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Defense ministers of Australia and China meet for first time in 3 years

Australian and Chinese defense ministers met on Sunday for the first time in three years, with the talks described as “an important first step” after a period of strained relations.

Richard Marles, whose centre-left government came to power in May, spoke for more than an hour with China’s Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore.

Marles described the meeting as “an important first step” and “very significant”.

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“It was an opportunity to have a very frank and comprehensive exchange during which I raised a number of issues of concern to Australia,” said Marles, who is also Australia’s deputy prime minister.

The Chinese government made no immediate comment after the meeting.

Relations between Beijing and Canberra have turned frosty in recent years after the latter called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and banned telecoms giant Huawei from building Australia’s 5G network.

China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, responded by imposing tariffs and disrupting more than a dozen key industries, including wine, barley and coal.

Marles said the recent interception of an Australian patrol aircraft in international airspace by a Chinese warplane as well as “Australia’s continuing interest in the Pacific” were among the topics discussed.

This included Australia’s emphasis on ensuring “that Pacific countries are not placed in a position of increased militarisation”, he said.

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“Change of Tone”

The patrol plane incident, described by Canberra as “very dangerous”, happened on May 26, when a Chinese plane intercepted the Australian plane and dropped a cloud of small aluminum strips, called sequins.

Australia is battling for influence with China among Pacific island states, with the new government catching up after years of relations soured by previous Australian leaders’ lags on climate change.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently visited the region and, although he failed to win support for a regional security pact, he still signed a series of agreements.

Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, has visited the Pacific Islands since taking office.

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Marles stressed the importance of “open lines of dialogue” with China.

“Relations between Australia and China are complex. And it is precisely because of this complexity that it is really important that we engage in dialogue at this time.”

Asked about the next steps, he said Australia wanted to act “in a very sober and very deliberate way. We do not underestimate the difficulties we have faced in our bilateral relationship”.

He stressed that “while there is a change in tone, there is absolutely no change in the substance of Australia’s national interests”.

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