ABC Insiders with David Speers - 27/02/2022

27 February 2022

SUBJECTS: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; implications for our region; Australia’s relationship with China; emerging capability gap in Australia’s submarine fleet.
DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome to the program.
SPEERS: The sanctions haven't stopped the horror we are witnessing in Ukraine. Can you understand why President Zelenskyy there feels the world is just watching from afar?
WONG: I can understand as much as we all can from afar, not only his horror but the horror of Ukrainians at what is happening in their homes, in their cities, in their towns. Can I just start by saying this; all Australians stand with the people of Ukraine, and Australians are united in our condemnation of Russia and Mr Putin's unprovoked, unjustified act of aggression, an act which we are seeing played out on our screens, where we see the attacks on civilians, on people's homes, towns and cities. But as you said at the start, David, this is not just an attack on Ukraine. It is that - in all of its horror - but it is an attack on the international system and on the principles which have kept humanity largely safe and peaceful since the end of World War II.
SPEERS: If it is that - an attack on the international system - and I note you have also called this is a grave moment for humanity - should there be some greater effort to help defend Ukraine?
WONG: There are no easy decisions for world leaders, for the leaders of any nation when confronted with what is really in this post-war period, an almost unprecedented act of aggression - the invasion of another country without justification, the attack on sovereignty and independence that Mr Putin has engaged in. What we do need to see is the strongest possible sanctions, and I've said this week the Government should ensure Australia has the most comprehensive, the weightiest sanctions we can and we should do so in conjunction with our partners and allies around the world - all states who believe and recognise the importance of the world order, the rules that have been in place since the end of World War II.
SPEERS: What about Australia's contribution here? We are providing non-lethal military support. Others are now providing weapons and missiles, anti-tank weapons. Is Australia doing enough on that front?
WONG: I hope we will see a continued ratcheting up of sanctions. We do need to ensure that the cost of Mr Putin's actions bite on him, those around him and on Russia, and the Russian economy. And that will take coordination, that will take resolve, people continuing to hold the course. I welcome the decision that I think you reported just earlier that it looks like the Europeans have agreed to exclude Russia from SWIFT. That will bite and that is a good thing.
SPEERS: And Australia is now also, it has been confirmed this morning, going to sanction Vladimir Putin directly. You welcome that?
WONG: We do. We do. I wondered why that work hadn't been done ahead of time when Senator Payne said she was looking for advice on that, but I welcome the fact that the Government has moved on that in conjunction with our allies and partners.
SPEERS: Should we go further, though? Trade - we don't have a huge amount of trade with Russia, so we probably don't have all that much to lose - should we ban all trade with Russia?
WONG: I've said we will give bipartisan support to the most comprehensive and heaviest sanctions that Australia can and should take. And so, I extend that invitation to the Government again. Obviously, the Government has to make decisions about what we can and should do and how that is coordinated with the rest of the international community, because the most important thing is that there are a coherent response from the international community, that continues to impose costs on Mr Putin and Russia for this unprovoked and unjustified act of aggression.
SPEERS: So, is what you are saying, if the Government went further and banned all trade with Russia, Labor would be willing to support that?
WONG: If the Government can demonstrate that that is where we need to go, if the Government can demonstrate that Australia's sanctions should head to that point, we are here to provide bipartisan support. I think the unity of the parties and of the Australian people to push back against Russian aggression does matter. But ultimately these are decisions the Government has to make judgements about, and I hope they will make sound judgements about that.
SPEERS: What about kicking out the Russian ambassador? I note the Labour Opposition in the UK are now saying that is what should happen there?
WONG: Yes, I raised that in the statement with Anthony Albanese earlier this week, that that is something the Government could consider. I note that Senator Payne has said that the Government has made a decision at this stage not to do so because they want to maintain the lines of communication, and I understand that. If that is the case, I hope we are using that line of communication to continue to express our view about Russia's behaviour, that no historical narrative justifies what we are seeing, including, as you have said, the attacks on civilians, that the world is seeing.
