China, Australia defense ministers break ice with high-level meet

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Australia Defense Minister Richard Marles said he had a “very frank and full exchange” with his Chinese counterpart on Sunday, marking the highest-level meeting between the countries in more than two years amid a flare-up in tensions.

Marles said he discussed issues including the interception of an Australian aircraft by a Chinese jet last month with Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. Both were in Singapore for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.


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The meeting serves as a “critical first step to opening talks between two nations of consequence in the region,” Marles said at the sidelines of Asia’s biggest annual security conference.

“This was an important meeting, one in which the Australian government welcomes,” he said. Australia also spoke of its “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 added.

Australia’s relations with its largest trading partner have been frosty since 2017, when Canberra introduced legislation against foreign interference in politics -- a measure Beijing saw as targeting China.

The relationship further deteriorated in April 2020 after former leader Scott Morrison endorsed an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, escalating into tariffs on Australian exports and Canberra’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang congratulated Prime Minister Anthony Albanese after his election win on May 21 but the new leader has been muted in his response. Tensions between the two sides exacerbated recently after the Australian military said a Chinese jet had flown in a “dangerous manner” beside one of its surveillance aircraft on May 26.

China’s defense ministry told Australia to stop “provocations” or face “serious consequences,” rejecting Canberra’s claims of the interception of the surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea.

Albanese’s administration is also racing to bolster ties with its Pacific neighbors after China shocked Canberra in April by signing a security pact with the Solomon Islands. China has already begun training Solomon Islands police.

“We value a productive relationship with China,” Marles said. “But that said, we have a whole lot of national interest and we aren’t going to waver from asserting those in the strongest possible terms.”

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