Television Interview, Sky News - Sunday Agenda

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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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2 June 2024

SUBJECTS: Shangri-La Dialogue; China; US; Ukraine; AUKUS; Migration

HOST, ANDREW CLENNELL: Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles, has met with the Chinese Defence Minister at the Shangri La dialogue in Singapore yesterday afternoon. And Mr. Marles joins me now. Richard Marles, thanks so much for your time at an early hour there.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER, RICHARD MARLES: Good morning, Andrew. It is an early hour, but nice to talk to you.

CLENNELL: Let me start by asking about your meeting with the Chinese Defence Minister, Dong Jun. You questioned in your speech yesterday at the dialogue why China is backing Russia in the Ukraine war. Is this something you repeated to the Minister and what was his response?

MARLES: Well, look, I'm obviously not going to go into the details of the meeting that I had with Admiral Dong. But it was- it was a very frank conversation. We raised a lot of things and, you know, it's fair to say we covered a lot of territory, but it was a good meeting as well. It went longer than was anticipated. The substance- or the substantive issue that we wanted to pursue with the Chinese, having raised a range of issues with them, was to see the progress of our defence dialogue continue. And that's just so that we can have the deepest understanding of each other's behaviours when we're engaging in operations, so that those exercises, those operations, can be safe. Obviously, we have seen some unsafe incidents which were both unsafe and unprofessional. We've spoken about them and I obviously raised them with Minister Dong. But having a dialogue of that kind in place allows us to have a much better understanding of what we're doing and creates much greater safety for the men and women who wear our uniform.

CLENNELL: So, what did he say when you raised these incidents? The flares at the naval chopper and the sonar being used when divers are under a ship. Did he just say, well, you're in the wrong place? What was his response?

MARLES: Well, again, I'm not going to go into his response. I mean, that was a matter that we spoke about privately, other than to say to you that I did obviously raise both of those issues. And indeed I spoke about those publicly in my speech yesterday at the dialogue. One of the things that we need to be doing in our relationship with China, as you said at the start is to be speaking with clarity and to make sure that we are, as we say, disagreeing where we must. But that means making clear where we have differences and where there are issues that need to be raised and need to be highlighted. And certainly those two incidents in the last six or seven months warrant that. You know, I pointed out that there are a whole lot of interactions between our defence forces which are professional and safe. So, it's possible for us to engage in a way where we do deal with each other in that manner. But it can't be most of the time, it needs to be all the time, because obviously those two incidents gave rise to some circumstances which could have been very- were dangerous and could have been very- inaudible- personnel.

CLENNELL: I'm assuming he didn't have much sympathy for Australia's position on those incidents, though.

MARLES: Well, again, I'm not going to go through what he said to me. I mean, this was a private conversation, but obviously China has its position, but it's very important that from Australia's point of view, make what where we're speaking with a clear voice, which we have both publicly and privately on this, and that no one is in any doubt as to, firstly, what happened, but secondly, what our position is. And that's what I spoke about this in my speech and obviously we'd been speaking about it publicly prior to my being here.

CLENNELL:  Are there any other incidents or near misses that haven't been made public between Chinese and Australian forces?

MARLES: Look, there is a lot of interaction between the Australian Defence Force and the Chinese navy, the Chinese air force, when we're engaging in our activities. And again, one of the things that people should understand is that a large bulk of the operations of our navy today is asserting the global rules based order within our region- in places like the South China Sea, the East China Sea. The two incidents that we've been making public occurred on Operation Argos, which is an operation where we are engaging in the enforcement of UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea. So, this is a lot of our- this is what our navy is doing. And when that's happening, there are a lot of interactions, as I say, with the Chinese navy and the Chinese air force. We look at each interaction and where we speak publicly is where we deem an interaction to be both unsafe and unprofessional. And that's what occurred in these two. And when that occurs, we speak about it.

CLENNELL: So, there are other tense incidents from time to time?

MARLES: Well, I don't want to amplify that, Andrew. I mean, we've made clear these two incidents, and so there aren't others like that- in short answer to your question. When there have been incidents which have been unsafe and unprofessional, we have spoken about them. And the reason we clearly do that is because they do represent a significant danger to Australian Defence force personnel. And it's important that the world understands what is happening here; that is why we make it public. We also, of course, raise these issues with China immediately, as we did with both of these incidents when they occurred. And in doing that, you know, we're pretty consistent with the practice of other countries in this respect as well.

CLENNELL: Have there been other incidents raised with China that haven't been made public?

