30 November 2021

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:25): My question is to Minister Payne, representing the Minister for Defence. Minister, the AUKUS security agreement and the government's decision to spend many billions on nuclear submarines is predicated on the rise of China, but there are signs that China will soon peak or may have already done so. Their economy is not what it was. GDP growth is rapidly decelerating, productivity growth has tumbled and the country is dangerously exposed to a collapsing real estate bubble. The country is ageing rapidly and its birth rate has plummeted. China will almost certainly grow old before it grows rich and may pose very little risk to Australia. Given this context, what is the strategic rationale for a long-term investment in nuclear submarines?

Senator PAYNE (New South WalesMinister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women) (14:26): I thank Senator Griff for his question. I note the senator's points; however, all of the advice to government, all of the work that we have done with counterparts in the region, and, indeed, more broadly, tells us that our strategic environment has most certainly deteriorated faster than anticipated, faster than expected. The trajectory of the strategic environment is not expected to change substantially. The decision to pursue the trilateral partnership with our oldest allies and partners, the United States and the United Kingdom, is about protecting our security and our prosperity, as all countries do. It's about making a contribution to regional stability. We will continue to work not just with those traditional partners and allies but across a whole range of relationships in the region and, again, more broadly. I've spoken about these in this chamber before. I've spoken about our engagements with ASEAN—very much focused on the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific, at the centre of our perceptions of the Indo-Pacific. I've spoken about our relationships across the Five Eyes in terms of intelligence sharing. I've spoken about our more contemporary relationships in the Quad itself as a new, innovative and focused group of four leading democracies, addressing some of the key issues which also challenge our strategic environment, like climate change, like the vaccine challenge that we've spoken about in this chamber this week, like cyber and critical technologies—(Time expired)

Senator GRIFF : Minister, strategic analysts from ASPI suggest the likelihood of conflict with China is greatest in the next five years, long before any new subs arrive. They also suggest conflict is most likely to occur in Taiwan, conflict the defence minister has committed us to fighting. Wouldn't it be more prudent for us to invest in equipment that would be available in the coming years when the risk is to be perceived greater?

Senator PAYNE : I can absolutely assure Senator Griff and the chamber that these two things are not mutually exclusive and that that is not the approach that the government is taking. It's not an either/or approach. In fact, we are doing both. For example, any reference to the record of the AUSMIN meetings of the last two years, both 2020 and 2021, provides a very clear indicator of the government's commitments and ambitions in that regard. As you say, the defence minister has spoken of those in his recent comments. We will work closely, as I said, with those counterparts in the region: with ASEAN; with our Quad partners; with our Five Eyes partners; with the European Union, particularly given their Indo-Pacific strategy released recently. I was speaking to the new Canadian Foreign Minister last week in relation to the work that Canada is also doing in this area. Australia is not the only country by any stretch, by any consideration, who is facing these issues and addressing these issues head on.

Senator GRIFF : Some ministers have made the claim that we need to invest in defence because 'without sovereignty you don't have a country'. Hasn't the government already compromised Australia's sovereignty by the defence minister stating that, in any armed conflict between China and the United States, Australia is locked into sending Australia's finest young men and women into that theatre of war?

Senator PAYNE : I thank Senator Griff for his second supplementary question. The focus on sovereignty is one which is a key priority for the government. In all of the comments, speeches and remarks that have been made by the Prime Minister, the defence minister and me over an extended period of time, our absolute priority has been Australia's national interests and protecting Australia's sovereignty. The Australian people expect no less and the Australian people deserve no less.

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