Press Conference - Singapore, Shangri-La Dialogue

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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4 June 2023

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: This has been a really important Shangri-La dialogue for Australia, of course, because our Prime Minister provided a keynote address. And I would like to begin by just thanking John Chipman, Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in convening this year's Shangri-La Dialogue, but also the work that he's done, over the course of 30 years in convening the IISS, it has made a huge contribution to global affairs and to diplomacy.

And I'd also like to thank my good friend, Dr. Ng Hen, the Defense Minister for Singapore and through him the government of Singapore and hosting us here because they've done an amazing job in providing hospitality to us in what is a remarkable country.

The Prime Minister's comments on Friday night, his speech, which outlined the fact that our region has its own agency, that we can create our own destiny and our own security, the importance of establishing within that guardrails and dialogue so that we have under that underpinning of diplomacy, which can create pathways for peace. These ideas have really set the tone for the entire discussion and dialogue which has happened during the course of the Shangri-La Dialogue over the last three days. I think it's a very important statement from Australia, about our strategic intent and purpose and our place in this region and the world.

Over the course of the last three days, I've met with 15 defence ministers formerly and many others, informally on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue. In that sense, it's been a unique opportunity for me to share Australia's perspectives with defence ministers from the region and around the world, including, of course, Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, from the United States, Ben Wallace, from the United Kingdom, Yasukazu Hamada, from Japan to mention quite a few. And it's been a very important process in respect of that. I also had the opportunity yesterday of meeting for the first time with my Chinese counterpart, General Li Shangfu.

This time last year, I met with my then counterpart, General Wei Fenghe which was the first ministerial level meeting between Australia and China and three years. And General Li and I both observed that over the course of the last 12 months, we've seen numerous other ministerial level meetings happen, we've seen Australia's Foreign Minister and our Trade Minister both visit Beijing. We saw Prime Minister Albanese meet President Xi in person in November. This has yielded real outcomes. A lot of our trade has now been put back in place. And importantly, from a national security perspective, we've seen the formal commencement of dialogue between Australia and China recommence. This is all a very positive set of developments in terms of stabilizing our relationship with China and both General Li and I, were committed to seeing that process continue, so that that stabilization happens even further. I made clear to General Li that in Australia requiring a nuclear-powered submarine capability, we would adhere to all our obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a point that we have repeatedly made to the region into the world since we announced the optimal pathway to acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine capability back in March. We also made clear in our meeting with General Li that the importance of interactions between our respective militaries, happening in a manner which is both professional and safe is really important. It's really important that as these interactions occur, they do so in a manner which is safe, so that there are no misunderstandings. There are no miscalculations, and there are no accidents. And really important to that is the need to make sure that we have dialogue so that there is a clear sense of what our strategic purpose and intent is in every step that we take. And that was made completely clear in the meeting that occur.

Over the course of the last few days, what we have been trying to make clear to the region and to the world, is that Australia's interest in terms of our improvements of our defence capabilities is around playing our part in contributing to the collective security of the Indo-Pacific and the maintenance of the rules based order, and in doing that, we see diplomacy, which is evidenced by the Shangri La dialogue has been absolutely central and on the leading edge of our engagement with the world. And we will always first and foremost seek to use diplomacy to create pathways for peace.

JOURNALIST: China has been pushing that public- (Inaudible) – AUKUS, it is clearly something that irritates them. How do you explain the need for Australia to apply that sort of capability?

MARLES: Well, our acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine capability is about Australia playing its part in helping contribute to the collective security of the Indo-Pacific. And we do that by the provision of balance, but central to the idea of that is making sure that there is transparency around our strategic intent. And that's why this is so important as an opportunity and the Shangri-La Dialogue to explain to the region and the world about what our motives are, why we seek to improve our capability and what it's for. In my comments today in the plenary, I make clear that we see Australia being an active participant in regional security, in balance and in ensuring peace within our region is at the very heart of why we have a defence force, and why we have defence capability. And so that is why we are acquiring this capability. It does contribute to regional balance, but it is doing so in a way where there is strategic reassurance being provided to our neighbours and the world, and that includes China.

JOURNALIST: I just have a question about Ukraine, if that's okay? Have you had any fresh requests for equipment, especially advanced military equipment that's capable of distant precision strikes? Are you considering these requests? Are you considering sending any aid?

MARLES: So I won't go into the specifics of the request. But the answer question is, yes, we have received requests. But we have really been in an ongoing dialogue with the Government of Ukraine now, since the moment that Russia engaged in its illegal invasion of Ukraine. The starting point here is that we see what's at issue in the war in Ukraine is really the sanctity of the global rules based order itself. And as we've watched, Ukraine's inspiring resistance to this Russian aggression, obviously, those fighters are fighting on behalf of their country. But in many respects, because the global rules based order is at stake, they are there on our behalf as well. And we really see that. We made clear to the Ukrainian Minister, who I met during the course of the last few days, that Australia is proud to be one of the largest non-NATO contributors in support of Ukraine, one of the largest military contributors from the Indo-Pacific in support of Ukraine. And that we will continue to be that for as long as it takes for Ukraine to resolve this conflict on its own terms. Now, there, there are specific requests that Ukraine have made of us, I am not going to go into the details of those, but we are working through them with the Government of Ukraine. But to what I've just said, is that being there for as long as it takes means that we will have another iteration of support for Ukraine, that won't be long before we announce that, obviously, we're in conversation with Ukraine about how we can best contribute, as we are in a conversation with both the UK, the US and other allies about how best the kind of contribution we could make with coordinated and complement what they are doing as well.