MARLES: We have a- we have a defence dialogue with China and we have an ongoing engagement with China. The two incidents which are of the- that reach the threshold that I have described are the incidents that occurred. There are no others. And as we've said in relation to them, we have spoken with China.

CLENNELL: All right, just in relation to- it's been put to me, the sonar attack, the so called sonar attack. I guess the sonar engagement wasn't as serious as the flares engagement, that it just basically involved a diver who thought he had a headache. Is that a fair characterisation? It wasn't as dangerous an event.

MARLES: I don't think that is a fair characterisation. And again, we obviously go through this really carefully, but we don't want to make something out of nothing. And so there is a careful consideration about whether or not an incident is such that it really did represent a significant danger and that that was the case in relation to that incident with HMAS Toowoomba last year. And that's why we made it public. That what occurred could have been, you know, more significant in the injury that ultimately what occurred. And we're obviously grateful that the injury was not as serious. At the end of the day, it was a dangerous interaction and that's why we made it public.

CLENNELL: So, you have this strong message for the Defence Minister, then Premier Li's about to come to the country. How do you sort of balance that up? Because it feels like the bilat people going to be walking on eggshells. That's the nature of the relationship.

MARLES: Well, I mean, it is a complex relationship. And I think it's probably right to articulate it in terms of requiring skill. And we have talked about the fact that we want to cooperate with China. We really want to have the most productive relationship that we can have with China. We want to be sensible, professional, respectful about the way in which we engage with China. And I think you put it correctly in your opening, that there is, we definitely do not want to gratuitously antagonise China, that's not what we're trying to do. But at the same time, it is important that we speak to our national interests, that there is never any question about that, and that when there are matters that need to be said, we say them and we say them with a clear, articulate voice, and that is what we've done in relation to these incidents, for example. But what we do more broadly, and I spoke yesterday, today about a range of difficult issues in my speech publicly in respect of China. But I think if you go about this in a way which is professional, which is respectful, where people understand, China understands how we're doing it, there is no doubt what we are about. And ultimately, what drives all of our engagement is Australia's national interest. That is the guiding light in terms of how we behave. I think countries can understand and respect that position and based on that, we've been able to stabilise the relationship with China.

CLENNELL: Do you think it has any impact, though, this sort of conversation with the Defence Minister, or China just says, oh, well, you're wrong, you know, fair enough, but you're wrong, mate?

MARLES: Look, it's difficult for me to answer that question because ultimately others will be the judge of it. I mean, the one thing I know is that we have to speak with our voice and we have to speak to Australia's national interest. I certainly know that to do anything else could potentially have a very difficult result for Australia. Like it matters that we are very firm and very clear about where we stand and about what our positions are. And it's important that, you know, that behaviour is not shaped here. I mean, to go back to what we're doing on the high seas is asserting the rules based order. And the reason we do that is because, as a trading nation, and a lot of our trade goes through these bodies of water, we're deeply invested in ideas like freedom of navigation, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It fundamentally underpins, actually our national prosperity and indeed our national security. So, what matters here is that in engaging in the work which asserts the rules of the road at sea, we're not deterred from that. Our behaviour is not shaped, you know, we engage in what we have a right to engage in and we always act in accordance with international law, asserting a set of rules which are fundamental to Australia's national interest. And I think in terms of that activity, but also how we speak on behalf of Australia, making it clear that we will determine our own voice and we will not be shaped by others, is the most important thing that we can do, and the most important statement about where we stand as a nation and certainly where we stand as a government. Now, to be clear, Andrew, part of that national interest also does involve the opportunities to cooperate with China and we welcome the stabilisation of the relationship and we welcome the opportunity to engage in trade, which is beneficial for both China and Australia, and we want to move forward on that. And, you know, I've made that point in the engagements that I've had with my Chinese counterparts even yesterday. And so we do look forward to the visit by Premier Li and I'm sure it will be a very successful visit. And I think the relationship is complex, but, you know, it is possible to what we're doing.

CLENNELL: Yeah, well, as you know, Peter Dutton says you're weak. You know, he says the PM's weak. He says you should be ringing up President Xi. Presumably thinks you should be shirt fronting the Defence Minister. What do you say to that?

