Sunday, June 26, 2022

Marles changes tone over China at defense summit – but the early days of government are the easiest

In its first month in power, foreign policy and national security played a large part in the new government’s activities.

Shortly after the election, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese attended the Leaders’ Meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad) in Tokyo. Foreign Minister Penny Wong undertook trips to the South Pacific and Indonesia. And this month, Secretary of Defense Richard Marles met with ministers and other key figures in Singapore and Japan.

Marles’ historic journey sheds light on the new government’s approach to national security issues.



Read more: It’s great that Albanians are in Indonesia, but Australia needs to do much more to restore relations. Here are 5 ways to get started


The Deputy Prime Minister also had an extensive set of meetings on the sidelines of the dialogue.
EPA / How young

Means a new approach

Marles was in Singapore to join the first personal Shangri-La Dialogue held since 2019.

This meeting, also known as the Asia Security Summit, has been held annually since 2002 by the think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies. It brings together defense ministers, army chiefs and related security policymakers from across Asia and beyond.

Marles’ full speech at this meeting was one of the most interesting that an Australian leader has made in some years.

Marles changes tone over China at defense summit - but the early days of government are the easiest
Marles’ speech showed where key changes would be made.
Associated Press Photo / Danial Hakim

It underlined the continuity in Australian policy: the importance of UN and international law, the focus on the alliance and the commitment to increase defense spending made by the previous government.

But it also showed where key changes would be made, including a much greater focus on climate change, a change in attitude and approach to the South Pacific, and a subtle but significant shift in tone to China.

Marles’ predecessor tended to paint China’s regional activity in semi-apocalyptic terms.

In contrast, the new defense minister emphasized the recognition of the reality of China’s rise, but drafted it in terms of responsibilities associated with it. He also stressed that China must accept and respect the restrictions that the great powers must exercise.

It was a thoughtful and measured approach that is a good sign of the direction of Australia’s regional policy.

Getting back on track with France, sideline meetings with allies

The Deputy Prime Minister also had an extensive set of meetings on the sidelines of the dialogue.

It included 15 bilateral meetings with the defense ministers of Singapore, Solomon Islands, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Fiji, Indonesia, Canada, the US, Timor Leste, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

He also met with the newly appointed French Minister of Defense and made the point. social media that French-Australian defense cooperation was “back on track”.

While in Singapore, Marles attended the latest meeting of the Trilateral Security Partnership, an initiative of Japan, the US and Australia to promote shared security objectives.

It provided a wordy joint statement of intent to strengthen their collaborative initiatives in Asia.

A historic meeting with China’s defense minister

But the meeting that attracted the most attention was with China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.

It was less noticeable for its content, which in all respects followed relatively routine patterns, but for the fact that it happened at all.

There have been no meetings between Australian and senior Chinese government figures for several years. The Australian ambassador to China had virtually no access and the broader diplomatic relationship was essentially non-functional.

It was a short meeting and did not involve any major breakthroughs. But the fact that it happened at all indicates that Australia should be able to navigate back to a working relationship with Beijing without making concessions.

Supports Japan-Australia relations

Marles then traveled to Tokyo for meetings with peers in Japan.

Australia and Japan are each other’s key security partners alongside the US, and each sees each other as a crucial component in their regional security strategy.

Despite considerable goodwill, this part of the trip did not yield any significant further developments in the two countries’ security cooperation – as made clear by the somewhat sparse joint statement it produced.

This may be a function of the fact that the two are already doing a lot together. Their practical ability to do much more, especially of any strategic significance, is relatively limited by resource constraints.

Marles changes tone over China at defense summit - but the early days of government are the easiest
Marles traveled to Tokyo for meetings with peers in Japan.
Kyodo via Associated Press Images

The early days are the easiest

The new Labor government has had a good first month or so on the foreign policy front.

It is active, involved and well received by regional powers. It has found a careful balance between the changes it seeks and the importance of continuity.

Marles has played his role successfully, especially in communicating the need to have a productive relationship with China while not giving ground to core issues.

But the early days are the easiest and the real test of the new government’s foreign policy is yet to come.



Read more: While Wong makes her mark in the Pacific, the Albanian government must look to history to restore ties with China


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