SUBJECTS: AUKUS; Nuclear-powered submarines; China–Australia Relationship; The South China Sea; Australia-EU FTA; COVID Vaccine inquiry.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Well, China has criticised Prime Minister Anthony Albanese following warnings over military action in the South China Sea. Mr Albanese told Beijing to take note of Russia’s failed invasion of Ukraine when it comes to its own ambitions for Taiwan. Well, China’s state‑owned news outlet China Daily says the comments have disrupted efforts to repair the relationship, saying it’s hard to believe that the new Australian leader can be so ill‑informed as to not know China’s stance on the Ukraine crisis, or that he can be so ignorant so as not to understand the status of Taiwan. China also denounced Australia’s reactions to its discussions with the Solomon Islands and for supporting America’s alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Let’s go to Canberra on that point because joining us live now is the Acting Prime Minister, Richard Marles. Richard, good to see you. Thanks for your time this morning. So, as you heard there, China argues Anthony Albanese has undermined the prospect of a reset of our relationship with China. Is that the case?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, Anthony has been articulating Australia’s national interests, which is what he has been consistently doing for a long time and which we will continue to do. And we’ve made really clear that we are going to speak up for Australia’s national interests, even when that is obviously differing from Chinese action. And the point about referencing the war in the Ukraine is that, whilst it’s a long way from Australia, the principles and the issues at stake in that conflict are ones that are very significant for Australia and apply right around the world, which is essentially that we need to be supporting the global rules‑based order. We need to be supporting a world which is based on rules. The UN Charter doesn’t allow a big country just to march in on another one because they’re unhappy. And it’s very important that we’re standing with the Ukraine now, and that principle which applies in East Europe applies in the Indo–Pacific as well and right around the world.
STEFANOVIC: So, would you also be warning China to watch out if they have any intention of taking on Taiwan?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, the point we’ve been making consistently is that the global rules‑based order needs to apply everywhere. That we need to live in a world in 2022 where issues are resolved by reference to the rule of law and not by reference to the rule of power and might. You know, China is seeking to shape the world around it in a way that we’ve not really seen before. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as it applies to the South China Sea for example, is a really important set of rules which provides for freedom of navigation. This is not an esoteric concept for Australia. Most of our trade goes through that body of water, so it’s very important that we are asserting those rules because they go to the heart of our national interests.
STEFANOVIC: If China did make a move on Taiwan, they would face repercussions?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think, rather than going into hypotheticals, what is important is to state where our national interests lies, and that’s what Anthony was doing in his comments and that’s what we’ll continue to do. We are going to go about things with a different tone to the former government. We’re not about beating our chests. We’re actually about advancing the national interests, building our power, but advancing the national interests so we’ll engage in the world in a diplomatic and a sober and a professional way, and that will take us as far as it takes us. But there’s no question that we will continue to strongly advocate for our national interests, and that is fundamentally important.
STEFANOVIC: Are you considering any type of concession to reset our relationship with China?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: No. Absolutely not. And that’s really the point I’m making. A change of tone, yes. But we’re not about to walk away from any of Australia’s national interests. In fact, the opposite. We’re about advancing them and advancing them in a much stronger way than what we saw from the former government. I mean, what we had under the Coalition Government was Australia out there beating its chest while it was actually failing on the hard power equation. It was not advancing our national interests in terms of key Defence procurements, making sure that we had the sort of platforms which would build our strategic space. We’re focused on the doing and we will be doing that much better, I might say. In terms of the way in which we speak to the world, we will do it in a diplomatic, professional way, but one that absolutely articulates our national interests.
