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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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21 December 2023

SUBJECTS: Australia’s contribution to the Combined Maritime Forces; Red Sea.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, thanks for your time. Will Australia be sending a warship to be a part of the combined effort, Operation Prosperity Guardian?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Kieran. The answer to that question at this point is no, we won't be sending a ship or a plane. That said, we will be almost tripling our contribution to the Combined Maritime Force. Right now, we have five personnel who are embedded in the headquarters of the Combined Maritime Force and over the next month, that number will increase to 16. That is a significant contribution. It's one which is commensurate with likeminded countries, for example, it's more than what Canada is providing. But we need to be really clear around our strategic focus. And our strategic focus is our region in the northeast Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Pacific. What comes from the Defence Strategic Review is an urgency around Australia maintaining a strategic focus on our immediate region and that's what we will do.

GILBERT: Would it have been different if the request had come direct from the White House from the President, or from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, to you?

MARLES: Well, I think the way I'd answer that is that the additional contribution that we are making is greatly appreciated by the United States. We have a very deep dialogue with the United States, they're very clear about the size of our Defence Force, the contributions we make in our region and around the world. And this contribution is equitable, it's proportionate to where we are in the world and the size of our Defence Force. And it's one which is greatly appreciated by the United States. I mean, our strategic focus has to be on our immediate region, that is the call of the Defence Strategic Review, there's an urgency around that call and that's what is embodied in the Government's response to it. And this year, within our region, we've seen us have a very significant tempo of activity in the northeast Indian Ocean, in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. The largest exercise that we've done outside of Australia this year was with the Philippines, our first joint sail with the Philippines, we've got more naval commitments with Korea, we’ve seen greater interaction with Japan, with Indonesia, more P-8 activity in combination with India. This has to be our focus. And this is where we can really make a difference. And to be frank, this is where the international community expects us to do heavy lifting.

GILBERT: The retired Army Chief Peter Leahy wrote today, and I'll read it to you, he says: “we are just now finishing a two decade long and largely unsatisfactory adventure in the Middle East. Let's not begin a new one”. Is this how you see this request?

MARLES: I wouldn't put it quite in those terms. I mean, what is happening in the Red Sea is significant. The Red Sea is really the gateway to the Suez Canal, something like 12 percent of global trade goes through the Suez Canal. There is a genuine issue there which is why we're increasing our commitment to Operation Prosperity Guardian. It is why we're increasing our commitment, significantly, tripling our commitment to the Combined Maritime Force, which will oversee this operation. It's just to say, though, that as events happen around the world, we will participate in them, we will make sure that Australia's flag is there where it meets our national interests, it is what we're doing in Ukraine, for example. But in terms of where our focus needs to be, it has to be in our region. And that's really what comes from the Defence Strategic Review. There's an urgency about that. When we talk about the fact that we face the most complex strategic circumstances that we've had since the end of the Second World War, we are talking about what's playing out in our immediate region. And this is where our national interests principally lies, this is where we can make a difference and this is where the international community, including the United States, expects us to do heavy lifting and so that's what we will do.

GILBERT: The Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham said today the Albanese Government's actions to date are exposing Australia to perceptions of indecisiveness and or inability in our national security. There have been questions as to whether our Navy has appropriate anti-drone capabilities. So can I get you to clear this up, is our Navy up to the task if you did see it in our strategic interest to be a part of it?

MARLES: Well, I mean, we've got a capable Navy. This is a decision not being made on the basis of capability, in that sense, this is a decision being made on the basis of where our strategic focus needs to be. And in answer to the Shadow Minister, nothing would do more to diminish our strategic focus, nothing would do more to undermine a sense of what we are seeking to do in our region, our world, than to dilute, to shift our strategic focus from our immediate region. I mean, what you actually have right now is a clarity of strategic thought which was missing for the decade under the previous government. But now we are clear. We know what we're doing with our Defence Force, we know the purpose of our Defence Force, and there is going to be a focus in relation to that. And there are times at which that means making difficult decisions. This is one of them. And it's not to say that we don't acknowledge the significance of what's happening in the Red Sea, we obviously do, which is why we are tripling our commitment to the Combined Maritime Force. But it is to say that the strategic focus needs to be in our region and we need to have resolve about that, and we can't be distracted from that. And really, when you listen to what the Shadow Minister has said, it is a call to be distracted. Well, that can be where the Liberals are at. It's certainly where they were over the last decade. But it's not where this Government is going to be. We have a clear direction and we are going to stick to it.

