Defence ministers’ meeting a first step in China-Australia rapprochement but should not be overstated

Defence ministers’ meeting a first step in China-Australia rapprochement but should not be overstated

June 13, 2022

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles’s hour-long meeting with Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe has been welcomed with caution by experts who say it is a small step towards repairing the relationship between Australia and China.

The meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit in Singapore on Sunday was the first ministerial-level contact since November 2019, before tensions between Australia and China escalated.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe met in Singapore.Credit:AP

Marles described it as “a critical first step” in fixing the relationship.

University of Sydney professor James Curran said it was vital not to overstate the importance of the meeting, but that it did represent cautious diplomatic action and a tonal shift in the new government’s approach to foreign policy.

“Let’s not flick the switch immediately to the euphoria of ‘breakthrough’ kind of language. But let’s also be positive in acknowledging that it’s a resumption of some kind of dialogue,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

He said that in seizing the opportunity for the meeting, Marles had shown it was possible for Australian leaders to clearly define the threats posed by Chinese assertion in the region and still be able to sit down for respectful talks.

Asia-Pacific expert Bates Gill, a professor at Macquarie University, said the positive step of the meeting did need to be tempered by the scale of the challenge faced in reaching any compromise position in the range of issues that have plagued the relationship.

“Of course, it’s better than not talking at all,” he said. “I think we have to have low expectations going forward about how far and how fast this kind of discussion can go. So let’s take this as a win but with our eyes wide open and understanding that it’s just a very small step, really, in the large picture of things.”

Curran said the way the meeting had occurred – unscheduled, in a third country and on the sidelines of another event – was probably the most prudent logistics to ensure it remained seen as the first step it was.

“There wasn’t a big build-up and there wasn’t a big expectation that it was this was going to be kind of a ‘Whitlam in China’ moment. It sucked all the pressure out,” he said.

Dennis Richardson, a former head of ASIO, Defence and DFAT, said it was likely the fact Australia had a new government played a strong part.

“New governments don’t bring the barnacles, the bruises, and the baggage which you will accumulate when you’ve been in office for a decade,” he told Radio National on Monday morning.

“That’s not a criticism of the previous government. But they [Labor] don’t carry the baggage of the differences in respect of the pandemic. They don’t carry the baggage of ministers incessantly talking about the potential for conflict with China, they’re able to start with a clean slate.”

He said it had been “a nonsense” that Australian ministers hadn’t been able to talk to their Chinese counterparts when other countries such as Japan, Korea, Indonesia, India and the US had managed to keep communications open.

But he warned there were still “a lot of fundamental differences between China and Australia” which meant there was unlikely to be “any startling breakthrough anytime soon”.

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