Australia seeks military talks with China, ties with Philippines

By Tom Westbrook

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Australia has asked for military talks with China and is comfortable growing closer to the Philippines, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said on Sunday at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit.

China and the Philippines are locked in confrontation in the disputed South China Sea and their encounters have grown more tense as Beijing presses its claims to shoals in waters that Manila says are well within its exclusive economic zone.

Australia has stepped up its presence in the region and a joint amphibious exercise with the Philippines at Palawan island in August was Australia's biggest outside its own borders last year.

Australia has also said its recent encounters with China's military fell short of being safe and professional, and Marles said he discussed the issue with Chinese defence chief Dong Jun on the sidelines of the conference on Saturday.

"The substantive request that we had out of the meeting with China was to grow the defence dialogue," Marles told Reuters.

"We really want to get it ultimately back to where it was before it was stopped, and that would be at the level of our chiefs of defence force and our secretaries of defence meeting annually."

Chinese defence officials met their Australian counterparts in Canberra last year in their first formal meeting since 2019.

Since then, Australia has complained of a close encounter with a Chinese jet over the Yellow Sea and sonar being deployed while Australian divers were in waters close to Japan, which it said was dangerous.

"They could have led to a very significant negative result. That would be a very bad thing if that ever happened, and we've got to avoid it. That's why it's really important," Marles said.

China has said it took necessary steps to warn Australia over the jet incident and denied one of its navy destroyers operated sonar close to Australia's divers.

Marles also held talks with Philippines Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue.

"We definitely think that this is a moment where our relationship with the Philippines is really being taken to a level it's never been before, and we very much welcome that," said Marles.

"What we're now seeing is a strategic dimension to that relationship being put in place, and that's something that we greatly welcome, and we see this as growing even further."

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)