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Monday, June 20, 2022, 11:24
China, Australia take ‘crucial step’
By Karl Wilson in Sydney
Monday, June 20, 2022, 11:24 By Karl Wilson in Sydney

The recent meeting between Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles and China’s State Councilor and Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe has been warmly received by analysts, who see it as the first step in restoring relations between the two countries.

The two met for more than an hour on June 12 in Singapore, ending a bilateral diplomatic freeze which has lasted more than two years. The meeting was on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the regional security conference which brings together defense ministers and world leaders.

While analysts were quick to welcome the meeting, they say much will depend on what happens next.

“Australia’s China relationship is complex,” Marles said, after meeting with General Wei.

“And it’s precisely because of this complexity that it really is important that we are engaging right now.”

He described the meeting, details of which have not been released, as a “crucial step” in restoring relations with Australia’s biggest trading partner.

“From an Australian perspective, the meeting matters because it moves Canberra closer to the state of China relations that a host of other US allies and partners in the region have been able to maintain,” said Professor James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.

“For two and a half years, Australia has been an outlier in the region in being unable to advocate its interests directly with senior Chinese officials.”

He said the meeting was only “a tentative first step”.

“Nonetheless, an improved relationship trajectory was always going to begin with modest initial moves. Both sides deserve credit for bringing the ice-breaking meeting to fruition.” 

Likewise, Professor Zhu Ying, director of the Australian Centre for Asian Business at the University of South Australia welcomed the meeting as a “good first step” in restoring relations.

Professor Bates Gill, head of the department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in Sydney, said the positive step of the meeting does need to be tempered by the scale of the challenge faced in reaching any compromise position on 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 … 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.”

David Goodman, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said it was good to see contact between officials from the two governments. 

He added that it “would be even better if it could lead on to improved relations between the two governments that had some tangible results in both trade and sovereignty based on mutual respect.”

Former head of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation Dennis Richardson told the ABC on June 13 that the meeting was an “opportunity that came from the change in government, but significant differences remained”. 

Marles became Australia’s defense minister following the May 21 elections which ousted the former conservative government of then prime minister Scott Morrison.

Under Morrison’s leadership, relations between China and Australia were particularly difficult and saw a freeze on ministerial contacts between the two countries. 

Richardson, who noted that China and Australia still remain at odds on several issues, told the ABC: “I don’t think that we’ll be looking for any startling breakthrough any time soon.”

However, he said, the new government did not carry the baggage of the previous decade.

According to Colin Mackerras, professor emeritus at Griffith University, “It’s good to break the ice and at least have some dialogue.”

He added: “I’m struck by the fact that the Chinese Ambassador (to Australia) Xiao Qian and other Chinese spokespeople are talking about meeting half way, whereas Australians are just focusing on their own demands. 

“It doesn’t seem to me to be sensible for Marles to rule out any role for the Chinese in the Pacific and to demand that Australia should be the partner of choice, excluding China.”


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