Australia’s deputy prime minister, Richard Marles, has had a “frank” hour-long discussion with China’s defense minister in Singapore, marking the highest level of an in-person contact between the countries in almost three years.
Marles, also the defense minister, said he raised the controversial interception of an Australian aircraft by a Chinese jet last month and broader issues in the Pacific with China’s minister of national defense, Wei Fenghe, during a meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue ministerial conference in Singapore.
The event is notable because China has not allowed phone calls or meetings between Australian ministers and their direct counterparts since early 2020. Chinese officials have repeatedly argued Canberra must provide a “better mood” as a precondition for high-level dialogue resuming.
On Sunday afternoon, Marles said he had met Wei for an “important meeting, one which the Australian government welcomes”.
“It was an opportunity to have a very frank and full exchange, in which I raised several issues of concern to Australia,” he told a press conference in Singapore.
“Including the incident involving Australia’s P-8 aircraft on 26 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 earlier sat near and shook hands with China’s defense minister as they participated in broader ministerial talks in Singapore.
Marles was among 27 visiting ministers to attend a “roundtable discussion” at lunchtime on Saturday, immediately after he delivered 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 seated next to Singapore’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, who was direct across from Wei.
Later in the day, Marles said the meeting with Wei was “a critical first step”.
“As [United States Defence] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin observed after he met with Defence Minister Wei, it is really important in these times to have open lines of dialogue,” he said.
“Australia and China’s relationship is complex, and it’s precise because of this complexity that we must engage in dialogue right now.”
Marles said the meeting, lasting more than an hour, was “hosted by China” and was organized after the two ministers sat together at a Friday night dinner. However, they declined to provide further details of what they discussed in the meeting.
“We want to take this in a very sober and deliberate manner. We don’t underestimate our difficulties in our bilateral relationship,” Marles said.
“The fact this is the first meeting at a ministerial level in almost three years is very significant. We will take this in a step-by-step process.”
However, he also stressed the new Labor government was focused on Australia’s national interests and would not “waver from asserting those in the strongest possible terms”. Marles also noted the importance of the international rules-based order, specifically noting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea and opposing militarisation of the Pacific.
A statement issued later by Singapore’s defense ministry said the meeting had discussed the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, “several ministers exchanged their views on how the situation would affect the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and the world”.
Ng told reporters, “there were difficult issues, but I would say that the ministers didn’t shy from them”, the Straits Times in Singapore reported.
Marles said before traveling to Singapore that he was not seeking a bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart, meaning one-on-one talks.
But it appears the Shangri-La Dialogue – an annual defense and strategic conference that draws ministers from dozens of countries – provided opportunities for conversations in wider groups.
Marles was also seated opposite Wei on Friday night during the conference’s opening, sharing a table with nine international dignitaries, including Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida; Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong; the US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin; and China’s Wei.
Saturday’s ministerial roundtable was held shortly after Marles delivered a speech in which he said China was militarising features in the South China Sea “to deny the legitimacy of its neighbors’ claims in this vital international waterway through force”.
Marles said Australia did not question the right of any country to modernize its military capabilities. Still, large-scale military buildups “must be transparent, accompanied by statecraft that reassures” to avoid fuelling 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 give us cause for concern, especially given the investments it is making in military power”.
Marles said there would be continuity in Australian defense policy despite the change of government, including support for the US alliance, implementing Aukus, and keeping defense spending above 2% of GDP.
But he also foreshadowed “a change in Australia’s tone”. He said while Australia would “always be forthright in articulating our national interest and in advocating for our region’s security”, the Albanese government “will be respectful, including with countries where we have complex relationships”.
Marles said Australia valued a productive relationship with China.
He said Australia’s approach would be anchored in a resolve to safeguard its national interest and support regional security and stability while “looking for avenues of cooperation where they exist”.
Shortly after the 21 May election, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, sent a congratulatory message to the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, saying Beijing was “ready to work with the Australian side to review the past, look into the future, and uphold the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit”.
But so far, the Albanese government has reiterated the view that China has changed, not Australia. It has urged Beijing to put substance behind its overtures for dialogue by removing trade sanctions against Australian export sectors such as barley and wine.
Last week, Albanese denounced an incident where a Chinese fighter plane forced an Australian maritime surveillance aircraft into a dangerous maneuver in the South China Sea region as “an act of aggression”.
He said the incident occurred in international airspace. In contrast, Marles said the Chinese J-16 aircraft had cut across the nose of the Royal Australian Air Force plane on 26 May and released “a bundle of chaff which contains small pieces of aluminum, some of which were ingested into the engine of the P-8 aircraft”.
But the Chinese ministry of national defense said the Australian aircraft had “entered the airspace near China’s Xisha Islands” – a disputed area known as the Paracel Islands – and “seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security”.
On Saturday, Australia and thin e US stated that they “strongly object to China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea that are inconsistent with international law”.
That followed a trilateral defense meeting among Marles, Austin, and Japan’s defense minister, Nobuo Kishi, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, where they vowed to “increase and strengthen trilateral exercises”.
They also pledged to “explore and pursue trilateral cooperation on advanced technologies and strategic capabilities” among Australia, the US, and Japan. That appears to be an extension of the advanced technology work with the UK under Aukus.