Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles held an hour-long “frank” discussion with China’s defense minister in Singapore, marking the highest level of face-to-face contact between the countries in nearly three years.
Marles, also defense minister, said he raised the controversial interception of an Australian plane by a Chinese jet last month and broader issues in the Pacific with Chinese National Defense Minister Wei Fenghe , during a meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Ministerial Dialogue Conference in Singapore.
The event is notable as China has not allowed phone calls or meetings between Australian ministers and their direct counterparts since the start of 2020. Chinese officials have repeatedly claimed Canberra must deliver a ‘better mood’ as a precondition for the resumption of the high-level dialogue.
On Sunday afternoon, Marles said he met Wei, for what he called an “important meeting, which the Australian government welcomes”.
“It was an opportunity to have a very candid and full exchange, during which I raised a number of issues of concern for Australia,” he told a news conference. in Singapore.
“Including the incident involving the Australian P-8 aircraft on May 26 and Australia’s abiding interest in the Pacific and our concern to ensure that Pacific nations are not placed in a position of militarization increased.”
Earlier, Marles sat close to the Chinese defense minister and shook his hand as they took part in wider ministerial talks in Singapore.
Marles was among 27 visiting ministers to attend a lunchtime “roundtable” on Saturday, immediately after delivering a speech calling on China to be transparent about its military buildup and criticizing its actions in the South China Sea.
Photos from the event show Marles sitting next to Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, who was directly across from Wei.
Later, Marles said meeting Wei was “a crucial first step.”
“As [United States Defence] secretary [Lloyd] Austin observed after his own meeting with Defense Minister Wei, it’s really important in these times to have open lines of dialogue,” he said.
“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.”
Marles said the meeting, which lasted over an hour, was ‘organized by China’ and was arranged after the two ministers sat together at a dinner party on Friday evening, but declined to provide more. details about what they discussed at the meeting.
“We want to take this very restrained and deliberate. We do not underestimate the difficulties we have encountered in our bilateral relations,” Marles said.
“The fact that this is the first meeting at ministerial level in almost three years is very significant. We will take this in a step by step process.
However, he also stressed that the new Labor government was focused on Australia’s national interests and would not hesitate to assert them in the strongest possible terms. Marles also stressed the importance of the rules-based international order, specifically noting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea and opposing the militarization of the Pacific.
A statement released by Singapore’s Ministry of Defense said the ministerial roundtable discussed the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while “several ministers exchanged views on how the situation would affect the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and the world”.
Marles said before heading to Singapore that he did not want a bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart, that is, face-to-face talks.
But it appears that the Shangri-La Dialogue – an annual conference on defense and strategy that attracts ministers from dozens of countries – has provided several opportunities for conversations in larger groups.
Marles also sat across from Wei on Friday night as the conference opened, sharing a table with nine international dignitaries, including Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida; Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin; and Chinese Wei.
Saturday’s ministerial roundtable took place shortly after Marles delivered a speech in which he said China was militarizing elements in the South China Sea “to deny the legitimacy of its neighbors’ claims to this international waterway. vital by force”.
Marles said Australia was not questioning any country’s right to modernize its military capabilities, but that large-scale military build-ups ‘must be transparent and they must be accompanied by reassuring political savvy’ to avoid fueling an arms race.
In his speech, Marles said China’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in violation of the UN charter “should be of concern to us, especially given the investments it is making in military power”.
Marles said there would be continuity in Australian defense policy despite the change in government, including support for the US alliance, implementing Aukus and keeping defense spending above 2% of GDP.
But it also foreshadowed “a change in the tone of Australia”. He said that while Australia would “always be candid in articulating our national interest and defending the security of our region”, the Albanian government “will be respectful, including with the countries with which we have relations complex”.
Marles said Australia values a productive relationship with China.
He said Australia’s approach would be rooted in a desire to safeguard its national interest and support regional security and stability, while “seeking avenues of cooperation where they exist”.
Shortly after the May 21 election, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory message to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, saying Beijing was “willing to work with the Australian side to look back on the past, look to the future and uphold the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit”.
But so far the Albanian government has reiterated the view that China has changed, Australia has not. He urged Beijing to materialize its overtures to dialogue by removing trade sanctions against Australian export sectors such as barley and wine.
Last week, Albanese denounced an incident in which a Chinese fighter jet forced an Australian maritime surveillance plane to perform a dangerous maneuver in the South China Sea region as “an act of aggression”.
He said the incident happened in international airspace, while Marles said the Chinese J-16 plane came through the nose of the Royal Australian Air Force plane on May 26 and had dropped “a chaff packet containing small pieces of aluminum, some of which were ingested into the engine of the P-8 aircraft”.
But China’s Ministry of National Defense said the Australian plane had “entered airspace near China’s Xisha Islands” – a disputed area also known as the Paracel Islands – and “seriously threatened the sovereignty and China’s security.
Australia, the United States and Japan issued a joint statement on Saturday saying they “strongly oppose China’s illegal maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea that are inconsistent with international law.”
This followed a trilateral defense meeting between Marles, Austin and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue, where they pledged to “increase and strengthen trilateral exercises”.
They also pledged to “explore and pursue trilateral cooperation on advanced technologies and strategic capabilities” between Australia, the United States and Japan. This appears to be an extension of the kind of cutting edge tech work that is also being done with the UK under Aukus.
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Post expires at 1:21pm on Wednesday June 22nd, 2022