Doorstop interview, Washington D.C.

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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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1 November 2023

SUBJECTS: Visit to the United States; US-Australia Alliance; Accelerated delivery of Black Hawk helicopters; AUKUS; Australia-China relationship; South China Sea; Dr Yang Hengjun; Support for Solomon Islands.  

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's great to be here in Washington as part of a two day visit to the United States. This afternoon, I've met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, I met the National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan earlier today. We've also had a meeting of defence industry representatives here at the Embassy over the course of lunch, bearing in mind how significant are the opportunities of working between our two defence industrial bases. Firstly, we are really welcoming of the efforts of the United States in fast tracking Australia's procurement of the Black Hawk helicopters. In fact, Secretary Austin was in Australia as part of AUSMIN when the tragedy which occurred in the Whitsundays, with Australia losing its crew of the MRH-90, occurred. He knows firsthand what it is to see the sacrifice of our Defence Force personnel who wear our nation's uniform. The support we've received from the United States in speeding up the acquisition of the Black Hawks in the face of this and particularly in the face of the Government's decision to ground the MRH-90 fleet is particularly welcome. This will make a difference in ensuring that we move to the new capability as quickly as possible, and that we minimise capability gaps. We had a really good conversation around the progress of AUKUS. This follows, of course, the Prime Minister's visit here last week, which was so significant in terms of the progress of our entire bilateral relationship, but very much the progress of AUKUS. There are lots of dimensions to this, not least of which is the passage of legislation through the United States Congress. And we are really very happy with where that is at. Obviously, we pay appropriate respect to the processes which are still to occur in the United States Congress, but we're very happy with where that legislation is at. I will have the opportunity of meeting representatives from the Senate over the course of tonight and tomorrow. As we meet, we meet at a time where we see all that's playing out in Israel and Gaza, all that’s playing out in the Ukraine. It highlights the volatility that is being experienced in the world right now and the importance of our Alliance with the United States in that context. And that was very much reaffirmed in the meetings I had today.

JOURNALIST: Could you run us through, Minister, the timeframe now for the delivery of the Black Hawks?

MARLES: I’m not going to go into specifics, but the number and timing has been sped up. And that is so as to avoid or to minimise, as much as possible, capability gaps which arise by the grounding of the MRH-90 fleet. I mean, we've been completely clear that it is a capability challenge that we've grounded the fleet and made clear that that we won't be flying again. So the speeding up of this procurement is really important and we are very grateful to America for the steps undertaken.

JOURNALIST: What did you make about Alexander Downer’s comments that AUKUS was a “fairy tale” and “pork barrelling at its finest”?

MARLES: Well, AUKUS I think is a deeply significant arrangement in Australia's Defence history. Firstly, it is the basis upon which Australia is obtaining a nuclear-powered submarine capability, which is the single biggest leap in Australia's Defence capability, arguably, in our history, certainly since the establishment of a Royal Australian Navy. We will be just one of seven countries which operate nuclear-powered submarines. We've never operated at that level in terms of a military capability before. And the AUKUS arrangement is the means by which that is happening. So we attach enormous significance to it and that's reflected in the focus that we've seen from both the United States and United Kingdom governments in their commitment to Australia acquiring this capability. But, you know, not just in terms of submarines, but also building that seamless defence industrial base, which is what underpins much of the legislative package which is in front of the Congress right now and of course was, as you would imagine, a subject of the conversation we had with defence industry players today.

JOURNALIST: So what do you say to Alexander Downer?

MARLES: Well, I mean, I'll say that it is very important for the Australian Government and for the Australian people that the AUKUS arrangement is in place and that we are able to pursue it.

JOURNALIST: Based on your conversations today, how confident are you that the enabling legislation will be passed by the end of this year?

MARLES: Look, I want to be really respectful of the processes that are playing out in the Congress. And, you know, we have approached this with all the respect that you would expect. My answer to that question is we are very happy with where this legislative process is up to. What is really clear from all the engagements that we are having, right across the political spectrum, is the unanimity of view around the importance of the Alliance between Australia and the United States, the importance of the AUKUS arrangements and the importance of Australia acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine capability, and that this be properly underpinned by the legislative framework which is currently before the Congress. If this were to pass, it is a once in a generation change which will see a seamless defence industrial base created between Australia and the United States, which opens so many opportunities for Australian defence industry, and, of course, opportunities for American defence industry companies to operate in Australia.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister pointed to that extra $3.4 billion that the President has requested for the submarine industrial base here as a positive step that would hopefully help convince members of Congress to pass the AUKUS legislation. Is there a risk that that won't get through, given that it's tied to funding for Ukraine which doesn't have unanimous support in the Congress?

