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Singapore: Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has delivered a message to China that the risks of invading Taiwan far outweigh the rewards, while warning that a breakdown in communication in the contested Indo-Pacific could have devastating consequences for the world.
The Australian leader also defended the country’s plan to acquire a fleet of nuclear-propelled submarines as he made the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue defence forum in Singapore on Friday night.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is In Singapore and Vietnam this weekend.Credit: Bloomberg
Among those in the 500-strong audience at the start of Asia’s leading security conference were US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu.
Beijing rejected a request by the US for Li to meet with Austin on the sidelines of this weekend’s event, unhappy that Washington has not removed sanctions imposed on him in 2018 over the acquisition of weapons from Russia.
It was the latest setback to attempts to ease tension between the great powers which has escalated this year amid incidents including China’s flying of a spy balloon across the US and an aerial encounter between a Chinese fighter jet and an American surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea last week.
Albanese said he supported efforts by the US to establish guardrails with China that could avert catastrophe, cautioning that “the silence of the diplomatic deep freeze, only breeds suspicion, only makes it easier for nations to attribute motive to misunderstanding, to assume the worst of one another”.
“The consequences of such a breakdown . . . would be devastating for the world.”
“If you don’t have the pressure valve of dialogue, if you don’t have the capacity – at a decision-making level – to pick up the phone, to seek some clarity or provide some context, then there is always a much greater risk of assumptions spilling over into irretrievable action and reaction,” he said.
“The consequences of such a breakdown – whether in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere – would not be confined to the big powers or the site of their conflict, they would be devastating for the world.”
Speaking in Tokyo before flying to Singapore, Austin also called on China to re-open a channel between the superpowers’ militaries.
“I’m concerned about at some point having an incident that could very, very quickly spiral out of control,” he said.
In what was his most high-profile speech on the global stage since taking office last year, Albanese said “this isn’t about a policy of containment, it’s not a question of placing obstacles in the way of any nation’s progress or potential” but preventing conflict.
“In Australia, our government has put dialogue at the heart of our efforts to stabilise our relationship with China,” he said.
“We’re not naive about this process or its limitations. We recognise there are fundamental differences in our two nations’ systems of government, our values and our worldviews. But we begin from the principle that whatever the issue, whether we agree or disagree, it is always better and more effective if we deal direct.”
It was at last year’s edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue, held less than a fortnight after Labor ousted the Morrison government in the election, that a gradual thawing between Australia and Beijing began to occur.
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles’ meeting there with his then counterpart Wei Fenghe set the tone for other top-level get-togethers including one between Albanese and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the edges of the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali in November.
There remains much strain in relations, though, with China retaining trade sanctions on some Australian products and Australia standing up for the rule of law in disputed areas such as Taiwan, which Beijing views as its own, and the South China Sea.
Relaying the details of a meeting here on Thursday between Li and Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said his government continued to pursue a peaceful reunification with Taiwan but added: “We will absolutely not promise to renounce the use of force”.
It is a path that Albanese – describing Australia as a champion for peace and prosperity – urged not be taken.
Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is presented with the Dendrobium Anthony Albanese orchid by Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.Credit: Reuters
“In boosting our nation’s defence capability, Australia’s goal is not to prepare for war but to prevent it through deterrence and reassurance and building resilience in the region,” he said.
“Doing our part to fulfil the shared responsibility 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: be it in Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea or elsewhere, the risk of conflict will always far outweigh any potential reward.”
Albanese and Marles also met with Singapore Deputy Prime Minister and leader-in-waiting Lawrence Wong at the Istana, the presidential palace. Albanese also spoke with the city-state’s ceremonial president Halimah Yacob but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was absent after falling ill with COVID-19.
Albanese had an orchid named and planted in his honour on the grounds of the palace – the Dendrobium Anthony Albanese – a traditional gesture of friendship towards visiting leaders and heads of state.
Australia’s prime minister will fly to Hanoi on Saturday for a two-day visit to Vietnam while Marles stays in Singapore for the rest of the security forum.
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