MARLES: Well, I think- I mean it's just not what adults do. It certainly was not in Australia's interest, in any respect. I mean, like, if you take a look at the way in which they engaged, which was essentially to stand up and shout at the world, I mean, the result of that was to not, to be frank, treat China with respect. Now, they may say they don't care about that. But the consequence of not engaging in a professional and respectful manner meant two things; Firstly, it meant that in the areas where we can cooperate, like trade, that all stopped. But it also meant that in areas where we do have differences, where there are interactions, where our men and women are out there on the front line, wearing our nation's uniform in our defence force, there was actually no ability to have a conversation with China about that as well. I mean, it matters to be able to have difficult conversations. So, when we hear Peter Dutton saying, you know, you should be picking up the phone, there was no phone when those- when the liberals were in power. I mean, they had absolutely no ability to communicate with China at all about anything, even in respect of giving a difficult message. You know, the fact that we have a relationship now not only allows us to cooperate, but it does allow us to be able to say difficult things in a respectful way, but difficult things, which is really important for our nation to say. And when I look, think about the conversation that I had yesterday, with Minister Dong, which was actually a good conversation- t went much longer than was expected- it enabled me to be able to run through a number of issues which were pretty difficult, but do so in a respectful way, but at the same time be able to move the relationship forward. And that's just a sensible, professional, adult thing to do, which is in our national interest.

CLENNELL: You said in your speech yesterday ‘how the war ends in Ukraine will matter to how countries assess their own military options, especially for Russia's strategic partners.’ And you did mention China and Taiwan in the speech. This seems to be a reference to China. This shows the importance in our region, to your mind, it seems to me, of how Russia-Ukraine conflict and how it ends.

MARLES: I think we live in a much more interconnected world. And I mean, absolutely, I think there is a relevance to what's happening in Eastern Europe, to what is happening in the Indo Pacific. And that is a point that's been repeated by just about every person who has taken the podium at the Shangri-La dialogue. It's why, for example, there are a whole lot of European Ministers who are here. And increasingly, you see more countries from the Indo Pacific engaging in European forums as well. I mean, fundamentally, when the rules based order is under pressure in one part of the world, it sends a message to how the rules based order is maintained everywhere else. And the world has become much more interconnected- it's smaller, people are looking at conflicts all over the world to draw conclusions from how they should behave in their own spheres. And so it is highly relevant. And actually, for that reason, it's very important that we maintain our engagement with Ukraine, which we're doing. And, you know, I was there a few weeks ago announcing our most recent package in support of Ukraine's resistance of the appalling Russian aggression of its country. And that's because we want to be clear that we stand for the maintenance of the global rules based order in Eastern Europe and obviously here in the Indo Pacific.

CLENNELL: And Volodymyr Zelenskyy is there as well. Perhaps you can tell me if you'll be meeting him as well. But are you concerned that if Donald Trump gets elected, he will pull out of US support for Ukraine? And indeed, he might not even do it. He might be happy to see Taiwan go, or not concerned about it. Not happy, but not concerned.

MARLES: Well, I don't think it serves for me to speculate on any of that. I mean, what I do think is a couple of things- if we're talking about America's relationship to us and to the world. Firstly, in terms of Australia, I'm really confident that no matter what happens in the American election at the end of the year, the alliance with the United States will remain strong. All the activity- the considerable amount of activity that is underway with America will continue. The Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, is here and I spent quite a bit of time with him yesterday and we were just reminding each other of the enormous amount of work that we now do with each other. And I'm sure all that will continue. But I think America's place in the world will continue as well. I mean, America is a key and principle guardian of the global rules based order and that it continues to be. That is critically important. And obviously, we are deeply grateful for the fact that America does play that role and is doing that around the world and very much here in the Indo Pacific.

CLENNELL: Was AUKUS raised by the Chinese Defence Minister at all? Just briefly.

MARLES: No. I mean, again, I don't want to go into the detail of the conversation. It wasn't. I mean, we have- we talk about AUKUS, but I would say where we're at now- and this is my third Shangri-La dialogue, I think AUKUS is both accepted within the region and welcomed. People understand that our strategic intent, in terms of building the capabilities that we are, in particular having a long range nuclear-powered submarine capability, is about making our contribution, the collective security of the region in which we live, of this region. And I think that that is understood. Our strategic intent is understood and it's welcomed. And I think a more capable Australia taking its place in the region is something that the countries of the region see as being a positive.

CLENNELL: And just finally, I want to ask about the migration detainees issue. Two questions, really. Can you confirm drones are being used as a form of surveillance? And do you concede the decision to put in place direction 99 was a mistake?

MARLES: Look, I mean, this is going to be an unsatisfactory answer to your question. I normally have a practice of when I'm away not speaking about domestic matters. So, you know, the Minister for Immigration has spoken about both of those matters. I mean, obviously what's happened with direction 99 played out in the court of last week, and I think I'll let others who are in Australia now to give the commentary in the up to date way, given I've been away.

CLENNELL: Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles, thanks so much for your time this morning.

MARLES: Thanks, Andrew.


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