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Diplomatic Thaw as Australian, Chinese Ministers Meet for First Time Since 2020

This handout photo taken and released on June 12, 2022 Australia's Defense Minister Richard Marles (L) meeting with China's Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore.

Australia’s Defense Minister Richard Marles met his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the Shangri La Security Summit in Singapore during the weekend. After the breakthrough meeting, a former spy chief says Australia has “a long way to go” to repair relations with China.

Analysts say that the meeting of Australian and Chinese defense ministers in Singapore on Sunday could be the start of better diplomatic relations.

Relations between the two nations have deteriorated in recent years to such an extent that ministerial dialogue between the Indo-Pacific nations ceased more than two years ago.

There were allegations of Chinese interference in Australian politics and cyber-espionage. The detention of Australian citizens in China was also a source of friction, as was Canberra’s decision on national security grounds to ban Chinese company Huawei from its 5G telecommunications system.

Then there was friction over the pandemic. In 2020, Australia’s former Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there should be an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 that was first detected in China. It angered Beijing, which saw it as a direct criticism of its handling of the virus. Various trade sanctions followed on a range of Australian exports, including farming goods, wine and coal.

Former director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, Dennis Richardson, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the recently elected center-left government in Canberra is trying to reset bilateral relations with China after years of animosity.

“They don’t carry the baggage of the last ten years and that is not a criticism of the previous government. But they don’t carry the baggage of the differences in respect to the pandemic. They don’t carry the baggage of ministers incessantly talking about the potential for conflict with China. They are able to start with a clean slate,” he said.

Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said he had a “full and frank exchange” with his Chinese counterpart in Singapore, but he conceded that the relationship with China remained deeply problematic.

He said he raised several concerns, including China’s recent interception of an Australian air force plane over the South China Sea.

Marles insisted the meeting “was a critical first step” in repairing relations, which depended on having “open lines of dialogue.”

The Shangri-La Dialogue is “Asia’s premier defense summit” that is attended by officials from dozens of countries, including the United States, Japan and Indonesia.

Marles said Australia’s recently-elected government would continue to oppose Beijing’s attempts to militarize the South China Sea, but was committed to having “a productive relationship” with China, its biggest trading partner.