‘Critical first step:’ Aussie, Chinese defense ministers meet for first time in 3 years


Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles and Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei. Fenghe on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Photo by Australian government

SINGAPORE: In what may be the start of a major geostrategic reopening between Australia and China, their defense ministers met for an hour on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue for a wide-ranging discussion, the details of which the Australians were not willing to discuss.

“It was an opportunity to have a very frank and full exchange,” Richard Marles, Australia’s recently-named defense minister and deputy prime minister, told a small group of reporters here this afternoon. “it was a critical first step.”

China effectively embargoed a great deal of trade with Australia two years ago, angered by the former government’s pressure for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus. China slapped an effective embargo on coal, meat, lamb and lobster imports, and imposed high tariffs on a wide range of key agricultural goods, including Australian wine. And Chinese officials have refused to speak with senior Australian government officials ever since.

It’s been three years since the last meeting between the two country’s defense leaders, and about two years since the last direct contact between them by phone. When he left for Singapore, there were no plans for Marles to meet Chinese defense chief Wei Fenghe; instead, Marles told reporter, the meeting emerged organically after a dinner the two men attended.

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“We’re sitting at the same table and we both agreed that it was important our two countries meet. That’s how it came about today,” Marles said, adding that China hosted the meeting.

The Marles meeting continues a notable trend from the Shangri-La Dialogue of China reaching out to its most important military competitors in the region, after several years of standoffish behavior.

Earlier this week, Wei and his government reached out to the US to arrange a meeting with Defense Secretary Austin. That meeting was clearly a bit rushed: “So, it was a little bit of an unusual meeting insofar as the PRC had requested the meeting, so they were the official host of the meeting, but it was in our spaces here,” a senior US defense official told reporters. “They seemed very interested in — seemed at times more focused on the theater than on the meeting itself. But we designed it in a way so that it would be maximally focused on the substance.”

And Wie met today for the first time since 2019 with the Japanese defense minister, Reuters reported from Tokyo. There had been reports in the Japanese media before the Shangri-La Dialogue began that this might happen. Wei also met with his Korean counterpart at the start of the meetings here.

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Submarine Support

Relations with China weren’t the only focus of the Australian presser. The AUKUS nuclear attack submarine program occupied a fair amount of the briefing, with Marles appearing to put the kibosh on rampant speculation that his Labor Party government might buy submarines to close what is expected to be a capability gap between the Collins class sub and the arrival of Australia’s firs nuclear submarines.

Here’s Marle’s answer when asked by a skeptical reporter what was the “government’s rationale for going ahead with this proposal to seriously consider nuclear propelled submarines?”:

“There is no more important platform that Australia has to build in its strategic space than a long-range capable submarine,” he said. “But it is really important that we are working on a long-range capable submarine, which can be the successor to Collins, and having nuclear propulsion is fundamental to that. When you think about Australia’s geography, where we are in the world, an island nation, capable long range submarines are completely essential to building our strategic space. And that’s why we’ll be very focused on delivering a nuclear-powered submarine for the country and making sure that capability gaps are minimized in the meantime.”

Breaking Defense asked the minister about negotiations with Lockheed Martin, who were to provide the combat system for the canceled French conventional submarine program. Marles said the Australian government has been talking with the American prime but declined to offer any details when asked how much money might be in play. Of course, Australia just settled with the French shipbuilder Naval Group €555m ($584m) as compensation for killing that deal, bringing the total cost of the scrapped program to $2.4 billion before any Lockheed settlement occurs.

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