National Security

Transcript | ABC News Radio | 20 November 2023

November 20, 2023

Monday 20 November 2023
Interview on ABC News Radio
Subject: PLA Navy dangerous actions harm Australian Navy divers, AUKUS, DP World and Australia’s cyber readiness

THOMAS ORITI: James Paterson is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Cyber Security and joins us right on the program now. Good morning to you, James.

JAMES PATERSON: Good morning.

ORITI: So, you've raised concerns that the Albanese Government didn't tell us what was going on until after the Prime Minister had left the APEC summit. That was in San Francisco last week. China's President was there as well. So, what are your concerns?

PATERSON: Well, there's nothing more important than the safety and well-being of our men and women in uniform and if it is true, as it appears that it is, that the People's Liberation Army Navy took a deliberate step to harm and injure our personnel, then all Australians would expect that our Prime Minister would raise that on our behalf robustly when he met President Xi in San Francisco. I'm someone who is supportive generally of the Prime Minister's need to travel to these international summits. But the whole point of going to these summits is that you stand up for Australia and you stand up for our national interests and if he failed to raise this with Xi Jinping, then I think that is an abdication of leadership.

ORITI: But he's dancing a dance, isn't he, because this was the meeting, very sensitive. We're trying to, you know, engender better relations with China after years of it being rather frosty. So why did this need to be made public immediately? What would have been the value of that?

PATERSON: Well, sometimes it does take a couple of days to stack up the details and confirm the facts before you make it public. But it does seem suspicious to me that the Prime Minister and his government waited to reveal this until after he'd given his press conference at APEC and after he'd boarded the plane home. It seemed clear to me that he didn't want to be asked questions about it while he was overseas, and they decided to release it for strategic reasons that way. But more important than the timing of the announcement was him raising it with the Chinese government. Now, you're right. We do have a delicate and important relationship with China, and Australia is seeking to stabilise that. But we should never sacrifice our interests in that process and the Prime Minister has repeatedly said we will disagree where we must. Well, one of the areas which we should disagree is when the People's Liberation Army Navy does deliberate harm to our Australian Navy divers, as they did last week in international waters in Japan's exclusive economic zone. I mean, that is one of the issues we should never compromise on. And if he's compromised on that, I think that's deeply disappointing.

ORITI: What would you have done differently then?

PATERSON: Well, I would have robustly raised it with President Xi at the first opportunity in San Francisco. I mean, the Prime Minister has boasted about the length and the depth of the conversations that he had, not with just President Xi in San Francisco, but also Wang Yi, China's foreign minister. This was the opportunity to raise it on behalf of our country, and he should have done so robustly.

ORITI: Would you have done that, though, at the expense of souring relationships with the Chinese at such a delicate point?

PATERSON: Well, we should never sacrifice the safety and well-being of our men and women in uniform for the sake of a bilateral relationship. A bilateral relationship is not an end in itself. It's a means to an end. And if the end is that we have is the People's Liberation Army-Navy doing harm to our service personnel, and we're not going to protest about it when we have the opportunity to, then that's not something that we should be aiming for. That's not the good relationship that we should be seeking. The relationship we should be seeking with the Chinese government is one of mutual respect. And they've shown flagrant disrespect for Australia and our service personnel by their behaviour and if there are no consequences for them, you can bet they'll do it again and again and again.

ORITI: But you accept it is a delicate dance that's being performed by the government at the moment and it is it is incumbent on you as to the opposition to challenge that. But it is easier, isn't it, to throw stones in a situation like this and actually be, you know, in front of the Chinese president and bring this up with him?

PATERSON: Well, I don't think it's throwing stones to say that we object to what is very clearly unsafe and unprofessional conduct. Let's remember where this happened, not just what happened. It didn't happen in the South China Sea. It didn't happen in the Taiwan Strait. If it had happened there, it also would have been inappropriate. But this was in an area of the Pacific Ocean that China has absolutely no claim to and makes no claim to. And the purpose of HMAS Toowoomba and its service personnel being there was enforcing United Nations sanctions against North Korea. A decades old international mission that is widely supported by the United Nations, no less. So there is no excuse for this behaviour and there is no excuse for not robustly raising this when it occurs.

ORITI: Alright, Richard Marles he's the deputy PM, he's expressed his serious concerns. The US Assistant Secretary of Defence has described the Chinese actions as dangerous. Can anything else be done though then? You know, just expressing our concern, can we do anything more than that at this point?

PATERSON: Well, this is evidence really of why we need to double down on AUKUS, because ultimately, what the Chinese government respects is strength and they do not respect weakness and if we have the capabilities to defend ourselves, to defend our interests, our values and our allies, then we're much more likely to get a respectful hearing from the Chinese government than the alternative, so the government really needs to crack on with delivering AUKUS. Actually delivering the funding that AUKUS needs to succeed, actually delivering the funding that all arms of our military, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force need to deliver the capability to secure our country in what is a highly uncertain strategic environment. I mean, we only have to look at the Defence Strategic Review handed down by the government, which says these are the most uncertain and dangerous times since the end of World War Two. But today we don't have the funding to match it and the government really needs to step up on that front.

ORITI: Do you think Anthony Albanese, the Prime Minister, should front up and let us know what he did say or didn't say when he was in front of his Chinese counterpart?

PATERSON: Absolutely. That's the bare minimum of transparency we should expect from our Prime Minister. And right now, the US Government has said more about this than our own Prime Minister has. It's now nearly a week since that incident occurred and we haven't heard a peep out of our Prime Minister. So, I really expect he should have stood up yesterday when he came home from San Francisco. He has no excuse for not standing up today explaining what he did when he did it, what he knew, when he knew it, and very clearly sending publicly a message to the Chinese government that we don't accept this behaviour and won't tolerate it happening again.

ORITI: We've got Senator James Paterson, who is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Cyber Security with us here on ABC News Radio. So, while I've got you, I'd like to ask you about the cyber attack that affected DP World a few days ago. The Maritime Union of Australia has been speaking out about it. So of course, it hampered operations at ports in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. Happened about a week ago. I don't know, it feels like these events are becoming more frequent, perhaps more serious. Can anything more be done to address these breaches that we've been seeing?

PATERSON: They certainly are becoming more frequent because it's becoming more profitable for criminal enterprises to engage in this activity and because foreign states, sophisticated foreign state-backed adversaries are having a greater interest in disrupting our critical infrastructure. What was particularly troubling about the DP World situation is that they handle 40% of our container based shipping through our ports in Australia and they were out for a number of days because they took a preventative measure of taking their systems offline to protect them so they couldn't be sabotaged or damaged. And it appeared that they didn't have a backup system in place to continue to operate those ports. In fact, they said they were building a parallel system simultaneously while trying to investigate and remediate the cause of this attack. Under the critical infrastructure legislation, the federal government has the power to make sure that systemically important assets like a port can continue to operate in times of crisis. And it doesn't appear to me that the federal government has used those powers to make sure that port operators like DP World have a continuity of business plan, have redundancies in place, and that our system is sufficiently resilient to withstand this, because next time it might be a state backed adversary, it might be a full on cyber attack and it might not just be DP World, it might be other port operators as well and the flow on consequences for our economy and the society would be catastrophic if we weren't prepared for it.

ORITI: Senator James Paterson, thanks very much for coming on this morning.

PATERSON: Thanks for having me.


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