The ministers of China and Australia met face to face for the first time in almost three years. In recent years, there has been almost no contact between the two countries.
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles – who is also Deputy Prime Minister – spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe last weekend during the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue, a defense summit in Singapore. It was a “sincere talk” and “an important first step” in improving ties, Marles said after the hour-long meeting. “China is our largest trading partner, we value a productive relationship with the country.”
Flame in the pot
The new Australian government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, appears to be moving away from the harsh stance of the former cabinet. Relations between Australia and China had not been optimal for some time when the flames went up in early 2020. Australia became the first country in the world to call for an independent investigation into the origin of coronavirus in Wuhan, and China saw it as a humiliation and a direct attack.
Beijing reciprocated by imposing tariffs of up to 200 per cent on Australian goods such as barley and wine. It was a blow to Australian entrepreneurs. Then Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was not intimidated by China.
Tensions between the two countries also became tense in the field of defense and security. The Morrison administration strongly opposed Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region, which Canberra considers its backyard. That is why last September, Morrison launched the Aukus Alliance: a military pact between the United States, Britain and Australia to stem China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing interpreted the creation of Aukus as an act of aggression.
No trade agreement
While there is now a cautious Australian approach to superpower, the new Albanian prime minister is also concerned about China’s rise to power in the region. Just five days after its election victory, Albanian accused the Chinese military of intercepting an Australian reconnaissance aircraft, endangering its crew.
Previously, there was great unrest in Australia over a security treaty with the Solomon Islands that could allow China to build a military base just 2,000 kilometers off the coast of Australia.
New Australian Foreign Secretary Penny Wong flew to Fiji shortly after the election to convince his Pacific counterparts not to sign a regional trade and security agreement with China. In the end, the negotiations between the Chinese Foreign Minister and representatives of ten countries from the region failed to create an agreement, a setback for China.
Strengthening ties with the Pacific is a spearhead for Australia’s new Labor government. Albanian has promised more development aid and wants to seriously discuss the consequences of climate change with colleagues in the Pacific, a topic his predecessor Morrison was not very interested in.
Do not get cold from the sky yet
Despite the rapprochement between Australia and China, there were not only blissful words at the Singapore summit. In a speech given by Deputy Prime Minister Marles before meeting his Chinese counterpart in person, he accused Beijing of increasing military power in the region and threatening the sovereignty of countries. “China’s military growth is the largest we’ve seen since World War II. It’s crucial that it does not threaten the region,” Marles said.
So the excitement is not over yet, even though the icy relationship seems to be thawing something. It is mainly the tone that has changed from the previous Australian Government. Instead of harsh words, work is again being done on the diplomatic relationship. But the question is whether it will also lead to a solution to the regional conflict.