Television interview, Channel News Asia with Chan Eu Imm

  • Transcript (E&OE)
Subjects: AUKUS; Australia-China relations; North Korean missile tests; Southeast Asia Economic Strategy.

Chan Eu Imm, Host: Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong joins us live from Adelaide. Now, Minister, the world and especially us here in Asia are following this AUKUS submarine deal very closely because it has potential implications for us. The wider worry is the precedent is sets when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation as expressed by countries like China, Indonesia and Malaysia. How will Australia reassure your neighbours about this?

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Well, first by making sure we acquire this capability very transparently. And we have provided briefings, we will provide more briefings. We will continue to talk with the region and listen to the region about any concerns they may have. I want to start by saying what you yourself said in the recap before I came on, which is, we, Australia will never seek to acquire nuclear weapons. We do not seek that nuclear capability. What we are seeking to do is to replace an existing and ageing submarine capability with a new capability, which is nuclear propulsion – very different to nuclear armed.

I would also talk about our motivation. You know, we’re a middle power, like most of the – many of the countries of the region. We don’t seek to acquire this capability to do anything other than to seek to ensure a strategic equilibrium. We seek to acquire this capability in order to help keep the peace. We want a peaceful, stable prosperous region as Singapore, as Malaysia, as Indonesia does, and we want a region that is respectful of sovereignty. And all of our capability - which, in the scheme of things in the Indo-Pacific is not by any means a substantial capability - we want all of our capability, diplomatic and strategic, directed to this end.

Chan Eu Imm: Minister, China’s mission to the UN, though, just released a statement criticising the deal saying it is a blatant act, that it hurts peace and stability in the region. So, yes, AUKUS is seen as a deterrent to China’s growing ambition in this region in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea. Others, though, say this deal may contribute to a dangerous rise in military tensions with China. So, Minister, what is the risk of greater Australian defence capability proving destabilising instead of stabilising in this region?

Foreign Minister: Well, I again go back to why we are seeking this capability, which is to contribute to what I’ve described as a strategic equilibrium. We want a region where no single country is dominated, no single country dominates. We want a region which is peaceful, stable and secure. And we will always work to that end, whether it’s this capability, our economic engagement or our diplomatic capability.

What I would say is people can judge this government and Australia by how we have operated in the region. And I think people will see, you know, we are not a country that is seeking to escalate. In fact, I and others have called for, in terms of the great powers, we have urged that there be guardrails around the competition between the great powers. You know, we have been a voice in support of the great powers managing their competition wisely. And I think that’s consistent with much of the ASEAN region.

Chan Eu Imm: US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said that competition requires dialogue and diplomacy and Defence Minister Richard Marles today also saying Australia has offered to brief China about the deal. Have you got any response from Beijing yet, and what are you hoping the response will be?

Foreign Minister: Yes, when I spoke to the new Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, in Delhi I offered a briefing, and I’m sure that, you know, we will be able to give further information to our Chinese counterparts. And we’re happy to do so.

But can I go back to the beginning of your question, because I think that’s a very good introduction – and that is dialogue. We were very pleased that President Biden put on the table guardrails and increased dialogue prior to his meeting last year with President Xi. We would continue to encourage that. I think the region would hope and expect that the great powers manage their competition wisely, put in place guardrails to ensure that there is not escalation, put in place frameworks to ensure there is not miscalculation.

Australia obviously, is a US ally. There are many others in the region who are not. But we do share a very clear view about the importance of competition being managed, regardless of where we come from.

Chan Eu Imm: And Chinese President Xi Jinping as you know has secured a third term. And the trajectory of his first two terms largely tackling corruption, Belt and Road and eliminating poverty, raising per capita GDP, and then COVID-19 came. Now given geopolitical tensions and poor relations with the West he is very major focused on what he says is marrying development and security and pledging to build his military into a ‘great wall of steel’ to defend China’s interests, and one of which is to reunite with Taiwan by 2027. So, to what extent, Minister, are you concerned that alliances like AUKUS and the Quad are driving, or could drive a regional arms race that could lead to warfare in Asia? And if that happens, what will Australia do in such a situation?

Foreign Minister: Well, first, the nub of your question appears to be that the engagement between partner nations such as the Quad – so including India and Japan, as well as Australia and the US – that that engagement, which really is focused on peace and stability, is somehow escalatory. Look, I don’t accept that, and I actually don’t think region believes that.

We are being very transparent about what we seek. We are being very transparent about what we are doing. And we are clear as a smaller power that we want to be part of a region where great powers don’t simply dominate. We want to be part of a region where sovereignty is respected.