SPEERS: But these are difficult decisions…
WONG: They are difficult decisions…
SPEERS: (Inaudible) that line of communication, has it reached the point, do you think, where the Ambassador should be expelled?
WONG: I'm not going to look to find difference here, David.
WONG: This is a moment where, I think, as Anthony Albanese said yesterday, we want to come together, be united as a country because our national security should be above politics. It is a national asset, and the point here is that Russia's actions are not only an attack, in awful human terms, on the people of Ukraine, they are an attack on the system which has enabled a period of, in terms of human history, really unparalleled peace and prosperity since the end of World War II.
SPEERS: China has so far refused to condemn Russia's actions, its invasion. Nor has India. Both abstained from a vote in the UN Security Council yesterday to condemn Russia. Should both China and India be speaking up about this?
WONG: Well, Australia's position is, and should be, that the principle that sovereignty is respected, the principle that territorial integrity is respected, that these are not abrogated by violence or threat of violence, that should be our position. And that's what we would urge all countries, all countries, to be expressing. And whilst countries will take a different view about how they do that, I would make this point about China: China is a global leader. It is a permanent member of the Security Council, one of five. It has a special responsibility to make a clear statement that defends the principles around the sovereignty, around territorial integrity, the principles of international law and that are contained in the UN Charter. It has not done so. The second point I’d make it this: I made a statement in January where I pointed out China has a unique relationship with Russia. It is in a unique position to pressure Russia not to invade. Now, since that time we saw the China-Russia statement, just weeks out, days out in fact, of the invasion of Ukraine. A statement which said they have a special bilateral relationship, one which knows there are no areas in which they do not cooperate. I think that underscores China's obligations here. I make this final point: China's position is inconsistent. China has had, for decades, as a precept of their foreign policy, that they respect sovereignty and territorial integrity. The position they are currently articulating in relation to Ukraine is inconsistent with China's stated foreign policy position over decades.
SPEERS: What about India, though? India is a member of the Quad. Do we want to be Quad partners with a country that won't stand up for the very things you are talking about there - sovereignty, territorial integrity?
WONG: I understand from public reports that Prime Minister Modi has made India's position clear and has urged for Russia to discontinue or to withdraw from Ukraine and respect Ukraine's territorial integrity. As I said, countries do make their own decisions about how they adhere to these principles. We think it is an important principle and we will continue to say Australia should articulate our view, and encourage all others to articulate the view that territorial integrity and sovereignty should be sacrosanct and certainly should not be the subject of unjustified aggression, such as we have seen.
SPEERS: Do you think Russia's invasion of Ukraine will embolden China to seize Taiwan?
WONG: What I would say is this; no country should take from what is being seen now any justification for the unilateral changing of a status quo position. It is the case that what is occurring is relevant to our region, is relevant to the whole world. Where peace and security is threatened, it affects all of us, everywhere. But I would reiterate that no country should take any comfort from what is occurring, and unilateral aggressive changes to the status quo can never be justified.
SPEERS: This does sharpen the focus on the question, though - what should Australia do if China did try to seize Taiwan?
WONG: You know I won’t get into those hypotheticals. I would just simply say this; it is the position of the region, of Taiwan, of the United States – our principal ally – and of Australia that the status quo in relation to Taiwan can only be resolved peacefully, can only be altered peacefully and that there should be no unilateral changes to the status quo.
SPEERS: Do you think sanctions though, would cut it?
WONG: You are drawing me into ‘what would happen if’. I’m not going to do that for the reasons people well know, on Taiwan. But I again say, we support, like the United States, under successive administrations, the status quo and with our regional partners and allies continue to assert that there should be no unilateral changes to that status quo.
SPEERS: I want to ask you about China's relationship with Australia. You have criticised the Government for lacking a plan to deal with China. It has since then forged the AUKUS security partnership, the Quad has been elevated - is this the sort of plan you were looking for?
WONG: Certainly, in relation to the Quad and AUKUS, we have indicated our support for those. Ensuring we have strong partnerships, ensuring Australia has a capacity to expand its power and influence, to maintain the sort of region we want is important, which is why we've maintained the support for those institutions and those groupings. I would just make this point; a more aggressive China is a challenge that any government will have to deal with, and in fact that countries around the world are having to deal with. In meeting that challenge, the first principle must be we will never take a backward step when it comes to standing up for Australia's interests.
