No shift in Australia defence policy after Albanese-Xi meeting, say Aussie diplomats

Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and China's President Xi Jinping shook hands on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Leaders' Summit in Bali. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY/WASHINGTON – A meeting between Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Chinese President Xi Jinping is a step towards normalising ties after years of diplomatic freeze, but it would not bring a shift in Canberra’s defence policy, Australian diplomats said.

The leaders met for 30 minutes on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Indonesia, Australia’s first bilateral meeting with Mr Xi since 2016. In public comments, both leaders acknowledged the difficulties in the relationship, and the need to manage their differences.

Mr Albanese said the Aukus alliance with Britain and the United States to transfer nuclear submarine capability to Australia, which is opposed by China, was not raised in the meeting by Mr Xi.

Australia’s ambassador to the US, Mr Arthur Sinodinos, said Canberra wanted to “take some of the heat out of the relationship” after dealing with China’s “economic and trade coercion”.

Australia asked China to remove trade sanctions imposed on a raft of agricultural and mineral exports.

Speaking about the Albanese-Xi meeting at an International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) event in Washington on Tuesday, Mr Sinodinos said Australia’s desire for a “more normal relationship with China”, particularly on trade, did not mean a change in its strategic policy settings.

“Our values and interests are reflected by the decisions we’ve taken by our participation in the Quad leaders meeting, our involvement in the creation of Aukus with the US and the UK,” he said, referring to the Quad strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US.

“And it’s reflected in the action we’re now taking in terms of our military build-up, which is going to become quite significant over the next few years,” he added.

Defence Minister Richard Marles said in a speech on Monday that Australia would not choose between diplomacy and defence.

“A commitment to stabilising our relationship with China does not mean we won’t also maintain a clear-eyed focus on our security,” he said.

Australia and China have vied for security ties in the Pacific islands this year, amid concern from Washington and Canberra over Beijing’s striking a security pact with the Solomon Islands.

Australia is negotiating a security pact with neighbour Papua New Guinea, whose leader James Marape will meet Mr Xi at the Apec meeting in Bangkok this week, the PNG Post Courier reported.

“China and Australia will continue to have radically different visions of global and regional order, and the Albanese government will continue policies designed to balance China’s power in the Indo-Pacific and speak out on issues like human rights,” said Mr Richard Maude, executive director of the Asia Society Australia and a former diplomat.

Australia’s former ambassador to China, Mr Geoff Raby, said the Xi-Albanese meeting was the beginning of a process to resolve difficult trade issues and move towards normal ties.

“I avoid reset... There are a lot of issues that are still difficult for us,” Mr Raby told ABC radio on Wednesday. REUTERS

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