Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: AUKUS; Australia-China relationship; storage of nuclear waste; Downing of US drone over Black Sea.

Patricia Karvelas, Host: The announcement of the long awaited AUKUS nuclear submarine deal has attracted the kind of bipartisanship rarely seen in modern Australian politics. But the response from our neighbours in the region has been less enthusiastic with Indonesia and Malaysia suggesting Australian nuclear subs could be banned from their waters. In its first formal comments, China's Foreign Ministry accused Australia of breaching global rules on the spread of nuclear weapons.

Penny Wong is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and our guest this morning. Minister, welcome.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good morning, PK. How are you?

Karvelas: Good thank you. Since coming to power you've tried to get Australia out of the deep freeze with China. Are we back in the freezer now? How do you see it?

Foreign Minister: One of the things I said both in Opposition and after I became Foreign Minister was that we wanted to stabilise the relationship with China, and we want to re‑engage more deeply with our region. We've sought to do both of those things, including in the way we've dealt with this announcement where obviously we've engaged very closely with our region in the lead-up to this and made sure that they weren't blindsided in the way they were under the Morrison Government. But your point really goes to what does stabilisation mean, and I think I've always made clear that stabilisation still means acting in our national interest. I've said we want to cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must, and we would engage in our national interests and we will continue to do that.

Karvelas: You've offered China several briefings, I understand they've been rejected. Will you continue to try to offer them?

Foreign Minister: I did offer to my counterpart when I met him in Delhi, a briefing on this. I understand that our Ambassador in Beijing followed this up. I also understand China is, along with the diplomatic corps, going to have some further information from my Department in a briefing today and we're always happy to be very transparent about our plans. We believe that one of the ways we can deal in the region openly, clearly and to demonstrate our motivation - which is stability and peace - is to be very transparent about our plans.

Karvelas: You say a further briefing by your Department, can you just elaborate on what's happening?

Foreign Minister: We are having a general diplomatic corps briefing and I understand China will be attending, along with many other countries, and that is a good thing.

Karvelas: And in that briefing this issue around submarines and Australia's military spend will be central?

Foreign Minister: This is a briefing about the Government's‑‑

Karvelas: It's explicitly about AUKUS?

Foreign Minister: This is a briefing about the Government's announcement and it's part of the normal course of diplomacy, just as offering briefings and the engagement with the region in the lead up to this is the professional and appropriate thing to do. But look, the bigger issue here is, as I said to many of my counterparts in the months leading up to this, what is Australia's motivation? Our motivation in terms of this capability, our motivation in terms of the work we do in the region is to contribute to a stable, peaceful, prosperous region in which sovereignty is respected. That is always Australia's motivation, and it is our motivation in the acquisition of this capability.

Karvelas: Is the Prime Minister still planning, does he want to visit China and is that invitation open?

Foreign Minister: The Prime Minister made clear at the G20 that he would be open to an invitation to visit China at the appropriate time and that remains our position.

Karvelas: We've talked about AUKUS over the last couple of days since it was announced. Obviously, this is a 30-year plan, this is huge. But it does rely on the idea that no one changes it. What's the possibility that Donald Trump would be elected, or a future American President could pull out of AUKUS and ask essentially for the submarines back? Have you war gamed that?

Foreign Minister: I'd make a few points about that. First, there is broad support across the political spectrum, in all three countries who are part of these arrangements, for the pathway that we've described. As you pointed out, this involves three phases. The first is rotation of American and British submarines through the Australian ports in the West and Sterling. The second is the acquisition of three Virginia subs, and the third is a joint construction effort to produce the next generation of submarines, which currently we're describing as the SSN AUKUS, but it's the evolution of the British submarine. Now all of those things bring benefits to all three countries and to the region. So, we have a great degree of confidence that this is a pathway which will continue to be walked down through governments of all political persuasions.

Karvelas: The International Atomic Energy Agency has indicated it's broadly comfortable with Australia's plan. You've written to the IAEA. What does Australia need to do to satisfy all their concerns?

Foreign Minister: We've not just written. I mean we have been very deeply engaged with the agency and transparent with the agency about our plans right from the point at which we came to government. This has been a high priority for us. And it's a high priority because we are a non-nuclear state who is seeking to acquire nuclear-propelled, not nuclear-armed but nuclear-propelled submarines. We want to make sure that Australia's impeccable record when it comes to nuclear safety and to the Non‑Proliferation Treaty is retained. We will work to do that. Now the treaty itself does contemplate nuclear propulsion. It does contemplate use of nuclear power for non‑weapons purposes. We will work with the IAEA to make sure that the arrangements we enter into are at the highest standard, and I hope that sets a very important international standard should any other country, non-nuclear weapons-armed country, seek to acquire nuclear-propelled submarines.

Karvelas: We know that China is lobbying the IAEA pretty hard, or reports are that that has been their focus. Are you worried they're getting traction?

