New military dialogue unlikely to change China’s unsafe behaviour
11 Jul 2024|

China and Australia agreed last month to set up a new maritime affairs dialogue, but this is unlikely to lead to a reduction in the frequency of unsafe behaviour by the Chinese armed forces.

Australia already has a series of dialogues with the Chinese military. But following a resumption in activity post-COVID, China’s military has been less willing to engage in dialogue with Western countries. China has increasingly used coercive actions to further its strategic objectives, including by challenging Australia’s regional military presence that’s aimed at upholding the rules-based order.

The establishment of a maritime affairs dialogue was an important outcome from Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s visit to Australia from June 15 to 18. A joint statement noted that the dialogue would involve an exchange between Defence organisations.

Behind-the-scenes diplomacy has been central to the Albanese government’s approach to addressing differences with Beijing. The government has left it to officials to make representations to Beijing following unsafe Chinese military behaviour, reserving public comment for only the most serious of incidents. The introduction of a maritime affairs dialogue will continue that approach and allow officials to address differences quietly. It will also create a mechanism that might be used in a crisis, such as a serious incident between militaries.

But Defence already has a series of dialogues with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that allow for exchanges on maritime and other serious issues. Historically, engagement with the PLA has included an annual meeting of senior officials (the Defence Coordination Dialogue) and an annual meeting of defence chiefs (the Defence Strategic Dialogue). These meetings have provided an important opportunity for Australia to exchange views with the PLA’s head international agency, the Office of International Military Coordination, and to speak directly with members of the Central Military Commission, the top decision-making body that oversees the PLA.

Since the freeze in diplomatic relations that began in 2019, only the Defence Coordination Dialogue has resumed, and those talks have been held only once, in March 2023. There have been no other reported calls or meetings between defence chiefs or senior officers. Australia’s defence minister has met annually with his Chinese counterpart since 2021, but those exchanges have been limited to short meetings on the margins of regional forums, such as the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Defence dialogue with China has not mirrored the resumption of formal exchanges in other areas of the bilateral relationship.

Other countries, particularly Western countries, have had a similar experience with the PLA. A study by the US Naval War College shows that China’s defence diplomacy has not returned to pre-Covid levels: it had 66 engagements in 2023, compared with more than 100 in 2019. China also limited the number of senior PLA officials who engage in formal international talks. Just six did so in 2023. They met with officials of 41 countries. At the senior level, meetings with Southeast Asian countries were most frequent, followed by African states and Russia. The Chinese military did not engage with any countries in Western Europe last year, and it met with the US only once.

Since January 2024, there has been an uptick in defence dialogue between the US and China. While few substantive details have emerged, the resumption in dialogue has coincided with a pause in unsafe PLA behaviour towards US military assets. However, in April, then US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John Aquilino noted that this pause was probably the result of a strategic decision in Beijing, as China looked to stabilise its military sphere and focus on re-energising a slowing economy. Recent unsafe behaviour towards the Australian Defence Force shows that such strategic accommodations have not been extended to this country.

China’s capacity for defence diplomacy may have been disrupted by its having had three defence ministers in three years. However, the trends outlined here also signal a possible change in strategy. The PLA is prioritising engagement with countries where it can best further its strategic goals. Since Australia is evidently not a priority, there appears to be limited scope to engage in regular defence dialogue, build common understanding and hash out differences quietly.

New working-level dialogues are unlikely to discourage China from pursuing its strategic goals and undertaking further unsafe actions against the ADF. Australian effort would be better invested in negotiating directly with members of China’s Central Military Commission. Failing that, Australia should double down on working with partners and consider new ways to deter China’s unsafe military behaviour in the Indo-Pacific.