As tensions grow between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told a gathering of top defense officials Friday that open channels of communication are critical for preserving peace, while also advocating effective deterrence.
Albanese, who has been expanding Australia's military power in response to China’s growing military assertiveness in the South China Sea, the South Pacific and the East China Sea, said he has also been working to stabilize the country's diplomatic relations with China.
“We recognize there are fundamental differences in our two nations' systems of government, our values and our world views,” he said in his keynote address to the annual Shangri-La dialogue. “But we begin from the principle that whatever the issue, whether we agree or disagree, it is always better and it is always more effective if we deal direct.”
Both U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and China’s new defense minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, were in the audience as Albanese spoke.
Ahead of the conference, Li rejected a request from Austin to meet on the sidelines, but the two shook hands before sitting down at opposite sides of the same table just before Albanese's address.
Both the U.S. and China have been intensifying efforts to win influence in the region, and the weekend dialogue, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, provides an opportunity for one-on-one discussions with their regional counterparts, diplomats and leaders. Austin opens the dialogue on Saturday with a speech, and Li will follow on Sunday.
Australia is a stalwart American ally in the region, and Albanese stressed that while China's “extraordinary economic transformation” has been a benefit to the entire region, China has also benefitted from “a regional architecture that facilitates free trade, encourages the sharing of knowledge, spurs innovation and builds people-to-people connections."
“American leadership has been an indispensable part of this,” he said.
He also said there was a need for “guardrails” to ensure that no “one nation imagines itself too big for the rules,” which he said is part of the reason he has found it necessary to boost Australia’s defense capabilities.
Beijing has strongly criticized Australia’s participation in the so-called AUKUS partnership, which links it with the United States and Britain to create an Australian fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines.
"Australia’s goal is not to prepare for war, but to prevent it through deterrence and reassurance and building resilience in the region, doing our part to fulfill the shared responsibility," he said.
"All of us have to preserve peace and security and making it crystal clear that when it comes to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force in Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea or elsewhere, the risk of conflict will always far outweigh any potential reward.”
After a meeting earlier in the day with Albanese, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations don't want to have to choose between Washington or Beijing.
“No one wants to be in a position where we have to either contain China's rise or limit America's presence,” he said. “Any move in either direction will have few takers in the region because no one in ASEAN wants to see a new Cold War.”
This year's dialogue comes amid a wide range of issues, including the war in Ukraine and its regional implications, including China's support for Russia, the ongoing conflict in Myanmar, and growing tensions between China and the U.S. and its allies over Beijing's claim to the self-governing island of Taiwan.
Austin began his trip to the region in Japan, whose prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has been one of the most outspoken leaders in Asia against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Kishida has ramped up Japan's defense spending, and cautioned others at the Shangri-La forum last year that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.”
China has refused to criticize Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has blamed the U.S. and NATO for provoking Moscow. During a trip in April to Moscow, Li pledged to expand military cooperation, military-technical ties and the arms trade with Russia.
“We will certainly take them to a new level,” he said at the time.
Li, a general who was named defense minister in March, is under American sanctions that are part of a broad package of measures against Russia — but predate its invasion of Ukraine — which were imposed in 2018 over Li’s involvement in China’s purchase of combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.
The sanctions, which broadly prevent Li from doing business in the United States, do not prevent him from holding official talks, American defense officials have said.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said Austin’s offer of talks in Singapore was rejected because the U.S. “disregards China’s concerns and creates artificial obstacles.”
“The U.S. side should take practical actions to show sincerity and correct mistakes, so as to create the necessary conditions and proper atmosphere for communication and exchange between the two sides,” he said, while not mentioning the sanctions or other issues directly.
In Japan on Thursday, Austin stressed the need for regular communications and open channels, noting a recent incident in which a Chinese fighter jet flew aggressively close to an American reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea.
“I’m concerned about at some point having an incident that could very, very quickly spiral out of control,” Austin said. “I would welcome any opportunity to engage with leadership."