Singapore – On his first international deployment since being sworn in as Australia’s deputy prime minister and defence minister, Richard Marles attended an important regional security summit in Singapore, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The three-day conference, organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, attracted defence chiefs from around the Asia-Pacific region. Less than a month after being sworn in, Australia’s new government has escalated its diplomatic efforts to engage with its neighbours.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong travelled to the Pacific mere days after being sworn in and joined Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on his visit to Indonesia. During the conference, the minister met his peers from around the region, including his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe.
It was the first high-level meeting with Beijing since January 2020, marking the end of a diplomatic freeze between Australia and China. On Sunday, Marles told reporters the meeting was “a critical first step”.
Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington met Marles at the Shangri-La Dialogue, where he shared his thoughts on revitalising connections with the Pacific, and Australia’s relationship with China.
Al Jazeera: You are here at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Your first international trip as defence minister. What are your priorities here?
Marles: It’s great to be here, it’s great to be here talking with so many defence ministers around the world, but particularly defence ministers within our region. The priority is to meet people, get to know them, understand their issues. The messages that we are bringing to this dialogue is how important the global rules-based order is, how important it is that we have settled rules of the road.
That the way in which countries relate to each other is determined by the rule of law and not by the rule of power. And that’s particularly the case when you think about something like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides for free navigation on our high seas, on bodies of water like the South China Sea, where a lot of trade occurs, where most of Australia’s trade traverses, and it is very important those rules apply.
Al Jazeera: In your speech, you mentioned that it is important that China’s military buildup is a transparent process. Do you think that is possible?
Marles: In security, the feeling of insecurity by nations is what gives rise to an arms race. It’s important there is transparency associated with countries which seek to modernise their military. We totally understand the right of countries to do that – we are doing that ourselves.
But it’s important that there is transparency around that. It’s important that there is reassuring statecraft that goes with that so that those around you can feel a sense of confidence about what you are doing and the behaviour you are engaging in.
Because we are seeing a significant buildup by China, it’s the biggest military buildup that we’ve seen in the world since the end of the second world war. It’s very important that occurs in a transparent way, so insecurity does not come as a result of it.
Al Jazeera: The Pacific region is very important to you. We’ve seen a lot of diplomatic activity by Australia in the Pacific and Southeast Asia recently. Is it about Australia securing influence in the region in the face of Beijing’s rising influence?
Marles: We are doing what Australia should do. What Australia should always have done. The Pacific is a very important part of the world for Australia. The countries of the Pacific have many challenges, there are a lot of development challenges. Australia can play such a positive role in improving the lives of people in the Pacific.
I’ve long felt, and we believe as a government, if we go out to the Pacific Island Countries, do the work, place their interests at the centre of our engagement, then the rest takes care of itself. We will become the natural partner of choice.
That’s what any Australian government should do in any circumstance. It’s fantastic that we have seen Foreign Minister Penny Wong, out there so quickly. She was sworn in on a Monday, she was there on Thursday.
That says something about the priority we are going to place on the Pacific. We want to revitalise our relationship with Southeast Asia as well. ASEAN is completely central to Australia’s security interests and our economic interests, and you’ll see a focus on this region as well.
Al Jazeera: Chinese fighter jet intercepted an Australian surveillance plane in May. Do you have particular concerns about Australia being targeted?
Marles: Our fundamental concerns here are that when countries are exercising their rights, engaging their routine activities, which we’ve been doing for decades, that can occur in a manner which is safe, and the way in which countries interact with each other is done in a way which is safe. And that’s the point that we’ve made.
Freedom of navigation within the South China Sea, and that includes freedom of airspace, where people have the right to engage under international law, which is what Australia is doing. This is really important in terms of the rules-based order which exists in East Asia, in fact around the world. It’s important in terms of the free movement of trade and people, and that’s so fundamental to Australia’s national interest. We’ll continue to engage in those activities going forward. We obviously are not going to be deterred by what’s occurred in respect of that, because asserting freedom of navigation, asserting the global rule-based order in this area is really critical to our national interest.
Al Jazeera: A lot has been said in this summit about Taiwan.
Marles: We don’t support Taiwanese independence. We have a one-China policy. And that’s been bilateral, bipartisan policy in Australia for many decades now and none of that changes. We don’t want to see any unilateral move on either side of the Taiwan Straits, in terms of the existing status quo, and the resolution of the situation between Taiwan and China should happen in a way that is done mutually and by agreement, that’s fundamentally the status quo and that’s the position, the bipartisan position we’ve held for in relation to Taiwan for many decades now.
Al Jazeera: Within the region, thinking of Australia’s neighbours, there has been some suspicion over defence arrangements. Many countries in the region have different ways of looking at Beijing’s rising power. How do you navigate those differences?
Marles: We want to build our security relationship with the countries of Asia, and that includes Indonesia, where there’s actually very strong military-to-military relationship … in many ways, it’s the heart of the broader bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia. We see that as a really good place to start. We obviously want to build a much bigger economic relationship between ourselves and Indonesia.
We have a unique relationship with Singapore, where we assist in the training of the armed forces of Singapore. We will continue to build our security relationships with the countries of ASEAN and with ASEAN itself, understanding ASEAN centrality, working with the ASEAN defence ministers, seeing that as the pre-eminent means of defence and security architecture within Southeast Asia. We’ll continue to build our relationship with countries like Japan and Korea.
There’s been a lot of questions about AUKUS, which is not a security alliance. It’s a sharing of technology between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. And first and foremost, in a way which enables Australia to acquire its next generation of submarine, submarines which will be nuclear powered.
Al Jazeera: You mentioned in your speech the importance of being respectful with other countries, even where there is a complex relationship. How does Australia have that respectful relationship when there are these big matters of difference?
Marles: In fact that the big matters of difference is what drives the need for respect. When matters are complex, that’s when dialogue is most important. That’s where diplomacy comes into its own. We are big believers in diplomacy.
Going forward, that’s the way in which we intend to engage with the world – professionally, in a respectful way, understanding the importance of dialogue and diplomacy.
That includes the way we relate to China as well. When relationships are complex, when there are a lot of issues to work through, that’s the moment when dialogue matters the most, so we see very much the importance of that.
Al Jazeera: On the Russian invasion, any comments?
Marles: Obviously we completely condemned the Russian action during the course of this year. Everything that I said about the importance of a global rules-based order is being challenged by Russia’s appalling conduct, in crossing the border of the sovereign state, and really seeking to build relationships on the base of support, which is absolutely not what should be happening in 2022.
I would also observe that the resistance being shown by Ukrainian people has been nothing short of inspiring. We heard an address from President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy yesterday. I really think that he along with the Ukrainian people have been just amazing in a way that have been steadfast in the face of Russian aggression.
And really, they’re beacon for world and they provide inspiration for the world. It is really important that we stand with Ukraine. It’s a long way from Australia but it’s really important that we stand with Ukraine.
Al Jazeera: Would you say the same about the people of Myanmar, more than a year since the coup?
Marles: We’re very concerned about the situation in Myanmar. We want to see a return to democracy in Myanmar. Myanmar was on much better course a few years ago. And it’s really important that we see Myanmar get back to the democratic path and we’re very concerned about development in Myanmar in the last period.