Richard Marles vows to continue flying over Paracel Islands in SCSea, increase military exercises with Japan

The deepening relationship between Tokyo and Canberra has triggered blowback from Beijing. China’s Foreign Ministry has accused Japan, along with Australia and the US, of smearing its human rights record while “baselessly” building up its military in response to a perceived Chinese threat.

Marles said Australian ships and submarines would also continue to uphold the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the Taiwan Strait.

The Paracel Islands are claimed by both China and Vietnam.

The Paracel Islands are claimed by both China and Vietnam.Credit:File

“Our national interest lies in asserting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he said. “That is the case everywhere”

Bloomberg reported on Monday that Chinese military officials had begun repeatedly asserting during meetings with their US counterparts that the Taiwan Strait was not in international waters. The threat opens up the possibility of blocking the ships of the United States and its allies in the strait or triggering accidental conflict in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The air force incident between Australian and Chinese warplanes in May was raised by both sides in Sunday’s meeting, which focussed heavily on defence disputes. China said it warned the Australian plane before releasing a flare and metal scraps which endangered the crew of the Australian plane flying near the Paracel Islands.

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The conversation in Singapore on Sunday was direct, with both countries raising their concerns while avoiding long-winded speeches and formulaic exchanges that can drag out bilateral discussions with few substantive results.

By the end of the meeting, which went overtime, both sides were prepared to begin discussing future dialogue, signalling defence engagement may be the path via which other ministries – including foreign affairs and trade – resume having direct conversations that have been frozen for almost three years.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has made it clear that the relationship cannot get back on track until China lifts $20 billion in trade sanctions on Australia, a threshold that was spoken about in general terms on Sunday.

Said Marles: “We’ve got a lot of issues to work through and this is still just the first step, but yes, it’s definitely positive.”

Marles said other regional ministers at the Shangri-La security conference had reacted positively to the meeting. “I think that there was a general feeling that this was returning dialogue to the Australia-China relationship,” he said.

From left to right, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, and his counterparts, Australia’s Richard Marles and China’s Wei Fenghe.

From left to right, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, and his counterparts, Australia’s Richard Marles and China’s Wei Fenghe.Credit:AFP

University of Sydney history professor James Curran said there had been a tonal shift in the Australian 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 said.

Chinese state media have spent the past month campaigning for a reset on China’s terms, urging Australia to come to the negotiating table ahead of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

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Labor’s election win in May was also the trigger for a direct message from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Albanese. On Saturday, China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, told the Australia China Friendship Society that the relationship was at “at a new juncture, facing many opportunities”.

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 on the range of issues that have plagued the relationship.

“I think we have to have low expectations going forward about how far and how fast this kind of discussion can go,” he said. “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.”

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