Radio interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM

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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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25 August 2023

SABRA LANE, HOST: Australia's Defence Minister Richard Marles is in the Philippines to watch the first joint exercises involving 1,200 Australian military personnel with their Filipino counterparts. The Albanese Government is weighing up conducting joint naval patrols with Filipino forces in the disputed waterways in the South China Sea. China’s built artificial islands there and militarised them. And recently it used so called grey zone tactics, action just below the threshold of armed conflict, to stop the Philippines from resupplying provisions to a ship it grounded nearly 20 years ago to mark its territory. Mr Marles joined me earlier.

Mr Marles, thanks for talking to AM. First off, Yevgeny Prigozhin is reportedly dead. Do you believe that? And what's your information about how the plane was brought down?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, look, I don't have any more information than what's in the public domain. I mean, I've obviously seen what's been in the reports of the international media over the last 24 hours but I don't have any more information than that. No doubt there'll be more said about all of this, but I think this just reminds us, and particularly given yesterday was the Independence Day of Ukraine, about the extent of Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine and the need for us to be supporting Ukraine in this moment.

LANE: To your trip, you're now in the Philippines to watch the first exercises between Australian and Filipino troops with your counterpart and also the Philippines President. But this sounds like it could lead to joint naval patrols through the disputed waters of the South China Sea, is that right?

MARLES: Well, we certainly are interested in doing more work with the Philippines in terms of joint sails and more work in the maritime domain together. This really came out of my visit here earlier in the year, in February, where in the context of a very significantly growing defence relationship between our two countries, we saw that doing joint sails between our navies was a step that would be useful for both of our countries and in both of our national interests. So that's certainly a path that we're keen to walk down and we hope to see more of that, more of that soon.

LANE: The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, will also visit the Philippines next month. He's the first PM, Australian PM to do so in [six] years. And, as you say, this is your second visit to the country. All of this says something about Australia's priorities?

MARLES: Well, it definitely does in the sense of prioritising our near region in terms of our diplomacy and you've seen a lot of that in terms of the visits that we've done in the Pacific, but amongst ASEAN countries. The Philippines itself is a country with whom we've had a very long relationship, actually a very strong personal to personal relationship, in the sense that there's a very large Filipino Australian community, something like 400,000 strong, which is one of the largest Filipino diasporas in the world. I think that has underpinned an understanding of each other, a sense of affection, really, between the two countries. But we are now seeing a strategic dimension to the relationship and in that sense we are more strategically aligned, we see a greater strategic alignment between our two countries, than we perhaps ever have in our history. And that is being reflected in much greater cooperation between our defence forces and a much more ambitious agenda in relation to that. We're seeing that today with Indo-Pacific Endeavour and Exercise Alon, but also in the joint sails that we're planning.

LANE: China used water cannon to try and stop the Philippines from resupplying one of its own deliberately stranded ships in the South China Sea recently. Australia had planned exercises with the US and Japan in the South China Sea this week. Did they go ahead or were they postponed because of this?

MARLES: Well, they're not related. Yes, we had planned activities with Japan, Philippines and America and we did actually conduct a joint sail with Japan and the Philippines. The American vessel didn't take part because they were dealing with a humanitarian issue. In terms of the other incident to which you referred, again, without going into commenting on it specifically, what we see as being fundamental is the maintenance of the global rules-based order in this region, that includes the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, we need to see that being maintained. And as part of that, you know in 2016, the international arbitral award, which made clear the Philippines rights in the West Philippine Sea, is highly significant. We obviously support that arbitral decision and that forms part of the backdrop here. It's also really important, Sabra, that when countries are interacting, they do so in a professional way. And I think that's a point that needs to be made in this context as well.

LANE: You can make that point, but in considering these joint patrols through the South China Sea, increased activity surely brings increased risk of misunderstanding that everyone might come to regret?

MARLES: Well, as I say, it's very important that when there are interactions between navies on the high seas that that occurs in a professional way. That's a point that we've consistently made. But our interest, Australia's interest, lies in the rules-based order being maintained on the high seas in this part of the world. We should never forget that most of our trade, most of Australia's trade goes through the South China Sea. And that is obviously an interest which is shared by the Philippines, which goes to the strategic alignment that both of our countries now see us having. And I think it is important to understand that coming out of the Defence Strategic Review, we really do conceptualise that our national security and national interest lies beyond our borders. It really does lie in this part of the world. That's because a whole lot of damage can be done to Australia before any potential adversary setting foot on our shores and maintaining the rules-based order in Southeast Asia, maintaining the collective security of Southeast Asia, is fundamental to maintaining the national security of our country and that's why we're engaged here. And, yes, there is risk, but it's really important from the perspective of our country that we are involved in the assertion of the UN Convention and the Law of the Sea in these waters.

LANE: To another matter, News Corp says that you were personally consulted over a decision to stop publishing where politicians are flying on VIP flights during the same time that you ran up $3.6 million for these flights. Is that right?

MARLES: Well, all we've done in terms of the reporting is taken the advice that we've been given in relation to our own security. And we did do a security review about making sure that the information that is put into the public domain is not compromising any person in relation to disclosing patterns of life and behavior and that's a standard assessment that's made in relation to national security. But we are being very clear–

LANE: But during a cost of living crisis, sorry, do you think the public are going to stomach the lack of transparency? You once mocked Bronwyn Bishop for using a helicopter to fly to your hometown of Geelong.

MARLES: Well, I think flying in a helicopter from Geelong to Melbourne to attend a political fundraiser is a very different question to the travel of which I've been a part. And every trip I've ever taken has been in accordance with guidelines. It's all been taken in accordance with pursuing my work as Defence Minister, as the Deputy Prime Minister and, on occasions, as the Acting Prime Minister. And that work has, at its heart, our national interest. In the context of being Defence Minister clearly a lot of our interest lies beyond our shores. It is an outward looking portfolio and it does require engagement overseas. And I don't see there being any criticism in respect of a particular trip that I've taken or activity that I've taken that shouldn't have occurred. All of this is about being promoting Australia's interests in Southeast Asia, in the Pacific, negotiating the optimal pathway by which Australia would acquire nuclear-powered submarines under the banner of AUKUS, these all go to questions of Australia's national interest.

LANE: Mr Marles, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you.

MARLES: Thanks Sabra.


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