Australia has “absolutely not” given the US any commitment as part of the Aukus negotiations that it would join its top security ally in a potential future war over the status of Taiwan, the deputy prime minister has said.
Richard Marles made the comment as he continued to defend Australia’s multi-decade plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, with help from the US and the UK, at a total cost of up to $368bn between now and the mid-2050s.
Marles, who is also the defence minister, said on Sunday that China’s rapid military buildup “shapes the strategic landscape in which we live”.
He told the ABC’s Insiders program the Aukus submarines would back up Australia’s interest in protecting trade and freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea.
Marles said he would not speculate about a future conflict over Taiwan – a self-governed democracy of 24 million people that China has not ruled out taking by force – but argued it was “a completely separate question”.
The US is planning to sell Australia at least three – and as many as five – Virginia-class submarines in the 2030s. This attempts to fill the “capability gap” between the retirement of Australia’s diesel-electric Collins-class submarines and the entry into service of British-designed, Australian-built nuclear-powered submarines from the 2040s.
The ABC’s David Speers asked Marles whether Australia had explicitly or implicitly given the US a commitment that it would join the ally in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, in return for access to the Virginia-class submarines.
“The answer to that is of course not,” Marles replied. “Of course not – and nor was one sought. I’ve listened to that conjecture from a number of commentators. It is plain wrong.”
Pressed to confirm there was “no quid pro quo”, Marles added: “Absolutely not. And I couldn’t be more unequivocal than that.”
Marles reiterated that “the moment that there is a flag on the first of those Virginia-class submarines in the early 2030s is the moment that that submarine will be under the complete control of the Australian government of the day”.
China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, earlier this month reiterated that Taiwan was “part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China” and warned of “conflict and confrontation” if the US “does not hit the brake but continues to speed down the wrong path”.
Marles said the nuclear-powered submarines would have “the capacity to operate in the context of war” but the primary intent here was to “make our contribution to the stability of the region, to the collective security of the region”.
“What Australians do in respect of any conflict is always a matter for an Australian government of the day to control, and this doesn’t remove any one ounce of that control.”
Marles was reluctant to name China as a threat to Australia’s shipping lanes, but argued that Beijing was “seeking to shape the world around it in a way that we’ve not seen it do prior to the last decade”.
China had created artificial islands and asserted sovereignty in a way that was not consistent with the UN convention on the law of the sea or the ruling of an international tribunal in 2016, Marles said.
Marles acknowledged that a lot of that trade was with China, but added: “All of our trade to Japan, all of our trade to South Korea – two of our top five trading partners – goes through the South China Sea.
“The only point to make here is that the maintenance of the rules-based order, as we understand it, freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, is completely in Australia’s interests … and that’s why we have to walk down path that we are.”
Earlier on Sunday, the Australian National University emeritus professor Hugh White warned of the hidden cost of the Virginia-class submarines.
White told the Democracy Sausage podcast: “There is, so far as I can see, absolutely no way that any US administration would sell their scarce nuclear-powered attack submarines, of which they have fewer than they need … unless they were absolutely sure that in the event of a major conflict in Asia – conflict with China – that Australia’s submarines would be available to them.”
The Chinese government has railed against the Aukus deal, saying it reflects a “typical cold war mentality” and “opens a Pandora’s box, which will seriously impact regional and global peace and security”.
On Friday the Chinese foreign ministry repeated its longstanding claims that the US, the UK and Australia were forming “an Anglo-Saxon clique” in an attempt to “create a Nato-replica in the region”.
“If this attempt succeeds, it forebodes unprecedented threats and challenges to the decades-long stability and prosperity in the region,” a foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said at a regular press conference.
The Australian trade minister, Don Farrell, told Sky News on Sunday that the two countries had not “nailed down a particular date” for him to have an in-person meeting with China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, in Beijing.
“The discussions have been going well at an officials level … the offer is still there to go, I’ve accepted that offer,” Farrell said.
“Everything is pointing in the right direction for a stabilisation of the relationship and I’d be very confident that that process would continue.”