Doorstop, Washington DC

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Washington visit, AUKUS, Future support for Ukraine; Missile industry.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I'm Pat Conroy, the Australian Minister for Defence Industry and also Minister for International Development and the Pacific. I've had a successful start to my trip to the United States. This trip is all about deepening our ties, building on our alliance, and working on areas of joint interest. A couple of really important ones are expanding our defence industrial collaboration to enhance the capabilities of both the Australian Defence Force but also support the US defence effort, and especially on AUKUS priorities. So working to move AUKUS from a very important idea into concrete realities that advance our national interests.

On the Pacific side, I've got a series of meetings with Pacific policymakers within the Biden administration, as well as Pacific leaders who are here for the World Bank meetings. And that's all about advancing the priorities of the Pacific and working with the United States on how we can share our common interest in a peaceful and prosperous Pacific. So I'm very happy to answer any questions anyone might have.

Journalist: Can you tell us any more about your discussions earlier today with Ukraine's Finance Minister? Has Ukraine I suppose repeatedly asked Australia for more support, where is that up to and what more support might Australia provide?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well that request is going through the normal government processes. It was a real privilege to meet the Finance Minister of Ukraine and I reasserted Australia's strong support for their struggle against Putin's illegal and unprincipled invasion and said that we were proud and privileged to be the biggest provider of assistance outside of NATO. That includes $388 million worth of lethal aid as well as $60 million of more traditional assistance. We'll work through the processes of where we can provide greater assistance, but as I said we are the greatest provider of assistance outside of NATO and that includes 60 Bushmaster vehicles. I'm at a Defence Industry conference where Thales is making those vehicles. I visited the Bendigo production facility and the workers there are so proud that their products are protecting Ukrainian soldiers in the fight for freedom right now.

Journalist: Would you support sending Australian military personnel overseas to help train Ukrainian forces?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Oh, look, it's premature for me to comment. We're working through the normal government processes and I'm confident that where we can provide further help, we will, and we are united in support for the struggle of the Ukrainian people.

Journalist: And should Australia be sending more Bushmasters?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Oh look, I'm not going to speculate on where we end up. I know the Ukrainian Ambassador has been very vocal on that. We've provided 60 already as well as M113 armoured infantry fighting vehicles. We're proud of our efforts and we'll see where we can do more.

Journalist: There's been some discussion back home from the Opposition about the speed of that process to send more assistance. Are you confident the processes are kind of moving quickly enough within government to decide whether we send more Bushmasters or further aid?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Oh absolutely. We've responded very quickly to any specific requests from the Ukrainian government and we're in regular contact with the Government. I visited Thales Bendigo a day after the Ukrainian Ambassador was there. So we'll keep working hard. I think it's unfortunate that people are taking pot-shots when I think quite frankly the entire nation is united in support of the struggle of the Ukrainian people.

Journalist: You mentioned in your speech the Government's plan to build a domestic missiles industry that can be also supporting the US Defence Force as well as Australia's. What's your timeline around that to be up and running and operational? Kind of how big a process is that and how long will it take?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well we've contracted with two strategic partners which are Lockheed Martin Australia and Raytheon Australia who are the two dominant producers of missiles within the United States defence ecosystem. And they're reporting back to us shortly on where the opportunities for us are to manufacture parts or entire missiles. This is a really important enterprise. The lessons from the Ukraine war are that we use missile stocks or all munitions, but particularly guided weapons, very fast in a conflict. And quite frankly we need more missiles in Australia, both as a stock and also the ability to maintain, repair and upgrade those missiles. That's why the guided weapons enterprise is a multibillion-dollar exercise to develop that and I'm confident that at the end of this process we will have a much more sovereign capability to manufacture and upgrade missiles which are so important.

Journalist: You arrived in the US with mid‑term elections obviously just around the corner, Donald Trump talking about whether he runs again as well. Just on AUKUS more generally, are you confident in the kind of level of bipartisan support for that regardless of the domestic politicking that happens here?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I am. I met with Congressman Rob Wittman last night. Congressman Wittman is a senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. He was instrumental in driving legislation through congress that allows Australian sailors right now to train on US nuclear submarines, which is incredibly important given the 15-year lead time to train nuclear experienced sailors.

So there's strong support for AUKUS and the alliance across the aisle in the United States political system. After this press conference I'm going up to Congress to meet with senior Congressional staff to talk about AUKUS and Pacific priorities, and I'm very confident that the alliance is enduring.

Journalist: How is Australia going to address the capability gap under AUKUS, and could it involve the US producing the first few submarines so that we could have them by I think the mid‑2030s as has been reported here recently?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well we'll see what the task force from Admiral Mead reports to Government, and they're due to report early next year. But the Australian Government, the new Australian Government has been very clear that we cannot allow a capability gap to occur. We've had a waste of ten years unfortunately. We've gone through Japanese submarines wasting $3.5 billion on submarines that weren't delivered. So we need to get this right and we need to make sure there is no capability gap and that's why we're working with our allies and partners on that. That's going to be one of the key topics of conversation I have with my counterparts is how do we work together. The really important thing is at the end of this process AUKUS is about expanding industrial collaboration and the industrial base for all three nations. It's not about us buying more weapons from the UK, United States. It's about us growing all three industrial bases to really make sure that we're very, as well as equipped as possible in a world where we're under a greater strategic threat than any time since 1945. So this is really important. Nuclear submarines are one part of it, as are the other AUKUS priorities around things like hypersonics and cyber. So these are key conversations and we're confident we'll get through with a solution that really will solve that problem.

Journalist: Is it helpful as you have these discussions to have a former Prime Minister in Paul Keating criticising AUKUS, saying Australia should walk away and criticising the Quad as strategic nonsense?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: Well Paul Keating's entitled to his view, as any Australian is, and quite frankly any former Prime Minister is entitled to their view on these things, but we strongly disagree with that. We think that the Quad, AUKUS, ASEAN, our other arrangements, the ANZUS Treaty, are all critical elements of our security. The Quad in particular is playing a vital role in advancing the prosperity and security of the Indo‑Pacific. And quite frankly I think the symbolism of Prime Minister Albanese's first role upon being sworn in as Prime Minister was travelling to the Quad in Japan was critical. So we're incredibly supportive of the Quad. We think it's a critical part of the regional architecture and we're already interested in how we invest more in it, not less.

Journalist: It probably doesn't help having Paul Keating saying these kind of things though?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific: I'll leave the commentary to you. All I can say is I and the Australian Government strongly disagree with it.

Journalist: Thank you very much.

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