GILBERT: Just to clarify though, it’s not because our capability is not there? That it's been run down? That we don't have anti-drone capabilities? That's not true?

MARLES: I think that's not the way to see this decision. I mean, we've been very upfront about the issues that we've inherited– with the surface fleet that we inherited from the former government. And the surface fleet review has examined that and we will be releasing that and giving the Government's response to it very shortly. But this decision I don't think should be taken in that context. I mean, we still have very significant capability within our Navy. This is a decision which is based on where our strategic focus must lie. And it must lie within our immediate region. You know, the resources that we have have to be deployed there. And indeed, we need to be increasing the lethality of our surface fleet. There are a whole lot of recommendations in the service fleet review to that end, but we're already starting that process and that process must continue.

GILBERT: The Coalition has also said, and I'll get you to respond to it because I think it's worth hearing what you think about this assessment, they say it's troubling that “just days after the passage of AUKUS, the legislation in Congress, Australia has turned down an important request from one of our closest allies. The inaction of the Albanese Government makes Australia a less reliable partner and ally.” What do you say to that?

MARLES: Well, that’s patently ridiculous. Firstly, we've not turned down a request, we've met the request. We've met the request by tripling our contribution to the Combined Maritime Force and America greatly appreciates what we have done here. We work really closely with the United States around where our assets, our Navy, but not just our Navy, our Air Force and indeed our Army assets should be located and how we should work with them. And America is very clear about the size of our Defence Force and what those assets are. And it absolutely matters that we maintain a focus on our region. I mean, it is to state the obvious that to take a major asset and put it in the Middle East is to take a major asset away from what we're doing in the immediate region, in areas like the South China Sea and the East China Sea. And that would be a mistake. And that is something that we talk through with the US all the time. So to cast it in that light is pure politics. It is patently ridiculous. But I think the troubling thing in terms of where the Coalition's at in this critique is what it portrays, or what it reveals, is that there is no evolution in where the Coalition's at in terms of actually having a strategic direction for our country and for where our Defence Force should be at. We have experienced a missed decade in terms of the Coalition's management of our national security, our Defence Forces, our foreign policy. And the critique that we're seeing right now just makes it clear that in their current incarnation as this opposition, they have not taken any steps forward in this respect at all.

GILBERT: Last week, Australia voted against the US position at the UN calling in support of a ceasefire. Now not sending a vessel as part of this. Will some in Washington be concerned?

MARLES: No. And again, we need to be clear about what happened a week or two ago. We, in voting the way we did at the UN, also put out a statement making clear that any ceasefire cannot be one sided. We made clear our condemnation of Hamas. We made clear of our position that Israel has a right to defend itself. And we made clear that there needs to be an unconditional release of hostages by Hamas. All of those points were made clear on the statement that we issued with New Zealand and with Canada. In that same resolution, the United Kingdom abstained, and even the United States has made clear its concerns publicly around the humanitarian situation in the Middle East. So I mean, any kind of proper look at what all the countries are saying here makes, really, one thing patently obvious and that is that this is a very complex set of circumstances, that we all bring to bear similar principles in relation to what I've just articulated and that includes the United States. And we really do need to say that in the context of this request that's been made, not just to us, but to a coalition of more than 30 countries, we are making a contribution which is significant, which is commensurate with our size and our place in the world, which is more than other likeminded countries and, this is the important point, is fundamentally appreciated by the United States.

