Topic:  Shangri-La Dialogue; Government to find additional Defence savings; Australia-China relationship; Chinese military exercises around Taiwan; Australian military reputation;

08:05AM AEST
Friday, 2 June 2023


Hamish MacDonald: This is RN Breakfast This evening. The Prime Minister will deliver perhaps his biggest foreign policy speech to date. Anthony Albanese will present the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. He’ll be joined by the Defence Minister, Richard Marles, who last year held the first high level ministerial meeting there in three years with the Chinese. Simon Birmingham is the shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. He joins me now. Welcome back to Breakfast.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Hamish. Great to be with you.


Hamish MacDonald: What do you want to hear from the Prime Minister as he makes this keynote address? It should be noted it’s a very big deal being the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue.


Simon Birmingham: It is quite significant to the Prime Minister will be the third Australian Prime Minister to do so. The last one being Malcolm Turnbull in 2017. So it’s a welcome opportunity for Australia to advance our national interest and Prime Minister Albanese should be detailing the rationale and strategic circumstances underpinning the National Defence strategy that is there within the Defence Strategic Review that the Government has designed and released now. I suspect in private in his different briefings he will need to be explaining to people how it is that the Government is acting with the urgency that the Defence Strategic Review requires and identifies, whilst not actually increasing the defence budget within the forward estimates period. But in his speech, no doubt-


Hamish MacDonald: Just on that, do you doubt that the Government is acting with necessary urgency?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the proof will be there in the decisions that they take. I can see that they are working to deliver many of the things the Coalition announced in terms of the support for nuclear-powered submarines, in terms of the support for longer range missile and strike capability. And they are very important initiatives to get on and deliver. They have unfinished identification of where some of that money is coming from. They have indicated they’ve committed to more spending but not yet found all of the savings and haven’t increased the defence budget. So that doesn’t really add up. It’s one of the things that was exposed during Senate estimates over the course of this Estimates fortnight that the Government still has savings to find to meet what it says it’s going to spend in the defence budget, given it’s overcommitted relative to what it has actually budgeted there.


Hamish MacDonald: What’s the what’s the gap? Can you put a figure on it?


Simon Birmingham: We know the gap sits at around $1.8 billion of further savings and cuts that have to be found. And it’s also at a time where the ASPI, in their budget analysis, found this week that in fact the defence budget has gone back by $1.5 billion of what is being directly spent on defence once you take foreign currency adjustments out of the consideration. So we’ve got a situation where in fact the defence budget has gone backwards. The Government is still searching for a further $1.8 billion of savings within the defence budget, but they’re responding to a Defence Strategic Review that speaks very clearly about the fact that warning time for Australia has shortened dramatically compared with our previous defence circumstances and the urgency of response has therefore increased significantly. And so the Government does need to find a way to rationalise that and to demonstrate that it is getting on with sufficient speed and resources to deliver upon the priorities identified in the DSR.


Hamish MacDonald: It was at this same summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue last year that relations between China and Australia did appear to thaw somewhat diplomatically, given that Richard Marles was able to meet his counterpart, the Chinese Defence Minister. There’s the possibility, of course, that he might do that again at this summit. Do you give this credit, some government for at least moving the relationship with China forward somewhat?


Simon Birmingham: Yes, Hamish, I’ve been very public about that and very bipartisan in the support we’ve given for the dialogue and the meetings that have happened. It is very welcome that China ceased its ban that they imposed on having ministerial level dialogue with Australia. Australia’s always been willing to sit down at the table with China and it was quite counterproductive of China to refuse to have that dialogue and those talks. So the talks are welcome. You’re right now though, that it is more than 12 months and we’ve had various meetings between the Defence Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Trade Minister and the Prime Minister and their various Chinese counterparts. And so what everybody is looking for now is further, faster action in terms of how China responds, noting that China is still continuing to impose punishment and coercion upon Australia with the range of trade sanctions they put in place, many of which are still there, that are completely counter to the commitments China made to Australia under the free trade agreement that they voluntarily entered into and agreed to commit to with Australia.


Hamish MacDonald: Last month China announced it successfully completed three days of wargame drills around Taiwan. They’ve also announced they’ll join the six other Asian nations to perform military exercises later in the year. Do you think that Australia should be taking a more assertive approach in responding to what China does militarily, particularly in relation to Taiwan?


Simon Birmingham: I think Australia is right to continue as we do in terms of exerting our rights with other partner nations in terms of freedom of navigation, in terms of freedom of flight within the region, to work very closely with our partners to-


Hamish MacDonald: That’s not quite the question though, is it? This is about responding to those military exercises, which clearly are terrifying the Taiwanese.


Simon Birmingham: They are no doubt deeply troubling for people in Taiwan. And they are discussions that that I’ve had with people who’ve been there and seen and experienced that. And it is an incredible show of resilience from the people of Taiwan who get on and manage to have one of the strongest economies and democracies within our region, notwithstanding the extent of that pressure. Now, we should be very clear that we do not support the type of escalation in military activity that we’ve seen, that we wish to see a de-escalation not just because of the pressure it puts on, but also because of the increased risk of miscalculation that occurs. And that’s why those military activities are so concerning, as indeed as was reported over the last week or so, the close proximity engagement between a Chinese aircraft and a US aircraft. Again, those things increase the risks of some type of accident or miscalculation occurring that could prompt escalation that none of us would wish to see.


Hamish MacDonald: We’ve, of course, been reporting on the verdict in the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial. Separately to that case, we found out in estimates this week that the US had expressed concern over Australia’s SAS soldiers in Afghanistan and that the embassy here wrote to the ADF Chief General Angus Campbell, on this issue, raising concerns about cooperation. How much does the reputational damage that’s been done to our military impact our relationships with allies?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I think allies should and will take comfort in the fact that Australia has showed a level of transparency and commitment to due process in this regard, that very few nations actually apply with the type of rigour that through the Brereton report we have, that the ethics and conduct of those SAS soldiers who have caused these reviews spoken out publicly are indeed ones that demonstrate that there is a strong culture there and that we need to be very clear in all of this that we have a defence force overwhelmingly who applied themselves in Afghanistan to the good of the people of Afghanistan, to trying to liberate women and girls and provide education and health care opportunities to them. And as tragic as the final circumstances we see in Afghanistan are, and as reprehensible as any war crimes would be, that there is much for us to be proud of in terms of the work of our defence forces. And I think around the world people can see the good in that work and also the transparency in care that Australia brings in terms of ensuring that we hold ourselves to the highest of possible standards.


Hamish MacDonald: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Hamish. My pleasure.