Deputy PM sends message over China's militarisation: 'Deny through force'

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Australia's new Deputy Prime Minister has sent a blunt message to China over its military build-up in the South China Sea.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue defence meeting in Singapore on Saturday, Richard Marles, also the country's new Defence Minister said Australia would continue to invest in its military capabilities to deter China as it tries to "deny the legitimacy of its neighbours' claims" in the region.

Mr Marles cautioned China's use of force in the Indo-Pacific as it builds up its military presence.

"Chinese militarisation of features in the South China Sea needs to be understood for what it is: the intent to deny the legitimacy of its neighbours’ claims in this vital international waterway through force," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Richard Marles delivers his speech during the third plenary session of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-la Dialogue. Source: AAP
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Richard Marles delivers his speech during the third plenary session of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-la Dialogue. Source: AAP

"Australia does not question the right of any country to modernise their military capabilities consistent with their interests and resources ... [But] 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. It’s critical that China’s neighbours do not see that as a risk to them."

When it comes to China's relationship with Australia and its allies, Mr Marles painted a picture of economic co-operation balanced with military deterrence.

He said Russia's invasion of Ukraine had shown economic interdependence was not enough to dissuade conflict between nations.

Investment in regional military deterrence will continue to be necessary to show the risks of conflict outweighed any benefits.

"China is not going anywhere and we all need to live together and hopefully prosper together," Mr Marles said.

"China's economic success is connected to that of our own and the region.

"Australia's approach will be anchored in a resolve to safeguard our national interests, and our support for regional security and stability based on rules."

He said the rule of law, not power, would govern conduct between states.

China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe (R) talks to US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L), Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (2nd L) shakes hands with Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Richard Marles, during the ministerial roundtable luncheon at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 11, 2022. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe (R) talks to US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L), Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (2nd L) shakes hands with Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles. Source: Reuters

'There will be continuity in Australian defensive policy': Marles

While there were parallels in substance, Mr Marles comments were, diplomatically speaking, a far cry from that of his predecessor Peter Dutton who publicly stated Australia "needed to prepare for war" in the face of China's growing threat. That, he said, was the best way to preserve peace.

Mr Marles at the very least used decidedly more tactful language.

Speaking at the Singapore gathering, he paraphrased former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, saying China would need to accept restraints on its power as it looked to take a leadership role in the region.

"When it comes to the security and stability of our own region, there will be continuity in Australian defensive policy," he said.

This would mean a continuation of the Australia-US alliance, commitment to AUKUS and an "accelerated" push to military quantum technology, AI, undersea warfare capabilities and hypersonic munitions.

"Australia's investments in defence capability are a necessary and prudent response to the military buildup we see taking place in the Indo-Pacific," Mr Marles said.

"They aim to contribute to an effective balance of military power. A balance of ensuring no state will ever conclude here that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks."

China's State Councilor and Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe leaves after a bilateral meeting with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 10, 2022. REUTERS/Caroline Chia
China's State Councilor and Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe leaves after a bilateral meeting with US on the sidelines of the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Source: Reuters

with AAP

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