Australia and China’s defence ministers met for the first time in three years on Sunday, with the talks described as “an important first step” following a period of strained ties.
Richard Marles, whose centre-left government came to power in May, held talks for over an hour with China’s Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore.
Marles described the meeting as “an important first step” and “very significant”.
“It was an opportunity to have a very frank and full exchange in which I raised a number of issues of concern to Australia,” said Marles, who is also Australia’s deputy prime minister.
The Chinese government did not offer any immediate comment following the meeting.
Relations between Beijing and Canberra have grown frosty in recent years after the latter called for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and banned telecom giant Huawei from building Australia’s 5G network.
China — Australia’s biggest trading partner — responded by imposing tariffs and disrupting more than a dozen key industries, including wine, barley and coal.
Marles said the recent interception of an Australian patrol plane in international airspace by a Chinese warplane as well as Australia’s “abiding interest in the Pacific” were among topics discussed.
This included Australia’s focus on ensuring “that the countries of the Pacific are not put in a position of increased militarisation”, he said.
‘Change of tone’
The patrol plane incident, described by Canberra as “very dangerous”, happened on May 26, when a Chinese aircraft intercepted the Australian jet and released a cloud of small aluminium strips, known as chaff.
Australia is battling for influence with China among Pacific island states, with the new government playing catch-up after years of relations being soured by the previous Australian leadership’s foot-dragging on climate change.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has recently been visiting the region and, while he failed to secure support for a regional security pact, he still inked a series of deals.
Australia’s new foreign minister, Penny Wong, has paid visits to the Pacific islands since taking office.
Marles underscored the importance of “open lines of dialogue” with China.
“Australia and China’s relationship is complex. And it’s precisely because of this complexity that it is really important that we are engaging in dialogue right now.”
Asked about next steps, he said Australia wanted to move in a “very sober and very deliberate manner. We don’t underestimate the difficulties that we’ve had in our bilateral relationship”.
He stressed that “while there is a change of tone, there is absolutely no change in the substance of Australia’s national interests”.