23 May 2023
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The Quad’s pursuit of an open and free. Indo-Pacific has followed the Prime Minister home with his Indian counterpart arriving in Sydney overnight. While Narendra Modi will be welcomed by members of the Indian diaspora later tonight, he's seeking to take the relationship with Australia to the next level. So, what is that next level? Richard Marles is the Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister and he's our guest this morning. Deputy Prime Minister, welcome to the program.
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Patricia. How are you?
KARVELAS: Good, thank you. From Australia's perspective, what does taking the relationship to the next level look like practically?
MARLES: Well, I think we have a greater strategic alignment with India today than we really have at any point in both of our countries’ histories. And it really does afford the opportunity to take the relationship to the next level, as Prime Minister Modi has said. And this is a real opportunity for us because this year India becomes the largest country in the world by population. It is a growing, massive economy. There are great opportunities for us and in a security sense, we do both share values and share strategic alignment. We have a real investment together in the rules of the international road, the global rules-based order. We share an ocean. We want to see open trade occurring in all of that. And so we really do have a joint interest in cooperating. So, trade is obviously an area, in a practical sense, where we want to see more occur and that builds on a lot which has occurred over the last few years. In defence, again, we've been really growing the defence relationship, having much greater tempo of exercises, building interoperability, giving much greater access to our facilities for both countries, and we want to see that continue.
KARVELAS: We know that friends need to be honest with each other and there are many issues that are being raised on our text line and more broadly about India. Russia is India's largest arms supplier. India still hasn't condemned or criticised Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Are you confident India is strategically aligned with Australia and will you raise these concerns?
MARLES: We are confident that India is strategically aligned with Australia. India is a democracy with whom we share values. That's the fundamental principle. And we share an interest in having a free and open Indo-Pacific and we are working very closely together to see that happen. And when you look at India's view of the region, it very much accords with our own and we find ourselves having conversations about the region where really we are as one. And that's why we would say we are strategically aligned, and strategically aligned off the basis of shared values. And I think actually underpinning all of that is a large degree of affection.
KARVELAS: But you haven't gone to the other issue, though, there are calls to raise the discrimination faced by Muslims and other minorities in India. The US is expected to address it when Mr Modi visits Washington, DC. Later this year. Will Australia raise it?
MARLES: Well, I'm not about to go now into all that will be spoken about when our Prime Minister meets Prime Minister Modi tomorrow. I think the fundamental point that we want to make is that we do have a strategic alignment based on a sense of shared values. I mean, ultimately, we are both democracies, and that very much underpins the way in which we see the world, and why we have an interest in building the relationship.
KARVELAS: But is it the right thing to do to raise those concerns?
MARLES Well, we have a very deep and open relationship with India, but I'm not about to go into all of those elements now. I'm sure that there will be a full conversation that both Prime Ministers have tomorrow, but we want to emphasise India is a democracy. It's a country with whom we share values. And we do want to see a much bigger growth in the way in which we engage with each other at both a military level and in terms of our trade.
KARVELAS: Last night you gave a speech saying Australia must confront the inconvenient truths about China. What are those inconvenient truths?
MARLES: Well, the point I was really making is that China is is a very complex country, and our relationship with China is obviously correspondingly complex. And it's not a relationship which can be defined with simplistic platitudes. I think if you wind the clock back a year or more, we had a debate in this country which was pretty simplistic and didn't take into account all the nuance of what is a very complex situation. And we need to embrace all of that. We really need to look at the entire picture when it comes to China. I mean, China is a huge opportunity for our country, and it remains, as such, being our largest trading partner. That fact has been at the heart of our economic growth over a number of decades, and we've all been beneficiaries.
KARVELAS: But you also mentioned the massive military expansion of China and that's clearly threatening regional security. How much does that worry you?
MARLES: Well, correct, and this is really the point I'm trying to make. On the one hand, there are all the benefits that come from the economic cooperation that we have. There is, as you say, a very significant military build-up that we've had with China, and it is having an impact on the shape of our region, and indeed the world. And that is a fact of the relationship as well. And so all of these need to be taken in combination. And where that leads us to is that we want to work with China and we will agree with China and work with them where we can, but we will also disagree with China where we must. And that's really the only way you can go about it.
KARVELAS: Is that build-up so serious, Richard Marles, that it keeps you up at night? Is it that serious that it actually keeps you up at night and worries you?
MARLES: Well, I think the way I'd answer that question is that it is the most significant. Well, it's the largest conventional military build up that we've seen by any country in the world since the end of the Second World War.
KARVELAS: And what does that mean for us?
MARLES: Well. a build up of that size happens for a reason. You don't do that for –
KARVELAS: What’s the reason?
MARLES: Well, and again, this is one of the issues. The way in which that build-up has happened has not been done with transparency, in the sense that China has not sought to give a sense of assurance to the region and the world about the motives behind its build-up.
KARVELAS: What do you think the motives are then?
MARLES: Well, just to complete that point, we are also trying to increase our military capability. But what accompanies that is a huge effort on our part to speak with the region about exactly what our motives are and what our strategic intent is. And that is to play our part in providing for the collective security of the region, to play our part in maintenance of the global rules-based order. We're not seeing that kind of strategic reassurance being provided by China –
KARVELAS: No, it's not. And what do you think the motive is?
MARLES: Well, what I think we're seeing is China, certainly over the last decade, and I made this point last night, shaping the world around it in a way that it's not done before. I mean, the South China Sea is an example of that –
KARVELAS: But what is it seeking to achieve?
