MONDAY, 4 JULY 2022
SUBJECTS: NATO summit; The Indo-Pacific; Australia-China relationship; Nuclear-powered submarines.
SARAH FERGUSON: Richard Marles is the Defence Minister and Acting Prime Minister. Minister, how significant is it that NATO for the first time has included threats from China in its future strategy?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think it is significant. What it really says is that the global rules-based order, which has underpinned stability and prosperity in the world, but certainly in the Indo-Pacific, is being placed under a pressure now that is as equal really to any point that we’ve seen since the end of the Second World War. And we’re seeing that in Eastern Europe, but I think we’re seeing it in the Indo-Pacific as well. If you look at a body of water like the South China Sea, we are seeing China seeking to shape the world around it and asserting an idea of sovereignty there, which is inconsistent with how we understand the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and from Australia’s point of view –
FERGUSON: Let me ask you about that precisely. Of course, Taiwan is the major flashpoint. In May, the US President, Joe Biden, set aside the long-standing practice of strategic ambiguity in relation to Taiwan and committed to US military action if Taiwan was attacked. Days after the election, as Australian Acting Prime Minister, you strongly endorsed Joe Biden’s remarks. Do you still welcome an end to strategic ambiguity over Taiwan?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think President Biden’s remarks are important because what they indicate is an engagement by the United States in the Indo-Pacific, in the East Asian time zone. That’s very much to Australia’s national interest –
FERGUSON: Now, forgive me for jumping in so quickly. Let me just ask you very precisely, come back to that point. Do you still welcome an end to strategic ambiguity? It’s such an important point for Australia. Do you still welcome an end to that?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I welcome President Biden’s remarks because I do think that they represent a statement of a greater American intent in this part of the world, in the East Asian time zone, in the Indo-Pacific, and I think it’s really important that we hear that statement from the United States.
FERGUSON: But it was an unequivocal statement, wasn’t it, about a long-standing Australian policy? Do you still stand by what you said, that you welcomed an end to that long-standing policy?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, what I actually said was that I supported what President Biden stated and I did so on the terms which I’ve just reiterated now, which is that I think it’s an important statement in respect of American engagement in the world. I’ve been asked the question about Australia’s involvement and I’ve said we’re not about to walk down a path of hypotheticals here, but I understand America making that statement and I understand the significance of that in terms of America committing to the region and I think that’s a really important point.
FERGUSON: Your colleague Penny Wong was highly critical of former Defence Minister Peter Dutton for breaking with decades of strategic ambiguity here when he said it was ‘inconceivable’ that Australia wouldn’t join in a US defence of Taiwan. But when President Biden committed to military action in Taiwan, you welcomed it. Now, aren’t you sending mixed signals?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: No, I’ve been asked the question about Australia’s position here and the way in which I’ve answered Australia’s position, the question in respect of Australia’s position, is that I don’t seek to engage in hypotheticals, and that’s completely consistent with what the Foreign Minister has said. I have remarked that President Biden’s statement is a statement about America’s ongoing commitment to the region, and that is a point which is welcome.
FERGUSON: That wasn’t a hypothetical, but let’s move on. We now have the Prime Minister’s warning to China around the NATO summit, warning to China, which elicited a stinging response from the Chinese. Does this mean that relations with China are just going to keep getting worse?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think we come to this from the position of articulating Australia’s national interest. That’s the starting point. Now, we are articulating that interest in terms of asserting the importance of a global rules-based order for Australia’s national interest, and that’s what the Prime Minister was doing. We’ve made that clear in respect of the way in which that order is being challenged in Eastern Europe with Ukraine. But we’re making it clear in terms of the Indo-Pacific about making sure that the rules of the road, the global rules-based order, applies in this part of the world as well. Because when you think about the South China Sea, most of Australia’s trade traverses it. So this is not an esoteric point for us, it goes directly to Australia’s national interest and it’s really important that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea applies. But we’ve been really clear that we do see that there are going to be ongoing challenges in our relationship with China, because China is seeking to shape the world around it in a way that we’ve not seen before and that does raise considerable challenges for Australia and we’re not going to resile from them.
FERGUSON: Does it matter that the Chinese view Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear submarines as tying Australia even more closely to US military strategy?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, what matters is Australia’s national interest, and what matters is what the Australian Government’s doing. It doesn’t really matter what China says or thinks about it, it’s what our own interests are, the way in which we pursue our own interests.
FERGUSON: Well presumably, Minister, presumably it’s important what they think about it.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, in terms of Australian Government decision-making, we’re pursuing Australia’s national interest and we’re doing that by reference to Australian needs. And we do need a capable long-range submarine. Having a capable long-range submarine is the most important platform that we can have in terms of building Australia’s strategic space, for trade, for diplomacy, for our place in the world. And that’s why we are walking down that path. And to have a capable long-range submarine going forward, that means it needs to have nuclear propulsion. Now, we’re addressing Australia’s needs by reference to what our needs are.
FERGUSON: Let me just talk to you about those submarines for a minute, because Vice Admiral Mead is pressing ahead, as you know, with an ambitious training programme to embed Australian soldiers and US nuclear submarines, even to the point of having 50/50 crews. How quickly is that going to happen?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we do need to be looking at ways in which we can acquire this capability as quickly as possible. And that’s not just the physical hardware, the submarine itself, but it’s about making sure that we acquire the submariners to crew it and they need the skills to crew it, and so there’s a range of options that we’re looking at.
FERGUSON: Aren’t those submariners going to need a sub in Australia to train on more quickly than the longer time frame that is on the table at the moment?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think what that question highlights, really, is the mess that we’ve been left in by the former government –
FERGUSON: I want you to stay with your plans. We’ve heard you talk about the former government and I accept it was a point you needed to make, but we need to look to the future. What are the options? It’s very clear that the US nuclear subs industry is maxed out in its production lines. It’s a similar story in the UK. The US wants to build more submarines for its own fleet. So what are the opportunities there for any subs to be available in Australia and for our submariners to train on in anything like a short term?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, if I can just finish the answer. What we need is to deal with the situation as we have been left it by the former government, which was, really, not acquiring this platform until the mid-2040s. What we are going to do is look at, firstly, what specific option we will be going with in respect of the United States or the United Kingdom. That’s a decision that we believe we can make relatively quickly. Secondly, work out all the options that are available in terms of how quickly that submarine can come online and to the extent that there is a capability gap that arises, looking at measures by which we can plug that gap. Now, that last point raises a whole range of options that we need to explore and a key part of that is making sure that we do have the training available, the experience available for our submariners, so that they are able to operate whatever capability we’re able to put in the water as quickly as we can.
FERGUSON: Well, we know the UN watchdog – nuclear watchdog – is coming to Australia this week, so plenty more to come on this topic. Thank you very much, Minister, in the meantime.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Sarah.