GILBERT: What do you make of the piece in the Global Times, China's state run newspaper, or one of the state run newspapers, it said in its comment that Australia has finally stepped out of the US shadow to call for a ceasefire and could potentially act as a mediator, that opportunity would be lost if it has a military presence in the region, it's sensible for Australia to continue distancing itself from the United States. So the Global Times welcoming our decision not to send a vessel. What's your read on that? Is that perception in Beijing a concern to you?

MARLES: Well, I mean, whatever is being said there is whatever is being said. But it has absolutely no relationship to the decisions that we make. I mean, we’re going to make decisions in Australia's national interest. We're going to make decisions in consultation with our likeminded partners, very much including the United States. We're making a decision to increase our presence in the Combined Military Force– Combined Maritime Force, I should say, the CMF. And that forms part of a presence that we have across the Middle East of, you know, 130, 140 personnel, it varies from time to time, spread across half a dozen or so operations in the Middle East. So we have a presence there. Now we don't seek to overstate that but it is a presence which is very much appreciated by the global community, very much by the United States and is commensurate with our size. But let's be clear, our focus is on our immediate region. Our focus is on making sure that as a nation, we are asserting the global rules-based order within waters in east Asia, within the Indo Pacific, where most of our trade goes. That's what we must do. And the global rules-based order is under pressure in those areas, which is why it is so important that we are maintaining that tempo of activity. Just last week, I welcomed back HMAS Toowoomba, which had been part of a combined force with HMAS Brisbane, HMAS Stalwart, all doing regional deployment missions in our immediate region asserting the global rules-based order. That has to be our focus. And I can tell you that our consultations are with a lot of countries, it ain't with China. Our consultations are with the United States first and foremost and with our likeminded partners.

GILBERT: Just finally, it's something that you've raised with me, with many others over the years, the need to protect trading routes as a trading nation. And part of that is of course the focus on the South China Sea. The Coalition and others are critical because, as you said earlier in our discussion, 12 per cent of the world's trade does come through the Suez Canal. They're saying it's incumbent upon Australia as a trading nation to be protecting that as well. Basically to walk and chew gum at the same time.

MARLES: Yeah, and the answer to that question is we are. We are tripling our contribution to the Combined Maritime Force which oversees this operation. We are absolutely making a contribution here. And it is very important and what we're seeing in the Red Sea is a significant moment. All of that is true. But if we're going to make arguments on the basis of numbers, while 12 per cent of global trade goes through that body of water, most of Australia's trade goes through the South China Sea, most of it. You look at Japan, you look at Korea, obviously, China, three of our top five trading partners. Australian merchant vessels are in our immediate region. That's where the rules of the road must be asserted. That's where our national interest lies. But it is where the international community expects us to do the heavy lifting and so that is where we are going to maintain our focus. And the global-rules based order in all of those bodies of water is under pressure and so there is heavy lifting to do. So that is that is why we are focused on that body of water. That's why we are focused on our interests. It's not to say that what's happening in the Red Sea isn't significant. It is. We're tripling our contribution. But it is to say that our strategic focus cannot be diminished from our region and in effect, that is what the Coalition is calling on us to do. And we're not going to bow to that. We are going to maintain the resolve to pursue Australia's national interests. And let's also be clear, there's a fundamental inconsistency in what the Coalition is now saying. I mean, when Minister Reynolds announced a reduction in Australia's naval contribution to the Middle East, it was exactly the point that she made then that we need to be more focused on our region, a point which was maintained by the former government through to the election last year. So there's a certain hypocrisy in the Opposition walking down this path now. But what it also shows is that when it comes to our national security, the Coalition will always pursue their own political interest. We are going to be focused on Australia's national interest.

GILBERT: Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, I thank you for sitting down with us and having such an extensive and comprehensive discussion about an important issue. We, and our organisation, wish you a very Merry Christmas and to your family, I hope it's a good break. Thanks so much.

MARLES: Thank you very much, Kieran and a very Merry Christmas to you as well.



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