China has broken its freeze on diplomatic relations with Australia with the Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe hosting Australia’s new deputy prime minister and minister for defence, Richard Marles, for dinner.
Marles said the meeting, which took place in Singapore on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit on Sunday, was a welcomed one and allowed Australia’s new Albanese government to have “a very frank and full exchange” between “two countries of consequence in Indo-Pacific region.”
“It’s three years since defence ministers of our two countries have met. This was an important meeting, one which the Australian government welcomes,” Marles told reporters at a press conference in Singapore.
“It was an opportunity to have a very frank and full exchange in which I raised a number of issues of concern to Australia, including the incident involving Australia’s P-8 aircraft on the 26th of May and Australia’s abiding interest in the Pacific and our concern to ensure that the countries of the Pacific are not put in a position of increased militarization.”
Marles noted that the meeting was a critical first step and echoed the comment by U.S. Secretary Llyod J. Austin that it was very important “in these times to have open lines of dialogue.”
“Australia and China’s relationship is complex, and it’s precisely because of this complexity that it is really important that we are engaging in dialogue right now,” Marles said.
The comments from Marles come after he noted on Sunday that while the left-leaning Labor government won’t shy away from defending Australia’s national interest, it “will be respectful, including with countries where we have complex relationships.”
“This includes China,” he said. He also noted there would be “a change in Australia’s tone” under new Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
“Australia’s approach will be anchored in a resolve to safeguard our national interests and our support for regional security and stability based on rules. We will be steady and consistent, looking for avenues of cooperation where they exist while recognising China’s growing power and the manner in which that is reshaping our region.”
In an interview with Bloomberg, Marles also stressed that Australia had a One China policy and would not support Taiwanese independence.
“We do not support Taiwanese independence. We don’t support any unilateral action on either side of the Taiwan Strait, which would change the status quo. The resolution of the people of Taiwan is a matter which should happen by consensus, by agreement, and that’s the way in which we see it. We firmly have a One China policy, and we don’t support Taiwanese independence,” he said, echoing official U.S. policy on the issue.
The comments come nearly two months after Marles was criticised for failing to disclose his “pro-China” speech given at the Chinese embassy in Canberra, as well as a parliamentary trip to Beijing in 2019 that cost taxpayers $6,191 (US$4390).
It was also revealed during the May federal election that Marles had engaged with Chinese diplomats at least 10 times from 2017 despite deteriorating bilateral relations between Australia and China. Marles has defended his actions stating he was completely transparent with the then-Coalition government about holding those meetings.
The then-senior Labor Party shadow minister also authored a short book entitled the “Tides that Bind: Australia in the Pacific” that advocated for a stronger presence from Beijing in the Pacific region.
Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie has welcomed the meeting between Marles and the Chinese regime’s defence minister, noting that the former Coalition government would have appreciated a meeting with Beijing sooner. But he noted that he was not surprised that it was Marles that Beijing felt comfortable meeting.
“We were always willing to talk, we wanted dialogue, but we were frozen out for some reason. So this is good to see,” Hastie said in an interview on Sky News on Sunday. “But I’m not surprised they chose Richard Marles, given his previous comments on defence cooperation with China, which he gave in Beijing, and, of course, his relationship with the former ambassador in Canberra.”
However, Hastie noted that the meeting was not “a Nixon goes to China moment.”
“The test of any meeting is the outcome it delivers. And so I’d like to know whether or not the Chinese have withdrawn their 14 demands,” Hastie said. “Whether they’ve apologised for the lazing of our P-8 crew in the Arafura Sea in February, and indeed, the P-8 crew in the South China Sea, which was intercepted by a Chinese fighter last month.”
He also warned the Australian government should not trade away Australia’s values or its sovereignty in any discussions with China.
“We certainly can’t trade away our values or our sovereignty; we’re not the problem here. We didn’t issue 14 demands as they did, including demands that we clamp down on press freedom in this country or repeal our foreign interference laws or allow Huawei into our 5G network,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dennis Richardson, who was Australia’s defence secretary between 2012 and 2017 and is a former director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), has said that Beijing will continue to press and challenge players in the region in order to establish its military presence in the Pacific.
He noted this would enormously complicate Australian and U.S. defence planning, which is “ultimately what the Chinese are about.”
“This is not just a challenge for today or tomorrow, it’s the challenge for the next 10 years,” Richardson told ABC Radio.
“Every time the Chinese step up in this space to advance their security interest in the south pacific, we have to press back, and we’ll need to win that contest all the time.”
“We have to win everything, they only have to win once.”
Nina Nguyen contributed to this report.