THE HON RICHARD MARLES MP
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister for Defence
FRIDAY, 8 JULY 2022
SUBJECTS: Resignation of U.K. Prime Minister; Australia-China relationship; Russia-Ukraine conflict; Pacific Islands Forum; Engagement in the Pacific; Bernard Collaery case.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Later today a meeting years in the making looks set to take place. Foreign Minister Penny Wong will hold talks with her Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali. It’s the first time foreign ministers from both countries have come face to face since 2019 when relations really began to sour. And it comes at a time of potential international turmoil with one of our key allies now searching for a new leader – that’s Britain, of course.
Richard Marles is the Defence Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. I’ve been speaking to him.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Hamish.
MACDONALD: Boris Johnson has announced he’ll depart Downing Street, but he will remain as Britain’s caretaker Prime Minister. The Kremlin has reacted with glee. It’s obviously further instability globally. But what does this mean for the AUKUS agreement? Does it change anything?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It doesn’t change anything. This is the democratic process playing out in respect to a very close friend of Australia. But it won’t change our relationship with Britain. It doesn’t change AUKUS. It won’t change what we’re doing in terms of the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement. And so, I think, you know, to that end we thank Boris Johnson for his service. We obviously wish him well in the future. But we also know that Britain will choose another Prime Minister in the near term who we will work closely with.
MACDONALD: The Foreign Minister Penny Wong will today meet her Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Bali. From Australia’s perspective, what tangible signs do you need to see from Beijing that a reset is real and is genuine?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: This is an important meeting. It’s an important meeting between Australia and a country with whom we have a lot of interests. China obviously is a very significant country for us. It is our largest trading partner, and to be frank, it is the source of our greatest security anxiety. As our largest trading partner, it’s a relationship that we value. And, you know, what’s really important in the midst of all that complexity is that we go about our relationships in a way which is sober, professional, but which puts an emphasis on the power of diplomacy. And I think today’s meeting is a reflection of that.
MACDONALD: But that’s the tone and that’s the style. What about the substance? What do you need to see from China to believe them at their word that they want to reset this relationship? Do you need to see some of those trade sanctions dropped? Do you need to see people like Cheng Lei released from prison in China? What specifically are you expecting?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I wouldn’t frame the meeting in those terms. I think we have to start from the position of what is Australia’s national interest and making sure that we are articulating that, which we continually do. Thinking about Australia’s national interest in the context of China, and that means obviously talking to the importance of a global rules-based order, making sure that we do have the courage to raise issues of human rights and that we obviously reflect our concerns around consular matters. We will do all of that. And it’s important that we continue to do all of that. But we do understand that China is our largest trading partner. In that sense, we value the relationship. And we want to approach it from the perspective of being professional and sober about it and understanding the power of diplomacy. Now that takes us as far as it takes us. But there is a different tone associated with that that we want to bring to bear here. But it’s not about Australia changing its position in relation to any of the substantive issues. We need to – and we will – continue to be articulating our national interest very strongly. And we see where that ultimately lands. But what’s really important here is that we continue to articulate that national interest.
MACDONALD: So in terms of everyone listening this morning trying to understand what the potential power of diplomacy is in this situation, do you see, though, the resolution of any of those matters as a much longer-term thing?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I can’t promise that the power of diplomacy will deliver anything specific in terms of trade or any of those other outcomes. And I think what matters is that we go about this from the point of view of making sure that we are very true to our national interest, which we will be, and we’ve said that consistently both before the election and since. And we understand that given where China’s at there are a whole lot of challenges in the relationship which are going to continue and which are not going to be resolved today.
I do think, though, that the power of diplomacy and a change of tone matters. And we will bring that to bear. And it takes us as far as it takes us, but that’s how we’re going to go about it. We’re not going to do the chest-beating that we saw from the former government which, frankly, didn’t take us anywhere and didn’t advance our national interest in any way. We’re going to go about things in a different way, and we believe in the power of diplomacy. But it’s impossible right now to tell you exactly how far that will go.
MACDONALD: I understand you acknowledge that consular issues will be raised today. But how can the Australian public believe that a reset is genuine on the part of China whilst it holds on to Cheng Lei and Hengjun in prison?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, I mean, you’ve used that term a couple of times. We’re really approaching this in terms of being very consistent around the substantive issues in our relationship for which there is a continuity from the former government to this and making sure that we are doing everything we can to pursue those interests. And we will continue to do all of that. We are doing it in the context of a different tone. And when it comes to consular matters, we’ll continue to advocate on behalf of those Australian citizens. Where that gets to, we will see. But we’re not in a position right now to obviously forecast anything definite there. I mean, we get that there’s going to be continuing challenges in our relationship with China, and that includes in respect of those issues.
MACDONALD: Penny Wong says China should use its influence on Russia to help end the conflict in Ukraine. Do you think that’s realistic to expect China to do that given the partnership that those two countries have?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Again, we need to have clarity about our national interest, which is that we stand for the global rules-based order that we’ve been a part of building over many decades and that we stand to protect right now. That’s what’s at issue when it comes to the conflict in Ukraine. It’s obviously not okay that a large country invades a smaller one and uses the power of might as opposed to the rule of law in order to resolve its differences. Now, Penny is making the point that every country needs to speak to that, and China should speak to that. And I do think that China is in a particular position of influence in relation to Russia. And it’s important that we continue to advocate to all countries, but particularly China, to use its influence in respect of maintaining the global rules-based order because that’s where our interest lies.
