Defense Minister Richard Marles held a one-on-one meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Singapore, officially ending a two-year diplomatic freeze between Canberra and Beijing.
- This meeting is Australia’s first high-level contact with China since January 2020.
- China shuts down contacts after Morrison government calls for investigation into origin of COVID-19
- Mr Marles said the meeting raised the issue of the recent interception of an Australian Air Force aircraft by China
Mr Marles’ meeting with General Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Security Summit marked the first high-level contact with Australia’s largest trading partner since January 2020.
Angered by calls for the Morrison government to investigate the origins of COVID-19, China has cut off contact with Canberra at a political level, and launched billion-dollar trade attacks on Australian exports.
Mr Marles described the meeting as a “clear and complete exchange” in which he raised several issues of concern to Australia, including the recent interception of an Australian Air Force aircraft by China over the South China Sea. is included.
“It was an important meeting between the two countries that resulted in the Indo-Pacific meeting,” he said.
“It was an important first step.
Alarm expressed over South China Sea build-up
The meeting was set against the backdrop of increasing aggression by Beijing in the South China Sea.
United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday that there has been an “alarming increase in the number of unsafe air barriers and collisions at sea” by Chinese aircraft and ships.
General Wei Fenghe dismissed his “smearing allegations” and accused the US and unknown countries of “interfering” and “instigating trouble” in disputed waters.
“Some great power has long exercised navigational hegemony under the pretext of freedom of navigation,” he said at the conference.
“This [US] flexing the muscles by sending warships and warplanes into the South China Sea.”
In a coordinated pushback against Beijing by Western allies, Mr Marles expressed concern over China’s military build-up and rapid expansion in the region.
“Chinese militarization of facilities in the South China Sea needs to be understood for what it is: an intention to deny the legitimacy of its neighbors’ claims in this vital international waterway through force,” he said.
Those comments were echoed by Canada’s Defense Minister, Anita Anand, who expressed concern over China’s “increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea”.
“We believe that China’s actions have increased tensions and undermined the rules-based international order,” she said.
The South China Sea is considered one of several potential flashpoints in a region where strategic competition is increasing.
China says it will fight Taiwan’s independence ‘at all costs’
On Taiwan, General Wei Fenghe reaffirmed China’s long-held position that it seeks “peaceful reunification” with the island, but cautioned that Beijing would “crush” any push for Taiwan’s independence.
“We will firmly crush any attempt to advance Taiwan’s independence,” he said at the conference.
“We will fight at all costs. And we will fight till the end.”
Mr Marles’ meeting with his Chinese counterpart will be seen as a positive step that could pave the way for high-level talks between the two countries.
But the Albanian government has previously said it wants Beijing to demonstrate its willingness to improve strained relations by lifting its trade sanctions against Australia.
“Going forward, while the tone changes, there is no change in the essence of Australia’s national interest,” Mr Marles said.
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