Australia’s New Government to Be ‘Respectful’ to Beijing: Defence Minister

Australia’s New Government to Be ‘Respectful’ to Beijing: Defence Minister
Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Richard Marles speaks at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 11, 2022. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
The new Australian centre-left Labor government will soften its language with China’s ruling communist party (CCP) to adopt a “respectful” tone, says new defence minister Richard Marles—implying a lack of respect from the former centre-right government, which was unabashed to call out the CCP’s bullying of Australia.
Speaking in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit on Saturday, Marles laid out his party’s vision to build stronger economic ties with China and suggested that China’s neighbours should not become overly concerned about the regime’s large-scale military build-ups.

“Australia values a productive relationship with China. China is not going anywhere. And we all need to live together and, hopefully, prosper together,” he said, claiming that China’s economic success is “connected to that of our region.”

Australia’s deputy leader further noted that while the 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, noting that there will be “a change in Australia’s tone” under new Labor Prime Minsiter 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.”

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 costs taxpayers $6,191.

The opposition leader and former defence minister Peter Dutton condemned the incident at the time, saying it “shows the culture within the Labor Party” and its leaders’ “naivety” and “lack of preparedness to keep our country safe.”

“They’re backing China over the United States and that is a shocking mistake,” Dutton said in April.

Marles, however, blamed an “administrative error” for the incident while Labor again denied that the party has a “China problem.”

Marles’s push for economic engagement with China comes amid high tensions in the South China Sea created by the CCP’s aggressive demands and threats, as well as inside China itself, as the Chinese people struggle under the ongoing Shanghai lockdowns, which some China experts said have harmed China’s economy and challenged the CCP’s legitimacy.
The move has also been seen as the Labor government’s latest effort to resuscitate the Beijing-Canberra relationship, which turned increasingly hostile after Beijing launched a trade war against Australia for backing calls for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, however, in 2021 described the CCP’s trade war as a “failure” and stressed that Australia under his leadership would stand firm on its values.

The former prime minister noted that given increasing tensions, it is important to differentiate between the Chinese regime and the Chinese people.

“The Communist Party in China is very ready to say any criticism of the regime, or its policies, is anti-Chinese, right? We must not fall into that,” Turnbull said. “Chinese people are part of our family, our Australian family. They are also part of Kevin’s and my family.”

Last week, the Defence department revealed a dangerous incident that took place in May, which saw a Chinese warplane attacking an Australian maritime surveillance aircraft over the international waters of the South China Sea.

Given the Chinese regime’s increasing muscle flexing in the Indo-Pacific, Marles described China’s military build-ups as “the largest and most ambitious we have seen by any country since the end of the Second World War.”

The CCP’s militarisation of the South China Sea was intended to “deny the legitimacy” of international territories, the defence minister noted on Saturday.

But he argued, “It is critical that China’s neighbours do not see this build-up as a risk for them” because “insecurity is what drives an arms race.”

“So reassuring statecraft is essential,” he suggested. “The more complex the times, the more important there is dialogue and proper diplomacy.”

“When it comes to the security and stability of our own region, there will be continuity in Australian defensive policy,” Marles said, pointing to the continuation of the Australia-U.S. alliance, commitment to AUKUS, AI, undersea warfare capabilities, push to military quantum technology, and hypersonic munitions.

During the summit, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, who was also in attendance and shook hands with Marles, blamed all tensions in the China-U.S. relationship on the United States, and said that Washington needed to take the initiative to improve bilateral ties, which lie at a critical juncture. He then warned that Beijing would “fight to the end” if Washington continues treating China as an adversary or an enemy.

“We request the U.S. side to stop smearing and containing China. Stop interfering in China’s internal affairs. The bilateral relationship cannot improve unless the U.S. side can do that,” Wei said.

The United States has been jostling with Beijing for influence as nations around the world decide whether they want to support a future led by the socialist CCP’s global plans or continue working for progress in the free and open international order led by the United States, that requires transparency and trust.

Nina Nguyen is a reporter based in Sydney. She covers Australian news with a focus on social, cultural, and identity issues. She is fluent in Vietnamese. Contact her at [email protected].
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