STEFANOVIC: Peter Dutton fears you are walking away from AUKUS. Is he right or is he paranoid?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: He’s just playing politics, and it’s what the former government did for nine years to the detriment of the country. We are completely supportive of AUKUS. What it offers in terms of allowing Australia to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine, which is really important in terms of having a capable long‑range submarine, a platform which more than any other builds our strategic space. We want to work with the United Kingdom and the United States on building other advanced technologies, which is what AUKUS is about. We’ve been consistently saying that. All you’re hearing from the Leader of the Opposition is politics. And it was politics which, when they were in power, saw the country approach Japan to get a submarine, walk away from them. Then do a deal with France to get a submarine, and then rip it up. And the consequences of that is billions of dollars lost and years wasted that the country can’t afford and it’s why we now face a real capability gap in terms of our submarines, which are so important. The former government was about beating their chest while getting the hard power equation wrong time and time again. We’re literally going to be the precise opposite of that. We’re going to do the hard work to build our strategic space and make sure Australia is in a position to be there to advance our national interests with a strong Defence Force, and we are going to speak to the world in a diplomatic, sober and professional way.
STEFANOVIC: When will we have our first nuclear sub?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s a very good question. Again, where the former government had left us was really the prospect of not having that until the 2040s, and what we need to understand is that when the former government came into power back in 2013, the expectation was that we would be replacing the Collins‑class submarines this decade in the mid-2020s. That describes the capability gap which this government, the former government, have left us. But we’re going to try and work through how we can get those submarines sooner, work out obviously which submarine that we – which type of submarine that we actually run with, and then look at a solution to whatever capability gap arises. This is a mess that we’ve been left by the former government and there’s a lot of work for us to do.
STEFANOVIC: I know you’re not going to say today which way you’re going to go. You’ll announce that in due course. But do you at least know in your mind whether you’re going to go with the US or the UK design?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: The answer to that is no. There’s a process that’s being worked through with both the United Kingdom and the United States. They’re not obvious choices, which is probably the most important thing I can say right now. But we are going to work through that process in an expeditious way. We need to have an answer to this question very quickly because it’s the first step in determining – what submarine we ultimately run with will determine when we can get it and then look at ways in which we can deal with whatever capability arises as a result.
STEFANOVIC: You talked about French just a short time ago. Are you expecting any further delays when it comes to the EU–Australia free trade deal?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ve had a whole lot of delays, again as a result of the way the former government was conducting itself in the world. What we really see now with the Prime Minister in Europe is the real prospect of being able to get those conversations, those discussions, and negotiations back on track. The European Union is –
STEFANOVIC: Will it be done by the end of this year?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I’m not going to put a time frame on it. But the European Union is a massive market. It’s really important for us to be in those negotiations, to open up trade opportunities for Australian producers, and the fact that those negotiations had ended up where they were was a real indictment again on the former government. But we do think that having got a settlement with the French in respect of the former submarine arrangement which provides an ability to move on from all of that does open the door to a much better climate to have those negotiations and get a deal with the EU.
STEFANOVIC: Just a final one here on the inquiry into the slow vaccine rollout. Ultimately, we know it was slow but what comes out of that? What emerges out of that?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s actually an inquiry into where we’re up to with vaccine procurement and making sure that while learning the lessons of the failure of the former government, while learning from those lessons, we are able to move forward in a way which best advances the country when it comes to vaccine rollout and vaccine provision and procurement. This is really – it is going to learn the lessons of the past, but this is a forward-looking inquiry at how we can best move forward –
STEFANOVIC: Not reflective?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: – in terms of vaccine procurement. Well, and vaccine supply. It is fundamentally a forward‑looking inquiry. We do need to learn the lessons of the failures of the past so it’s not like there’s not going to be any examination, but this is not about an inquiry into all of that. It’s really about how we can best place ourselves going forward.
STEFANOVIC: Hey, I noticed that you caught up with Justin Trudeau in your travels, in your many thousands of kilometres that you have recently had. Did Justin Trudeau forget Albo’s name?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I’m sure he did not forget Albo’s name. Certainly, when I was speaking with Justin, who may well have forgotten my name by now, he well and truly knew that Anthony was the Prime Minister of the country and I had a number of conversations with him where he was really looking forward to catching up with Albo, and that is what he’s done.
STEFANOVIC: Do you call him Anthony or Tony?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I call him – I swap, to be honest, between Anthony and Albo. I probably call him Anthony more than Albo so that’s where I land on that question.
STEFANOVIC: Right. Okay. Richard Marles, always good to chat. Thanks for your time. We’ll talk to you soon.