SPEERS: So, do you still think the Government lacks a plan?
WONG: What I would say is that bipartisanship is a national asset when it comes to dealing with a more assertive and more aggressive China. Bipartisanship is a national asset. And that is why, David, whatever my views about Mr Dutton's behaviour at times, or Mr Morrison's behaviour, we have lined up to provide that bipartisan support on key decisions, including in relation to the Quad, and we were pleased to meet with Foreign Ministers from those nations prior to the ministerial meeting.
SPEERS: I appreciate that…
WONG: And we've backed the AUKUS. So, what I would say is this; bipartisanship is a national asset and we should be safeguarding it.
SPEERS: I hear that point. Again, to the question, are you still critical of the Government for not having a plan on China, or do you think they now do and you're happy with it?
WONG: Look, I think there is always more we can do to improve Australia's power and influence…
SPEERS: Like what? What would we do?
WONG: … and improve our capability. And I've spoken about the importance of improving not only our military capability, where obviously a lot of the Government decisions have led to significant capability gaps, but our diplomatic capability, and our capacity to deal with what's called the grey zone, so those pressures which are applied to us which are short of a kinetic military conflict. I think also we can improve our economic resilience. We should be ensuring that we can make more here, that we are able to diversify, not just our export markets, but also our export products. So, there is a whole comprehensive plan, a whole comprehensive approach to making Australia more resilient and more secure in a world that is more difficult. And what I would say to you, is that Anthony Albanese and Labor is presenting such a plan and we will continue to add to it in the weeks and months ahead.
SPEERS: Is there anything you would do, though, Penny Wong, to improve relations with China? I note the Chinese Ambassador to Australia, the new Ambassador, did say the other day that "China is willing to work with Australia to meet each other halfway." Would Labor be willing to do that?
WONG: I would hope what that would mean is that the Chinese Ambassador would be looking to announce the removal of all of the economic pressures and effective sanctions against Australia and Australian products and exports. Look, I've said previously, whoever is in government, this is going to be a challenging relationship. Whoever is in government is going to have to manage the structural differences there are between China and Australia - enduring differences, some have called them, and that is the job of statecraft, that is the job of government and should be done soberly, consistently and calmly. And that is the approach we would take.
SPEERS: As part of the steps you articulated earlier, to improve Australia's standing, defence spending, it did fall as a percentage of GDP last time Labor was in office. Do you think it now needs to increase?
WONG: Two points I would make; the first is over the period of Rudd-Gillard governments, the proportion of GDP spent on defence, were about equivalent. Our strategic circumstances have changed, that is true.
SPEERS: I just want to clarify, it was lower than what it was under the Howard Government and lower than…
WONG: It was just over 1.7%, ok, so they were broadly equivalent, broadly similar. What I would say though, is this; our strategic circumstances have changed.
SPEERS: So, does it need to increase now?
WONG: That is why we have committed - and Anthony reiterated that again yesterday - to a floor of 2% on GDP on defence spending.
SPEERS: Does it need to go higher, is the question.
WONG: Before we start talking about that, though, what I am deeply concerned about, as has been played out at Senate Estimates over a couple of years, is that this Government seems to have been unable to convert increased defence spending into capability that the ADF can actually use when needed. And the most obvious example of that, is the capability gap on submarines after two contracts have now been junked and we clearly have a capability gap between the end of the life of the Collins and the earliest arrival of any nuclear-propelled submarine. From what I have seen, in answers to questions at Senate Estimates, there is no plan to deal with that.
SPEERS: What would be your plan? Do we need to build a new Collins Class submarine to fill the gap?
WONG: These are very big decisions, and I am certainly not going to be announcing them on Insiders. They are decisions government should make carefully and what I am more concerned about is Peter Dutton does not appear to have turned his mind to how we fill that gap
SPEERS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining us.
WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.