Defence Minister Peter Dutton says Australia will never have the military ties with China it shares with traditional allies such as the United States as a result of its position and history.
Mr Dutton also warned the military build-up in the Indo-Pacific region meant the prospect of war was less remote than in the past and Australia must be prepared for any contingency.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton said the question of how Australia should navigate its relationship with China was not complicated.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Diplomatic relations between Australia and China have deteriorated to their worst level in decades, with Beijing last year imposing more than $20 billion of tariffs after Canberra pushed for an independent global inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.
Appearing at an Australian Strategic Policy Institute conference in Canberra on Thursday, Mr Dutton said the question of how Australia should navigate its relationship with China was not complicated.
“We have a respectful relationship with China from our own perspective. We are a peaceful nation, we seek to support our neighbours particularly in a time of need, and we have a need for that in response,” he said.
“It’s not more complicated than that in my mind. We aren’t going to have the military ties with China that we do historical partners like the United States. That is no doubt an issue for China, but that is the reality of our position and our history.
“We seek to have a productive relationship with China, but we don’t accept breaking of the law, we don’t accept interference in our electoral processes, we don’t accept interference in the processes of democracy or otherwise and we crave a peaceful region and that’s what we will continue to work with.”
He flagged the possibility of increasing the number of US marines in the Northern Territory from 2500 and basing US Navy vessels at HMAS Stirling near Perth.
“I think that is in our own security interest and I think it is in the interest of the US as well,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called on Wednesday for a new commitment from Australia’s allies to defend a world order that favours freedom over autocracy, warning of a strategic competition with China that parallels the uncertainties of the 1930s. Japan this week backed Australia’s campaign against China’s economic coercion, warning the superpower’s strikes had undermined the international order.
Asked whether the world was heading towards a battle between democracies and authoritarian regimes, Mr Dutton said: “I think that’s right.” He said European countries, NATO, Japan, India and Canada all had a “sharpened focus” on the Indo-Pacific region and there had been an “awakening”.
He said Australia’s intent to stand up for the “virtues of democracy, freedom of speech and the other values that we adhere to” would never change.
In his speech, Mr Dutton said the region was more complex and less predictable than at any time since World War II due to factors including intensified strategic competition between China and the US, the emergence of new disruptive technologies and the increased prevalence of so-called grey-zone activities “designed to irritate, intimidate and injure other countries, including our own”.
“It should go without saying that the Australian government’s first priority is to maintain peace in our region – that’s always our first priority,” he said.
“All countries in the Indo-Pacific have a shared interest in ensuring continued stability and prosperity. The unfortunate fact, of course, is that not all nations are acting in a manner consistent with these goals.
“As a consequence, the prospect of military conflict is less remote than in the past – especially through miscalculation or misunderstanding.”
Labor has in recent weeks accused the government of deliberately encouraging anxiety about a conflict with Beijing to secure a domestic political advantage.
Mr Dutton also said he believed Australia’s $90 billion program to build 12 new attack-class submarines, which has been plagued by cost blowouts, delays and disagreements over local content, was “back on track” after French builder Naval Group made some personnel changes.
Naval Group recently hired one of Mr Morrison’s closest confidants, David Gazard, to lobby for the company in Canberra.
“I think the personnel changes, the appointment of quality people … shows a genuine effort to get the project back on track,” Mr Dutton said.
In his speech to the ASPI conference, Opposition defence spokesman Brendan O’Connor said after six Defence Ministers in eight years, Labor had “significant concerns about the way major contracts have been managed and the effect this will have on our defence capability”.
“On our very large defence asset contracts, the attack class submarines and hunter class frigates, we have seen huge blowouts on timelines and expenditure,” he said.
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