Foreign Minister: Look, I have seen what the Chinese spokespeople have said. We don't believe that the assertions about the Non‑Proliferation Treaty reflect the text of the treaty. We're willing to be very transparent with China and with all other parties about our approach.

Karvelas: What does that transparency potentially look like? Sorry to interrupt.

Foreign Minister: Well, that transparency means this is how we will deal with this nuclear material. I mean the key purpose of the NPT is to prevent proliferation, which means other states, you know, non-nuclear states are not armed, don't seek weapons. We will never seek nuclear weapons. The second is, relevantly, is to make sure we deal with radioactive material in ways that ensure it cannot be diverted for military use, and we will do that and we will be very transparent about that. We appreciate that other countries already have nuclear weapons. We don't wish to acquire them. We've made that very clear.

Karvelas: Can you just give me a sense of in the preparation for this announcement yesterday, you spoke of course to many of your counterparts across the region. How much effort did you personally invest in briefing and preparing nations in our region about yesterday's announcement?

Foreign Minister: Look, across our team, which obviously includes first and foremost the PM but obviously the DPM, myself and also Pat Conroy who works both with Richard and I, you know, we regarded it as a central priority to make sure we were very transparent and open with our region ahead of this announcement. Obviously, I've engaged with the region as an incoming Foreign Minister. Obviously, this is one of the things we wanted to be very clear about what our intention was and how we would approach this, and we have ensured that we have done a lot of diplomatic work both in the Pacific and also Southeast Asia. And the reason we have done that is we want our neighbours to understand what Australia's motivation in seeking this capability is and what Australia's intention is. Australia is, you know, some describe us as a middle power. We're not one of the great powers in the region. We have consistently said we want to contribute to peace, stability, we want to ensure we have a region where sovereignty is respected. We've urged the great powers to manage their competition wisely. We want to work with our region to keep the peace and that is how we approach this and all aspects of our engagement with the region.

Karvelas: I'm of course speaking with Foreign Minister Penny Wong here on RN Breakfast.

Minister, a senior Indonesian official says the country's sea lanes should not be used by Australian nuclear propelled submarines because AUKUS was created for fighting. Does it concern you that a country we have such close ties with, Indonesia, is responding negatively to this announcement?

Foreign Minister: I saw those comments from a Parliamentarian, and I also saw the comments from the Defence Minister's spokesperson where they made it clear that we understand the national interests of each country and hope each country also respects the national interests of other countries. I appreciated the openness of the discussions that Richard and I had with the Foreign Minister and Defence Minister of Indonesia recently in the 2+2 Ministerial Meeting in Canberra. We appreciated the discussion. I will just make this point. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry official statement made the same point that I've been making to you this morning, that maintaining peace and stability in the region is the responsibility of all countries. It is critical for all countries to be part of this effort. That's what we're part of.

Karvelas: Are you worried that AUKUS will further divide the Pacific between countries that support China and countries that are wary of it, that this will actually inflame those divisions?

Foreign Minister: I think that we have done ‑ we have spent a lot of time engaging with our Pacific family about security issues. We have engaged with them about AUKUS and we have listened to some of the issues they've raised, and obviously nuclear issues are highly sensitive because of the history of the peoples of the Pacific and we respect that and we understand that. Which is why there is a greater need for transparency. On the broader issue of, in terms of your question, I don't think those sort of binary divides is the way we should look at regional security in the Pacific. I think the way we should look at regional security in the Pacific is to recognise the importance of regionalism and to say, to back in what Pacific leaders themselves have said which is, you know, security is the responsibility of the Pacific family. That's how we'll approach this capability and our engagement with Pacific more broadly.

Karvelas: What message will the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese deliver to his Fijian counterpart when he arrives today?

Foreign Minister: Well I don't think I'll pre‑empt what the Prime Minister says to Prime Minister Rabuka but what I would say is that you would anticipate that he will reflect respectful listening, he will reflect the interests of the Pacific, what Pacific leaders have said, you know, the 2050 vision for the Blue Pacific Continent, and the importance of regional security and the respectful way in which we want to engage on that.

Karvelas: South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas says nuclear waste from AUKUS submarines should not necessarily be stored in South Australia, but South Australia does get a lot of the jobs from this deal. Where should it go?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'm not going to pre‑empt that, Patricia. I mean this is some decades away. We have a responsibility for stewardship of the material which powers these submarines. We've said we'll go through a process initially for Defence to identify Defence estate which might be viable and we will be transparent about that.

Karvelas: Just finally, what's your reaction to reports two Russian fighter jets forced a US drone out of the sky over the Black Sea?

Foreign Minister: We are deeply concerned by the unsafe and unprofessional conduct that has been reportedly engaged in by Russia. I note that the US asserts very clearly this occurred in international air space. So this is unprofessional and unnecessary. We would urge that diplomatic channels continue to be used to avoid any further miscalculation.

Karvelas: Penny Wong, thank you so much for joining us.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you.

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