Defense Secretary Richard Marles has held a one-on-one meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Singapore, officially ending a two-year diplomatic freeze between Canberra and Beijing.
Most important points:
- The meeting is Australia’s first high-level contact with China since January 2020
- China cut contact after Morrison government’s call for investigation into origins of COVID-19
- Mr Marles said China’s recent interception of an Australian Air Force plane was discussed at the meeting
Marles’ meeting with General Wei Fenghe took place on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Security Summit and marked the first high-level contact with Australia’s largest trading partner since January 2020.
Outraged by the Morrison government’s call for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, China cut ties with Canberra at the political level and imposed billions of dollars in trade strikes on Australian exports.
Marles described the meeting as a “candid and full-blown exchange” in which he addressed a number of concerns for Australia, including China’s recent interception of an Australian Air Force plane over the South China Sea.
“This was an important meeting between two countries of importance during the Indo-Pacific meeting,” he said.
“It was a crucial first step.
Alarm raised at construction of South China Sea
The meeting took place against a backdrop of increasing Beijing aggression in the South China Sea.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday there had been “an alarming increase in unsafe air interceptions and clashes at sea” by Chinese aircraft and ships.
General Wei Fenghe dismissed his “filthy accusation” and accused the US and unnamed countries of “interfering” in the disputed waters and “causing trouble”.
“Some great power has long been exercising navigational hegemony under the pretense of freedom of navigation,” he told the conference.
“It [US] has flexed its muscles by sending warships and warplanes on a rampage in the South China Sea.”
In a coordinated opposition to Beijing by Western allies, Mr. Marles expressed concern at China’s military build-up and rapid expansion in the region.
“China’s militarization of features in the South China Sea must be understood for what it is: the intent to forcibly deny the legitimacy of its neighbors’ claims to this vital international waterway,” he said.
Those comments were echoed by Canadian Defense Secretary Anita Anand, who expressed concern about China’s “increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea”.
“We believe China’s actions have increased tensions and undermined the rules-based international order,” she said.
The South China Sea is considered one of many potential hot spots in a region where strategic competition is increasing.
China says it would fight Taiwan’s independence ‘at all costs’
On Taiwan, General Wei Fenghe reaffirmed China’s long-held stance that it seeks “peaceful reunification” with the island, but warned Beijing that it would “crush” any push for Taiwanese independence.
“We will resolutely destroy any attempt to pursue Taiwan’s independence,” he said at the conference.
“We will fight at all costs. And we will fight to the end.”
Mr Marles’ meeting with his Chinese counterpart will be seen as a positive step that could pave the way for more high-level talks between the two countries.
But the Albanian government has previously said it wants Beijing to show that it wants to mend the tense relationship by lifting trade sanctions against Australia.
“As we move forward there is a change in tone, but there is absolutely no change in the content of Australia’s national interest,” said Mr Marles.
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