SUBJECTS: Taiwan; Australia’s Defence Force capability.
NATALIE BARR, HOST: Beijing has warned Australia to stop interfering in its internal affairs as Chinese military drills, which had been due to end, continue around Taiwan. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister has accused China of using the exercises to prepare for an invasion of the island nation, with Australia joining Japan and the US in condemning the drills. For the latest we’re joined by Defence Minister and Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles. Good morning to you.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Good morning, Nat, how are you?
BARR: I’m well. Now, you’ve called for a return to peaceful activity in the Taiwan Strait. How do we do that? What’s the best way to achieve that?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we need to be adding our voice to that of the international community to see a de-escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait. And that’s where our national interest lies, but it’s where the regional and global interest lies. And all of that is underpinned by an unchanged position on the part of Australia, which is that we don’t want to see any changes to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. We support a One China policy, but we really do need to be seeing a return to much more normal and peaceful activity. And I think the world would breathe a sigh of relief if that was able to be achieved.
BARR: Exactly. But when we do add our voice to that call, we get slapped down by China, don’t we? Penny Wong said to China to turn down the heat, and China’s now said that she’s – well, we, Australia and Penny Wong – are undermining peace. So where does that leave us?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, obviously I don’t accept that characterisation of what our Foreign Minister has done. I mean, Penny Wong is speaking to Australia’s national interest, and that’s what we will continue to do. I mean, our national interest does lie in having a peaceful region. And ultimately how China responds to our comments is a matter for China, but what I can assure the Australian people is that, you know, we will have a different tone to that of the former government. We want to engage in the world in a way that is respectful, is diplomatic, is sober and professional. But we will speak to Australia’s national interest. And we’ll do that even when it differs from the actions of other countries, including China. And that’s what we must do. That’s all we can do. And if China responds to that, so be it. There’s been a change of government in this country, but there hasn’t been a change in our national interest, and we will continue to speak to it.
BARR: Well, the Chinese Ambassador is speaking at the National Press Club today. They have been talking tough. Are you expecting another spray today?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ll see what comes from that. I actually think it’s important to hear from the Chinese Ambassador within our media, and we’ll see what the Chinese Ambassador has to say. But what will be very clear from the Australian Government’s point of view is a sober, is a measured engagement with the world, but in respect of this right now, we do need to see a de-escalation of tensions. That is what is in our interest, it’s what’s in the global interest.
BARR: We are in the middle of this, aren’t we? China is simulating war games off Taiwan. Taiwan’s saying it is a dress rehearsal for war. What do we do? We are years away, aren’t we, of boosting our military like we want to. What do we do on that front?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not going to speculate about what may or may not play out in relation to Taiwan because I think in terms of seeking to de-escalate tensions it doesn’t help to speculate in relation to that. In terms of our own Defence Force, we clearly need to have the most capable, the most potent Defence Force that we can have. And that’s why we’ve put in place the strategic review which we are doing over a pretty short time frame. It’s why we have put a much greater intensity and urgency into the process around the selection of our next generation submarine, because that is a critical capability for us. And it’s also critically important that as we evolve from our existing submarine capability to that future, that we do so in a way where there are no capability gaps. And, again, we’ve got the ball rolling in making sure that we are dealing with that. You know, we’ve been left, I might say, a considerable number of challenges from the former government in this respect, but we will be doing everything we can to make sure that our Defence Force is as potent as it can be to keep Australians safe.
BARR: So we’re caught short, are we, militarily?
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we made it clear we’ve been very concerned about what’s happened over the last nine years, particularly in relation to the procurement of submarines, which is probably the most important platform that we have within our military. And, you know, precious years have been lost under the former government. Obviously a whole lot of money has been wasted. And that does give rise to challenges for us to make sure that we deal with any capability gaps that arise as a result of that. But I can assure people that we have hit the ground running in respect of this. We are doing everything within our power to make sure that we are boosting the potency of our Defence Force so that it is as capable as possible to keep Australians safe.
BARR: OK. Richard Marles, thank you very much for your time this morning.
ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Nat.