussed on Australia's national interest. I mean, obviously China will speak for itself, but part of the landscape in which we're making this decision is against the backdrop of the biggest conventional military build up that we have seen since the end of the Second World War. Now, that's not Australia doing that. That's what we are seeing within our region. And for us not to come to terms with that, to have an appropriate response to it, is for us to be condemned by history. And we need to be making sure that Australia can be self reliant as a country going forward. That's what we hand on to our kids and our grandkids as a nation and that we're able to keep ourselves safe. So that's why it’s really important that we’re taking the step we are doing.
Speaker A: Understand. You don't care that they're saying that it's the heralding of a new Cold War arms race?
Speaker B: Well, China is going to say what it's going to say. At the end of the day, we're responsible for looking after Australia's national interest. I'll be really clear, China is our largest trading partner. We want to have the best relations we can with China, and we would value a productive relationship with China. So we will continue the process of seeking to stabilise our relationship with China. But that doesn't mean that we don't pursue our own national interest and make sure that we are doing what we need to do to keep Australia safe. And I'd make this point, Karl: we've engaged in an enormous diplomatic effort over the last few months, but particularly the last week. Between the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, myself, the Minister for the Pacific, we've made more than 60 calls to international leaders to explain what we are doing. And at the heart of what we are doing is making Australia's contribution to the regional security, the collective security of our region, and to the maintenance of the global rules-based order within our region. And that's the heart of our intent here.
STEFANOVIC: Okay. How much explaining have you been doing? Malaysia released a pretty ambiguous statement this morning saying that our subs may not be welcome there. For example, with Fiji, I know that the Prime Minister is visiting there on the way home today. When did you give them the details of the deal or did they read it in the paper?
MARLES: No, both countries were – both Fiji and Malaysia, but indeed the entirety of the Pacific, the entirety of ASEAN, our Five Eyes partners and other countries around the world, I mentioned France yesterday as well, were all briefed on what the announcement would be before the announcement was made public. We didn't want there to be any surprises. We wanted countries to understand what we were doing. But just as importantly, we wanted countries to understand why we are doing this. And at the heart of it, as I said, is an idea that the defence of Australia doesn't really mean that much unless we have the collective security of our region. And this is Australia's contribution to that. And we are a country which is really reliant on the rules of the road. We're a trading island nation where so much of what we enjoy and so much of the prosperity in our national income comes from trade. That means sea lanes need to be open. That means the rules of the road need to exist. And we are doing what we can to provide our contribution to the maintenance of that. And I think countries could understand why we're taking the steps we're taking.
STEFANOVIC: I guess we'll see. $3 billion that will come out of the Defence Budget long-term investing in this fund. The greatest criticism of this is it's too expensive. But what is going to get the axe here in terms of the Defence Budget?
MARLES: Well, when we announced the Defence Strategic Review last August, and we did that concurrently with this process, we said that we really needed to look at the shape of our Defence Force in terms of the defence posture we needed, in terms of what we needed our Defence Force to do. And it goes to the sorts of things that I've just described. And I think we need to have a Defence Force in the future which has a much greater capability to project. Submarines help us do that. Submarines help us keep any potential adversary – we are able to hold an adversary at risk much further from our shores. That is projection, and that's why submarines matter. But there are some opportunities for savings. And as we go through the process of announcing the Defence Strategic Review, which we'll do in a month's time, and then beyond that, obviously, the budget, we will outline all of that.
STEFANOVIC: You've done an incredible job behind the scenes, by all accounts, in weaving all of this together, so you’re to be congratulated. They're calling you twinkle toes on the international circuit.
MARLES: No one’s calling me that, Karl. That’s only you. But I definitely appreciate the compliment.
STEFANOVIC: Great job, Minister. Thank you, appreciate it.