MARLES: Well again, we certainly welcome the Administration's efforts here. And I'd agree with the Prime Minister that the supplemental budget which has been proposed by the Administration of $3.4 billion, we see as hugely significant. It's a statement of the Administration's commitment to the objective here of seeing this legislation passed, which in turn is a commitment to the objective of the overall arrangements which are underpinned by AUKUS. As I say, we're been very respectful of the processes that are playing out, but we really couldn't be happier with where those processes are at.

JOURNALIST: In terms of Australia's contribution do you ever see a point in which Australia may need to lift its $3 billion input?

MARLES: We’ve, as part of this process, made clear what Australia's contribution is. It's very significant. Of course, the passage of the legislation obviously enables that contribution to be made. It's a fair contribution in the context of the overall uplift on the industrial base here on the United States and what will of course happen with the development of the industrial base in Australia.

JOURNALIST: Did Secretary Austin give you any personal guarantees today?

MARLES: About the legislation? Legislative processes play out in in in parliaments, in this case the Congress and I’m a parliamentarian so I understand how that works. We didn't seek any personal guarantee. We get there’s a process in place here. What's really clear is that the Administration is doing everything within its power to see this legislation supported. We very much welcome that and we're grateful for it. And we are as happy as we could be with where this process is at.

JOURNALIST: Just on China. Scott Morrison has warned that the Chinese Communist Party could exploit the PM’s visit to Beijing for propaganda purposes. What are your thoughts on that?

MARLES: The Prime Minister's visit to China is a very important step in the stabilising of our relationship between Australia and China, which has been an objective of the Government since the moment that we came to power. It's a complex and challenging relationship. China is the source of our greatest security anxiety and we've made that clear, but that China is also our largest trading partner and we do value a productive relationship with China. And that's why we are seeking to stabilise the relationship with China and in terms of where that has, what has been achieved in that, the level or number of ministerial meetings which are now are occurring. The fact that we've seen a significant amount of trade come back online, what we've seen in the consular space, what we've seen in terms of the re-imitation of the defence dialogue, which is really important to ensure that there are no misunderstandings or miscalculations. These are big steps in terms of stabilising our relationship. The Prime Minister's visit to China is an important part of that.

JOURNALIST: The family of Dr Yang Hengjun has released a letter about his detention. What do you make of the conditions he's being held in and how will the Prime Minister approach this when he's in China?

MARLES: Well again, in terms of consular matters it's important that we– prudent in the way in which we speak about this publicly. We have advocated on behalf of Yang Hengjun on numerous occasions and will continue to do so.

JOURNALIST: A few months ago, joint drills were announced in the South China Sea with the Philippines. When's that going to take place? And has it been delayed because of concerns it might antagonise China?

MARLES: No. Again, I won't go into the specifics but the relationship with the Philippines has been hugely significant in terms of what has occurred this year, both with the Prime Minister's visit and my visit to the Philippines on a couple of occasions. The largest defence exercise that we have undertaken this year outside of Australia has been with the Philippines and indeed it's been the largest bilateral exercise we’ve ever done with the Philippines. The announcements that we have made in relation to continuing to evolve our work with the Philippines continues, it's on track and we look forward to more developments on that being apparent soon.

JOURNALIST: The Solomon Islands Prime Minister says that extra Chinese police officers are being sent to the country ahead of the Pacific Games. Is Australia aware of how many officers are being sent and do you have any concerns about that?

MARLES: Well, again I was in Solomon Islands earlier this year. I mean, we've made clear to the Solomon Islands government that we stand ready to support Solomon Islands in its very significant events being the Pacific Games, but also its election next year in terms of the security and policing effort which needs to occur as part of that. And we will continue to work very closely with the Solomon Islands government in respect of that.

JOURNALIST: You spoke about the Philippines earlier, US President Joe Biden last week, you'd be aware, said that he was willing to use force against China after a recent near-collision in the South China Sea. What would Australia's position be in the event of something like that?

MARLES: Well, what I would say is that it is very important that the global rules-based order is given expression around the world, but in the Indo-Pacific and in Southeast Asia and that includes freedom of navigation. It's also really important that when we see interactions between the various militaries of the region that that occurs in a professional manner. Australia will continue to work closely with our friends in the region to assert freedom of navigation and the global rules-based order within our region, because that is very deeply in Australia's national interest.


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