JOURNALIST: In the plenary earlier, you took a question on the floor, you said, you know, perhaps trying to cut off a level of strategic- (inaudible )- and Prime Minister has talked about dealing directly with China. Have you asked China what that build-up is for and f not have you looked at (inaudible)?

MARLES: Well, again, I'm not going go into the specifics of the conversations that I have with General Li. But I would observe that conversations of this kind- dialogue which, as I say, commenced this time last year, between our government and the Chinese government- are really important in terms of giving explanation for both our strategic intent and hopefully, that of China. And so, we are trying to make sure that those conversations happen and that dialogue, I think is really important in terms of building confidence. And that's why the stabilization of the relationship is so important.

JOURNALIST: Given that General Li has said, effectively to the world, mind your own business when asked about the freedom of navigation operations and conduct, does that concern you? And how are you going to manage this?

MARLES: Well, firstly, the UN Convention on the Law of Sea is profoundly important in terms of its place in the global rules based order. Freedom of navigation for a trading country, like Australia, is absolutely essential to our national interests. And so we stand for the idea that there should be freedom of navigation on the high seas. And we obviously welcome the efforts of countries which Australia engages in as well, that assert the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But even where there are circumstances, where countries have a disagreement about that, and militaries interact, is so important that that interaction happens in a safe and professional way. So that we do not see miscalculation, and we do not see accidents. Obviously, an accident in that context would be a disaster. And dialogue is an important element to making sure that there is no misunderstanding and there are no accidents.

JOURNALIST: Minister, will you ask the Department of Defence to review Ben Roberts- Smith’s, Victoria Cross at all?

MARLES: I'm not going to go into the specifics of an individual and or that specific question. Let me just say this in relation to that issue, which obviously has gained a lot of attention, understandably, in Australia in the last few days. The Brereton Report is a hugely significant document. Given the appalling nature of the allegations which are contained within it, it is really important that the recommendations of that report are implemented to the fullest possible extent. And from the moment we came to government, we made clear that our attitude in respect of the Brereton Report would be to implement these recommendations to the fullest possible extent, that is absolutely essential in terms of the standing of our country, and to do anything else would be for us to be judged by history.

JOURNALIST: Question inaudible

MARLES: I actually met Prime Minister Marape earlier in the week, in Korea. The agreement that we're seeking to strike with PNG is very important, I think, for both countries. And we both felt that in the bilateral meeting that we had earlier in the week. We’re pretty confident about being able to complete that agreement that we've worked through the details of that with PNG. But, you know, we've been security partners of PNG, really, from the moment of its independence. And we stand ready to be providing that assistance to PNG in an ongoing way, which is something that I think they very much know.

JOURNALIST: Can I circle back to Ukraine- it is a double-barrelled one. Australian staff still coming to terms of the embassy? Is there any reason for that? And secondly, if you’re Ukraine, this is really urgent, did you get a sense of urgency- inaudible.

MARLES: Well, just to your first question; obviously, there's just an assessment of the security situation there and I will let those who are doing that assessment do their work in terms of informing us on the appropriate decision around that.

Obviously, there is an urgency, which is playing out in Ukraine right now. But that's why we have made the contributions that we have. And at a significant level of that- it's acknowledged by Ukraine and across Europe that Australia is really punching above its weight, in terms of the support that we are providing Ukraine. Now all the support that we've provided to Ukraine has been done on the basis of an agreed scheduled delivery, which I'm not going to go into for obvious security reasons. But that schedule of delivery is on track- met me make that clear. And in thinking about the next iteration of support that we can provide to Ukraine, we are very mindful of the need to see support provided in a timely manner. That was something that we discussed in the bilateral that I had with Minister Oleksii Reznikov over the last couple of days.

JOURNALIST: What was General Li's view of Prime Minister Albanese speech?

MARLES: We didn't go into the specifics of Prime Minister Albanese’s speech. But I would say that General Li and I both agreed that we had walked a significant journey over the course of the last 12 months that dialogue between our two countries was in both of our national interests. And that's particularly because there are difficulties and complexities in the relationship. It's precisely when things aren't all agreed that you need to have diplomacy in order to navigate those borders. And we both understood the principle of that. Underpinning this, as is an important point, Australia does value a productive relationship with China- a point that we constantly reiterate, I think that was understood by Generally Li. Now there are a whole range of issues, some of which I've described in this press conference now that we continue to seek to work through with China, and not for a moment do I think that they are easily dismissed because they're not, and they will take time to work through. But having a dialogue in place is far better than not having a dialogue in place. And stabilizing our relationship, I think is critically important for Australia's national interest. And I think the Chinese.

JOURNALIST: You met Japanese Minister Hamada.

MARLES: I did.

JOURNALIST: While Australia is normalising its relationship with China, why Japan is increasingly becoming important security partner for Australia?

MARLES: Well, Japan is becoming a really important security partner for Australia. And I had a fantastic meeting with Minister Hamada. He and I are becoming really good friends, actually. We've met numerous times in the course of the last 12 months. And I would say that when you look at the trajectory of our relationship with Japan- and it starts from a very good place, I mean, we've had a long and enduring relationship with Japan, which has been underpinned by a high degree of affection, but we have never been more strategically aligned than we are now. There has never been a greater will, I think, on both sides to see cooperation happen between our two countries in terms of national security, there's always been a very strong economic relationship, but in terms of national security, we have signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement at the beginning of last year, and that's working its way through both of our systems that will be enforced shortly. And that's now being- well that is underpinning an increased tempo of exercises between Australia and Japan, which is really welcomed to see. We see Japan as an indispensable partner for our future, and in what is a troubled and complex world, we see that our relationship with Japan is something which provides us with a significant source of security.


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