MACDONALD: So, what does that mean in practice, though? Saying to China, ‘look, on the global stage you say that you believe in a rules-based order. You want international law upheld. Why aren’t you doing it in the case of Russia and Ukraine?’ Is that what you mean?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, exactly. That’s the message that we need to be giving to every country, and that includes China. And I think we need to consistently be giving that message. And I understand the relationship that China has or the agreement that China has with Russia, but what we are seeing in Russia’s behaviour is a complete flouting of the global rules-based order, and the world must call Russia out. And it’s important – obviously we are doing that, but we’re calling on every country to do that, and that includes China.
MACDONALD: Yesterday Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister, made a speech at the Lowy Institute saying, among other things, that we shouldn’t cast the war in Ukraine as democracy versus autocracy or the West versus Russia. Is she right?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I think it’s an important contribution that Prime Minister Ardern has made. And, again, when I listen to that speech, or read it, what occurs to me is what I’ve just said – that it’s really important that we are focusing on what matters, that we have a clarity of thought in respect of our interests. I think that’s what Prime Minister Ardern is really speaking to. And that is the global rule-based order –
MACDONALD: Sure, but do you agree with that assessment?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well –
MACDONALD: Because it’s a departure from what Australia has been saying and certainly a departure from what the United States has been articulating on that matter?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I wouldn’t necessarily accept that. What we have been saying is that what’s at issue in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is the global rules-based order. That’s what we need to be protecting. We talk about calling on every country, including China, to urge Russia to adhere to the global rules-based order. You know, those actions don’t talk to an East versus West conflict. They speak to a global rules-based order which every country, be it East or West, needs to protect. And that’s how we see the conflict in Ukraine. Ukraine’s a long way from Australia, but the reason why we are there supporting Ukraine very significantly, the reason why our Prime Minister visited Ukraine, is because we see the issues that are at play there as being significant everywhere, not just in Eastern Europe but in the Indo-Pacific. And that is essentially the maintenance of the rules-based order.
As I said, it’s not okay for a large country to invade a smaller neighbour and use the power of might and force to resolve issues rather than the rule of law. That’s a really important principle right around the world. And we’ve been talking about the conflict in those terms, which is a different construct to an East versus West conflict. It’s about making sure that all of us are there asserting the global rules-based order, and that’s what’s important for Australia’s national interest.
MACDONALD: The Pacific Islands Forum gets underway on Monday. Do you see China’s efforts to arrange a meeting with Pacific ministers on the same day as the final leaders retreat with the Chinese Foreign Minister as an attempt to undermine the summit?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: The Pacific Islands Forum is a very important engagement. It’s the premier meeting moment for Pacific countries. I mean, China can explain itself in these terms. But I absolutely know that for Pacific leaders that final day of the summit, the leaders meetings, is about as important an engagement as those countries have. And that’s how the –
MACDONALD: It’s a provocative thing to do, though, isn’t it, on the part of China?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, China can explain itself in relation to that. What I know is that on that day the Pacific leaders, they’ll want to be talking to each other. And that’s as it should be. And we are very much a part of that family and we’ll be there as part of it.
MACDONALD: Sure. It’s just that you began this interview talking about the power of diplomacy and the professional tone that you wanted to use in Australia’s dealings with China. I’m just wondering if you see this as a professional and diplomatic approach from China?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’ll speak to the way in which Australia behaves in that respect. As I say, China can explain itself in relation to that. But I know how important that day is. I’ve been to that day in the past representing Australia. And the Pacific will see any other attempts to have meetings around that through that light.
MACDONALD: Your predecessor, Peter Dutton, accused China of bribing Pacific governments and politicians as a means of growing its influence. The former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong. seems to agree with that. Here’s what he said.
ANOTE TONG (AUDIO GRAB): I have no doubt that they are doing it. I think knowing the style of China best not only here in the Pacific but in other parts of the world, this is how they do business.
MACDONALD: That was Anote Tong speaking on 7.30 earlier in the week. Do you agree?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Anote Tong is a giant in the Pacific, and that is a very concerning comment that he has made. I think what’s really important is that the highest standards of governance, making sure that we are doing everything we can to address issues of corruption not just in the Pacific but throughout the world, is really important in terms of the way we engage with the Pacific. And that is how we engage. It’s really important that every other country that is engaging in the Pacific do so on the same basis. To hear somebody of the standing of Anote Tong saying that I think is very concerning.
MACDONALD: Closer to home, the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has told prosecutors to drop the case against whistleblower and lawyer Bernard Collaery. He was charged over the leaking of classified information suggesting Australia spied on East Timor. Have you spoken to senior Defence and security leaders about that decision? It’s pretty clear they took a very strong view of it.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: The Attorney-General has considered this matter in its detail. He’s made the decision, and obviously we support all of that. In making that decision the protection of Australia’s secrets is clearly a matter which is very important for our national interest. But in all the circumstances the Attorney‑General’s made the decision in respect of this case and we very much support it.
MACDONALD: But are those national secrets undermined by this decision?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: No, it’s not. And I think the Attorney-General’s made it really clear given the particular circumstances of this case that’s not how this should be read, and that the maintenance of Australia’s secrets continues to be obviously a critically important issue for our national security and for our national interest. But in all the circumstances the Attorney-General’s made this decision and the whole government system supports the Attorney-General in that decision.
MACDONALD: Deputy Prime Minister, thank you very much.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Hamish.