Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles says Australia and China “need to live together” amid rising tensions while the US has called out Beijing’s “dangerous” interactions with Royal Australian Air Force planes.
China and its military ambitions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have featured heavily at the Shangri-La Dialogue defence conference in Singapore.
Mr Marles, Australia’s defence minister, said China was not going anywhere and its economic success was connected to Australia’s own.
He laid out a vision of economic co-operation balanced with military deterrence.
“China is not going anywhere and we all need to live together and hopefully prosper together,” he said.
“China remains Australia’s largest trading partner; China’s economic success is connected to that of our own and the region.
“So Australia’s approach will be anchored in a resolve to safeguard our national interest, and our support for regional security and stability based on rules.”
Mr Marles said China would need to accept restraints on its power as it looked to take a leadership role in the region.
He said if China did not reassure neighbours that they were not a security risk, “it is inevitable that countries will seek to upgrade their own military capabilities in response.”
“Large-scale military build-up must be transparent. And they must be accompanied by a statecraft that reassures.”
“China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious we have seen by any country since the end of the Second World War. So it is critical that China’s neighbours do not see this build-up as a risk to them.”
Mr Marles said it should give nations “concern” that China had failed to criticise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine despite committing to principles of sovereignty.
Meanwhile US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin called out the “alarming” increase in China conducting unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea with other countries.
Mr Austin singled out the Chinese military’s recent “dangerous” behaviour towards Australian RAAF planes which he said “should worry us all”.
Last month, a Chinese fighter jet intercepted an Australian surveillance plane over the South China sea and released a flare.
Earlier this year, a Chinese naval ship aimed a laser at a RAAF surveillance plane flying over the Arafura Sea, north of Australia.
Canada’s military has also accused Chinese warplanes of harassing its patrol aircraft as they monitor North Korea sanction evasions.
And Taiwan has complained for years of repeated Chinese air force missions into its air defence identification zone, an areas broader than territorial airspace that it monitors for threats.
Mr Austin said these incursions had surged in recent months.
He noted a “steady increase in provocative and destabilising military activity near Taiwan”, including almost daily military flights near Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China.
“Our policy hasn’t changed, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be true for the PRC,” he said.
Mr Austin said Washington remains committed to the “one-China policy”, which recognises Beijing but allows informal relations and defence ties with self-governing Taiwan.
Taiwan and China split during a civil war in 1949, but China claims the island as its own territory and has not ruled out using military force to take it.
China has stepped up its provocations against democratic Taiwan in recent years, apparently aimed at intimidating it into accepting Beijing’s demands to unify with the communist mainland.
“We remain focused on maintaining peace, stability and the status quo across the Taiwan Strait,” Mr Austin said in his address.
“But the PRC’s moves threaten to undermine security, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”
He drew a parallel with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying the “indefensible assault on a peaceful neighbour has galvanised the world and … has reminded us all of the dangers of undercutting an international order rooted in rules and respect.”
Mr Austin stressed the “rules-based international order matters just as much in the Indo-Pacific as it does in Europe”.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is what happens when oppressors trample the rules that protect us all,” he said.
“It’s what happens when big powers decide that their imperial appetites matter more than the rights of their peaceful neighbours.
“And it’s a preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in.”
A spokesman for Chinese Defence Minister General Wei said China would respond to any move towards formal Taiwan independence by “smashing it even at any price, including war”.
Lieutenant General Zhang Zhenzhong, a senior Chinese military officer, called Mr Austin’s speech a “confrontation”.
“There were many unfounded accusations against China. We expressed our strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to these false accusations,” Mr Zhang, vice chief of the joint staff department of China’s Central Military Commission, told reporters.
“The United States is trying to form a small circle in the Asia-Pacific region by roping in some countries to incite against some other countries. What should we call this other than confrontation?”