You know, I think that’s one of the lessons of Russia and Ukraine is we have to keep striving for an international order and a regional order in which sovereignty of all is protected. And that’s the approach Australia takes. And I actually think that is the same sort of aspiration that countries, which might be from different perspectives, but it’s actually the same objective that so many countries of the region want – stability, prosperity, peace and the respect of sovereignty.

Chan Eu Imm: And, Minister, let’s look a bit more closely at China-Australia relations. How will Canberra balance this long-term military strategy with its economic imperatives which, at the moment, involve repairing and restoring trade relations with Beijing, which is your largest trading partner?

Foreign Minister: It is. Look, what we’ve said to China and to the Chinese Ministers with whom we’ve engaged, including on my visit to Beijing, is we think it’s in their interests, their country’s interests, their people’s interests as well, as well as Australia’s, to remove those trade impediments. We have said we believe it is possible for us to continue to grow our bilateral relationship if we manage our differences wisely.

Now, we seek to manage those differences wisely. We seek to be clear about where our national interests lie, what our national interests are and to make our sovereign decisions about them but to engage in a way that is respectful, recognises that China has its set of interests, that we will engage around both our national interests, and we would seek resolve differences which will inevitably arise wisely. But on the trade point, I’d again reiterate we believe it is in both countries’ interests for those trade impediments to be removed.

Chan Eu Imm: And looking at North Korea, Minister, Pyongyang fired two short‑range ballistic missiles this morning. And you met with your Quad counterpart earlier this month in New Delhi, and one area of focus was Pyongyang’s aggression and threats. What is your view on South Korea’s plan to step up engagement with the Quad, and what will the implications of this be for bolstering regional security?

Foreign Minister: Well, as we know, North Korea is a rogue state and has, despite really widespread virtually universal condemnation of its behaviours, continued down a very destabilising path, which is destabilising for the region. And what is destabilising for our region is ultimately destabilising for the world. So, continuing to ensure that we have alliances, partnerships between nations to reinforce stability is important in the face of the sorts of behaviours that we have seen over and over again from the North Korean regime.

Chan Eu Imm: Minister, Australia also hosting the next Quad Leaders’ Summit in Sydney later this year. What can we expect from this?

Foreign Minister: Well, we can talk again after that, but look, I think the Quad is really strengthening. And it’s strengthening in a way that looks to how it is that we can create a stronger and more stable region. And obviously people describe it in strategic terms. It also has a role in many of the, as my friend Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister of India Jaishankar, talks about, you know, the delivery of public goods – that is things of common benefit to the region. And humanitarian and disaster relief is one area where we are working to cooperate more closely.

So, look, what I’d say is I think that arrangement has been a very important development over these last years. It’s a very good dialogue from countries of the region towards stability and common benefit. And for Australia it works alongside our commitment to ASEAN, which holds the centre of the region. And ASEAN centrality, as you know, is so important to the architecture of the region in which we live.

Chan Eu Imm: Let’s pick up on that point about ASEAN, Minister. Looking at Southeast Asia, the region is one of Australia’s vital trade partners. And last year in Singapore you said the greatest trade and economic opportunities for Australia over the next 30 years lie in the ASEAN region. In which key sectors that marry well with Australian capabilities are you most keen to strengthening engagement as Australia works towards your 2040 strategy?

Foreign Minister: Look, that’s a good question, and, you know, I could give you a range of answer. I could talk about our 2050 net zero strategy and how we are wanting to shift what is a very energy-intensive economy, emissions-intensive economy, to becoming a clean energy super power and the opportunities for the region. But can I answer it in this way; when I came to office in this role I was very clear that I wanted to increase Australia’s economic engagement with the ASEAN region. Now, I know we’re not a market of the size of China’s. We don’t have the investment capacity the United States have. But, you know, we have certain sectors where we are world leaders in.

So, I asked Nicholas Moore, who is the former CEO of Macquarie Bank - probably very well known to many of your viewers, as an entity because it’s obviously got such a large economic footprint in Southeast Asia - I’ve asked him to be my ASEAN envoy, the Government’s ASEAN envoy, and I’ve asked him to craft the ASEAN economic strategy for Australia. And so, I hope to get that report soon, and I hope what we will be able to do as a consequence of that report is to really lift and leverage Australia’s strengths in terms of our economic engagement with the region. Because, as you point out, if you look at economic growth, economic potential, population growth between now and 2030 and 2040, ASEAN is the key. We’ve always known it’s the centre of the region. We’re committed to that, but it will become even more economically powerful in the years and decades ahead.

Chan Eu Imm: All right, Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

Foreign Minister: Thank you very much.

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