MARLES: Well, the point really is we can have a long conversation about that and you'll get different views on it. But the real point is this: it engages our interest. If you look at the South China Sea, for example, that is a body of water which matters deeply to us. Why? Because most of our trade goes through the South China Sea. And yes, a lot of that trade is to China itself. But all of our trade to Japan, all of our trade to Korea, two of our top five trading partners, goes through the South China Sea. So, we as a nation are deeply invested in the rules of the road, applying there – freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea matters to Australia and our way of life, our prosperity, as it applies in the South China Sea and, of course, everywhere else. That is what is part of how we are seeing a much more complex strategic landscape which we need to posture for. And that's what we're doing. And that's at the heart of the Defence Strategic Review, the government's response to it. It is why we seek to have, for example, long range nuclear-powered submarines.
KARVELAS: Richard Marles should the Prime Minister go to China if the trade bans haven't been removed?
MARLES: I don't think it's about going through a set of conditionalities –
KARVELAS: Why not?
MARLES: Because what we're trying to do with China, and really, this is the whole of this conversation, it is complex and it is difficult. People want to try and make something which is very complex and difficult more simple. It just isn't. What we are trying to do is to stabilise the relationship. As I say, we will work with China where we can, we will disagree with them where we must. That is the philosophy that we are taking towards –
KARVELAS: Is it stabilised yet?
MARLES: Yes, I think it is more stabilised than it was a year ago, dramatically so.
KARVELAS: But it's not I mean, stabilised in the complete vision you have for where you want it?
MARLES: Well, you can measure that by the kinds of activities which have existed in the past relative to the kinds of activities which exist now. And in that sense, Prime Ministers have visited China in the past. But the point I would really make is this time last year, we had not had a ministerial level visit between Australia and China, or meeting in fact, for more than three years. I met my Chinese counterpart in Singapore just under three years ago. That was the first ministerial level meeting between our two countries in more than three years. And from there we've seen more meetings at a ministerial level, including both the Foreign Minister and the Trade Minister going to China. We've seen Prime Minister Albanese meet with President Xi, and that has been backed up by actual change in the sense that we've restored the defence dialogue. That's really important to make sure that there's not miscalculation between our defence forces, that there's an understanding and we are seeing trade be put back in place.
So, the path to stabilisation is happening. There is a way to go. It's not where the relationship has been in the past, but it is on that path. But all of that takes place in the context of everything else we've just discussed. This is complex and it's difficult and it's why you need an adult and serious government to navigate it, and why the kind of shrillness that we had under the former government was just a kind of hopeless way in which Australia sought to deal with a relationship of this complexity.
KARVELAS: I want to move to an entirely different topic before I say goodbye to you, Deputy Prime Minister. Stan Grant is stepping away from journalism, hopefully temporarily, due to the relentless racist attacks he's faced. Yesterday the ABC News director, Justin Stevens, said these attacks were fuelled by what he described as a relentless campaign from News Corporation. Have you seen that relentless campaign from News Corporation?
MARLES: Well, without commenting on that specifically, I think what I would say in relation to Stan Grant's decision is, firstly, Stan Grant is a wonderful Australian who has made a huge contribution to our public debate, but also to our broadcasting landscape. I think it is of enormous heartache to me and I think to almost every Australian that Stan Grant finds that this is the place that he's at and that he is put in a position of needing to make this decision. We all wish Stan well. Like you, I hope that this is a temporary decision on his part. But to see somebody of his calibre saying what he said and taking the steps that he has, has got to give us all pause for thought about the public debate and the public environment in which we live today in Australia, and particularly the way in which that applies to an Indigenous Australian such as Stan in his circumstance.
KARVELAS: But I asked you specifically about News Corporation. I keep hearing the word trolls, yet Justin Stevens and also Stan Grant have talked about the media's role in this and there were countless references to Stan Grant in News Corporation papers, including the Australian newspaper – full disclosure I worked there for many years. Did you think that was appropriate?
MARLES: I think every news organisation and everybody who contributes to the public discourse, and that includes those who engage in social media, need to do so with a sense of sensitivity about the way – an awareness about what people are saying and the way in which their voice is being heard –
KARVELAS: Have you ever read the comments on those Australian stories? I'm just wondering, have you read the comments?
MARLES: We want an environment which is embracing of every Australian, including our First Nations Australians. And to have a situation where somebody of Stan Grant's experience and calibre is in a position of feeling that this is the only step he can take, has got to give all of us pause for thought. And I think every media outlet needs to be listening and being very thoughtful about this moment in terms of the way in which they engage going forward.
KARVELAS: Do you read the comments on some of those stories?
MARLES: To be honest, I try not to read those comments – partly that's because when you read some, you can see how loathsome they are, I guess.
KARVELAS: Should those newspapers be dealing with the consequences and the commentary? I've read some of them. I've read some of them about myself, too. They're revolting.
MARLES: Yeah, they are revolting. They are revolting. It's an area in an age of social media where there are comments that are posted – well in anyone who engages in social media, I think we all need to do much better. And the answer to the question about why I haven't read all of them is precisely because of the impact which one has when you do read them all. I find it I do find it very troubling is is the short answer to the question. And I think this is a moment in Stan Grant's decision for us all to have a long think about it.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us, Richard Marles.
MARLES: Thanks, Patricia.