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Australia ticks strategic boxes in interesting times

Posted By on June 14, 2022 @ 06:00

A small proof that Australians live in interesting times [1] (to borrow that apocryphal Chinese curse) is the interest directed at their country during the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit.

On his first trip as deputy prime minister and defence minister, Richard Marles ticked lots of boxes.

In Singapore, he achieved meetings with his counterparts from China and France. Given the anger directed at Canberra recently by Beijing and Paris, both are definite ticks.

Marles had ‘a solid first hit-out,’ observed one of the Australian wise owls at Shangri-La.

Three weeks into government, Marles could freely brandish the ‘new’ [2]—‘new energy’ and ‘new era of engagement’, promising to become ‘a more engaged and responsive partner to our Pacific neighbours’ and to ‘revitalise our historically deep engagement in Southeast Asia’. On climate change, ‘Australia is back at the table as a responsible, sensible, thoughtful and purposeful actor.’

A new government can revel in its fleeting Wordsworth moment—‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ [3]; indeed, that bliss line expressed an earlier interesting and revolutionary moment.

Consider the ticked boxes.

China. Ending a Chinese ban on ministerial contact that was in its third year, Marles had a one-hour meeting [4] with China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.

Marles called it ‘an important first step’ [5] that took place without any conditions: ‘[W]hile there is a change of tone, there is absolutely no change in the substance of Australia’s national interests.’

In his Shangri-La speech [2], Marles’s description of how Australia would handle its ‘complex’ relationship with China was cited as a model by later speakers from Britain to Fiji:

Australia values a productive relationship with China. China is not going anywhere. And we all need to live together and, hopefully, prosper together.

China remains our largest trading partner. China’s economic success is connected to that of our region.

Australia’s approach will be anchored in a resolve to safeguard our national interest and our support for regional security and stability based on rules.

We will be steady and consistent, looking for avenues of cooperation where they exist while recognising China’s growing power and the manner in which that is reshaping our region.

United States. Interesting times make Australia even more interested and invested in the US role. The alliance had ‘never been more important’ to Australia, Marles said, and ‘deep US engagement has never been more important to stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific’.

The speech [6] by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin devoted as much detail to AUKUS and the Quad as did Marles’s. And Austin did the call-out at ‘alarming’ and ‘unsafe’ Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s actions against Australian aircraft:

In February, a PLA Navy ship directed a laser at an Australian P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, seriously endangering everyone onboard. And in the past few weeks, PLA fighters have conducted a series of dangerous intercepts of allied aircraft operating lawfully in the East China and the South China Seas. Now this should worry us all.

France. Australia paying $835 million [7] to French shipbuilder Naval Group over the aborted submarine contract certainly turns the page. A new Australian government and a re-elected Macron government can proclaim a new chapter. The new French defence minister (in office almost the same number of days as Marles) used Shangri-La to greet his new Australian counterpart with a smile and to commit to rebuilding [8] the relationship.

The Five Power Defence Arrangements. The five powers gathered for breakfast—the defence ministers of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore plus the British high commissioner to Singapore. Now 51 years old, the FPDA is ‘the grandfather of multilateral arrangements’ in the region, according to Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

The FPDA is the durian pact [9]—all about Singapore and Malaysia—enjoying the strengths of its limitations. As a doctor, Ng has previously talked of how the FPDA keeps to its role (‘In medicine we call it a “dose response”’ [9]). At Shangri-La, Ng said the FPDA offered a model for the Quad because of the way it sticks to the three Rs: ‘remit, relevance, reassurance’.

Marles said the FPDA has ‘modern relevance’ [10], but between old friends ‘there is genuine warmth’.

On Marles’s count, in Singapore he had meetings with 15 defence ministers and two prime ministers (Singapore and Japan). And then he got on the plane to go further north. Today he is in Japan [11], again brandishing the choices and chances of the new.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australia-ticks-strategic-boxes-in-interesting-times/

URLs in this post:

[1] interesting times: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_you_live_in_interesting_times

[2] brandish the ‘new’: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/rmarles/speeches/address-iiss-19th-shangri-la-dialogue-singapore

[3] ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45518/the-french-revolution-as-it-appeared-to-enthusiasts-at-its-commencement

[4] meeting: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-12/chinese-and-australian-defence-ministers-meet-in-singapore/101146690?utm_source=sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_medium=email%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_campaign=abc_news_newsmail_pm_sfmc%e2%80%8b%e2%80%8b&utm_term=%e2%80%8b&utm

[5] ‘an important first step’: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/rmarles/transcripts/press-conference-iiss-asia-security-summit-singapore

[6] speech: https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech/Article/3059852/remarks-at-the-shangri-la-dialogue-by-secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-a/

[7] paying $835 million: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-11/albanese-submarine-deal-with-france/101145042

[8] commit to rebuilding: https://www.cnn.com/2022/06/11/europe/france-australia-submarine-aukus-eu-trade-intl/index.html

[9] durian pact: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/durian-pact-five-power-defence-arrangements/

[10] ‘modern relevance’: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/south-east-asian-defence-pact-can-help-region-manage-tensions-members-say

[11] Japan: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/rmarles/media-releases/deputy-prime-minister-visit-japan

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