Australian defence minister Richard Marles has met his Chinese counterpart and called for “safe and professional interactions” between military planes and ships in the Indo-Pacific region.
Marles is also believed to have raised concerns about the ongoing detention of Australian citizens and human rights issues during talks with China’s defence minister, Gen Li Shangfu, at a regional security summit in Singapore.
The meeting, held on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue late on Saturday, was notable in large part because Li Shangfu had refused to have a formal meeting with the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin.
Li and Austin greeted each other during the opening of the forum on Friday evening, but in a speech the next day the US defence secretary said “a cordial handshake over dinner” was no substitute for substantive talks to avoid military crises.
“The People’s Republic of China continues to conduct an alarming number of risky intercepts of US and allied aircraft flying lawfully in international airspace,” Austin said.
The issue was discussed during the meeting between Marles and Li – a move that the Australian government regards as the latest step to “stabilise” the relationship between the two countries.
Marles “reiterated Australia’s commitment to supporting peace, stability and security in the Indo-Pacific and spoke about the importance of ensuring safe and professional interactions in the air and sea, in our region”, according to an Australian account of the meeting.
The Albanese government has previously raised concerns about an incident on 26 May last year in which a Chinese fighter plane forced an Australian maritime surveillance aircraft into a dangerous manoeuvre in the South China Sea region.
The previous Morrison government had also denounced the shining of a laser at an Australian surveillance aircraft by a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship north of Australia in February 2022.
It is unknown whether Li raised China’s concerns about the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine plan during Saturday’s meeting, but Marles reaffirmed the Australian government’s commitment to the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Marles was joined at the meeting by the chief of the Australian defence force, Gen Angus Campbell, and the secretary of the department of defence, Greg Moriarty.
Marles also spoke about the resumed ministerial talks between China and Australia during the last 12 months and mentioned recent progress towards resolving trade impediments.
“Both ministers welcomed the resumption of the defence coordination dialogue between China and Australia’s defence officials in recent months, and spoke about the next step in that process – the resumption of the defence strategic dialogue,” the Australian account of the meeting said.
In a prerecorded interview broadcast on Sky News on Sunday, Marles said formal defence dialogue was important to avoid misunderstandings or miscalculations.
Marles said it was “a very significant moment” this time last year when he met China’s then-defence minister, Gen Wei Fenghe. That marked the end of a more than two-year freeze on high-level dialogue between China and Australia.
Marles met Wei a second time, but Saturday’s talks were the first time Marles had met Li, China’s new defence minister.
“The relationship is being stabilised,” Marles said.
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, delivered the keynote speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday and sought to reassure the region about Aukus.
Albanese said Australia’s goal was “not to prepare for war but to prevent it, through deterrence and reassurance and building resilience in the region”.
The prime minister said it must be “crystal clear that when it comes to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force – be it in Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea or elsewhere – the risk of conflict will always far outweigh any potential reward.”