Panel discussion, Seoul Defence Dialogue 2023

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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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18 October 2023

SUBJECTS: Visit to Republic of Korea; Indo-Pacific; Australia-China relationship.

MODERATOR: I’d like to invite our speakers to make a brief initial remark on how they view the current state of international affairs in this region, the Indo-Pacific? Deputy Prime Minister Marles, the microphone is yours.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thank you and can I start by saying how honoured I am to be here at the Seoul Defense Dialogue and to acknowledge my fellow panellists. It does feel like I’m sitting here among very distinguished company. As we meet, obviously we are seeing the world go through enormous turmoil. I think all of our hearts are breaking for the unfolding tragedy in Israel and Palestine. The appalling attacks that we saw on Israel from Hamas and what is now unfolding, as Israel exercises its right to defend itself and move against Hamas. And this is happening while the war in Ukraine still continues, which is itself an affront to the global rules-based order. As we are watching one country, in Russia, seeking to impose itself on a smaller neighbour. Not by reference to any rule of law, but simply by reference to power and might. And what I think this tells us is that global rules-based order is under pressure and we live in a much more connected, globalised world. So when the global rules-based order is under pressure in one part of the world, it effects everybody else, no matter where they live in the world. And I think we see these conflicts reverberate around the globe and they obviously have relevance for us in the Indo-Pacific. To me though, the critical lesson coming out of this is the complexity of the strategic circumstances that we face in the Indo-Pacific when we see the global rules-based order being under the pressure that it is, and also the great power competition we are seeing play out in the Indo-Pacific. That is happening in a context where we have seen very significant build-up of military capability which is changing the strategic landscape while the global rules-based order is being challenged in that context. And so, for Australia, we really have three key responses to this in terms of playing our role in the region, but also of convening our own national security in the context of this situation.

The first is that as an island country which is heavily dependent on trade, we are deeply invested in the global rules-based order. In ideas such as freedom of navigation, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And so we see that our national interest lies in the maintenance and the assertion of the global rules-based order, which does lead us to having an interest in a way I wouldn’t have imagined a decade ago, in the conflict which is playing out in Ukraine. But freedom of navigation, the global rules-based order as it is given expression in the Indo-Pacific is utterly central to Australia’s national interest, to Australia’s way of life.

Secondly, we believe that we need, in a military sense, to be more capable as a nation. To be able to bring more capability to bear and to do that in a way which serves to provide balance and deterrence within our region. In building that capability we seek to do it in a way which is transparent. Transparent in terms of the capability we are acquiring, such as a nuclear-powered submarine capability, and working with the United Kingdom and United States. But also in terms of where our strategic intent lies. Earlier this year we published the Defence Strategic Review which made clear what our strategic intent is about, which is effectively providing for the collective security of the region in which we live and to assert the global rules-based order within that region.

And thirdly, and finally, we see that our national interest now and the security of the region requires, and needs the building and investing in relationships. As I look around this room now, there are many people here who I’ve spent significant time with since we came to power in May of last year. And I could say in relation to a whole range of countries who are sitting here now, there has never been a point in time where our interests demand that we are closer to the countries of this region than now. And so investing in those relationships and investing in the defence-to-defence dialogue inherit in those relationships, we see as profoundly important. Because ultimately the defence of Australia, given our dependence on sea lines of communication, doesn’t really mean that much unless we have a peaceful region in which we live. Any adversary to Australia can do a whole lot of harm without having to set foot on our shores. So we see that our national interest and our national security lies well beyond our borders, it lies in the collective security of the Indo-Pacific and that is at the heart of our strategic intent.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much for your enlightening explanation of Australia’s position. As you mentioned, I think we are facing a very complicated international situation nowadays, and I think Australia has been playing a very important role in collaboration with other countries in shaping the future direction of international order in this region. I’d like to invite your view about the current state of the US-China tension, or competition and how do you evaluate the current state of intensifying competition between those two big countries, and will there be any way of mediating an arms race, or military tension between those two powers? And what is your end state of the Indo-Pacific as a whole region for the future?

MARLES: It is right to observe that we are seeing great power competition play out in the region, as you’ve said. I think it’s really important in that context that the quality of the dialogue, the diplomacy, the guardrails – if I could put it that way – is as excellent as it can be. We need the greatest possible communication between the United States and China so there is no miscalculation and there are no mistakes. I think that’s the first point. And we do take heart from the meeting that occurred between President Xi and President Biden at the end of last year where there did seem to be an appreciation of the need to improve the discussion, put that kind of dialogue in place and to establish the way in which communication occurs so there is no miscalculation. I think, from Australia’s point of view, at the heart of our national security is our Alliance with the United States. We will continue to encourage the United States to be as engaged as possible in the east Asian time zone and in the Indo-Pacific. And we see that as being really important in terms of the collective security of the Indo-Pacific. So it remains a very key part of, if you like, our advocacy to the United States and the context of our alliance with the United States In terms of China, since coming to power we’ve sought to stabilise our relationship with China. We value a productive relationship with China. China is our largest trading partner. China has been very central to a long period of almost uninterrupted growth in Australia. And so we understand the economic connection and the economic benefit associated with trading with China and we want to have that stable relationship. Before the end of the year we will see the Australian Prime Minister make a visit to China, and that’s a really significant step forward in the relationship given where it was just 18 months ago, which was not in a great place. In a sense I think, what we have tried to do in terms of stabilising the relationship with China, which is to be very cleared eyed as well about the fact that we still see China as a source of security anxiety, we have differences with China and we need to have the courage to be able to express our national interest in the face of those differences, but in the context of that working with China where we can, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do. And we hope that is something of a model in terms of working with China going forward. The final and obvious point is however the great power competition is going to play out, we all need to be working as hard as we can to using the agency we do have to see that competition plays out in a way which is peaceful. Because the alternative doesn’t bear thinking. But we do have agency as countries within the region. So, encouraging this process to play out in a way which is peaceful has got to be centre in how all of us are engaging with the great powers and engaging with the region.


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