Defence Strategic Review: Richard Marles on China-Taiwan conflict

Defence Minister Richard Marles says he doesn’t think a war over Taiwan is “inevitable” as he continues to defend Australia’s multi-billion dollar nuclear submarine plans.

Speaking on the eve of the release of a landmark review of Australia’s military capability, Mr Marles said the government remained optimistic a China-Taiwan conflict could be avoided.

The commonwealth’s plan to purchase and manufacture nuclear-powered military submarines under the AUKUS pact with the United States and UK has triggered questions about the role Australia would play if the US entered into a future war over the status of Taiwan.

Debate has ignited over how Australia can ensure it maintains sovereign capability of the submarines given the deal will involve technology sharing with the US as well as the purchase of up to five American vessels.

Mr Marles, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister, told Sky News on Sunday it was “completely fair enough” the AUKUS pact would attract criticism.

“We live in a free society and we expect that,” he said.

“But we will continue to make our argument to the Australian people about why it’s so important that we walk down this path. We need to have this capability.”

The AUKUS agreement was signed by the Morrison government in 2021 and it continues to be supported by both the Coalition and Labor.

Asked on Sunday about Paul Keating’s recent savage criticisms of the trilateral security pact, Mr Marles said he held the former Labor prime minister in “high regard”.

“I’ve been keen to keep him abreast of the thinking of the government and the direction in which we’re going,” he said.

Mr Marles said nuclear-powered submarines were “front and centre” to Australia’s mission to maintain collective security in the region and as well as the concept of a global rules-based order.

Sweeping recommendations to update Australia’s armed forces to counter the modern strategic challenges facing the country will be outlined in the Defence Strategic Review when it is released on Monday.

The review, led by former chief of defence Sir Angus Houston and former defence minister Stephen Smith, is expected to recommend a major increase to the nation’s military capabilities.

Mr Marles said on Sunday the review would provide a “thesis” of the “strategic landscape” Australia was a part of, pointing to the South China Sea as one issue that would be examined.

He suggested China and the US were part of a “great power contest” taking place around the world but said he was optimistic that struggle wouldn’t lead to a conflict over Taiwan.

“I have a sense of optimism. But having said that, we live in a very complex and difficult world. And we need to be alive to that,” he said.

“And that implies a lot in terms of the kind of defence force that we need.”

Mr Marles has previously shut down criticism from a security expert who claimed Australia had effectively committed to following the US into a conflict over Taiwan by signing the AUKUS agreement.

China hasn’t ruled out taking Taiwan — which split from the mainland 1949 but isn’t recognised as a sovereign nation by the United Nations or any major country including Australia — by force.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra last month, former US Navy secretary Richard Spencer wouldn’t confirm the US would assist Taiwan if Beijing invaded the self-governed democracy of 24 million people.

However, Mr Spencer said he hoped Australia would send its nuclear powered submarines to support America if a conflict eventuated.

Originally published as Conflict over Taiwan isn’t ‘inevitable’, Defence Minister Richard Marles says

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