Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has told a regional security forum that dialogue is a vital “guardrail” in dealing with China, and praised US President Joe Biden’s effort to establish “reliable and open” US-China channels of communication.
Delivering a keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Friday night, Albanese said “the silence of the diplomatic deep freeze” only bred suspicion, making it easier for countries “to assume the worst of one another”.
But the forum, attended by defence ministers, officials and military chiefs, comes amid tensions after China declined an American request for a meeting on the sidelines between US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and his counterpart, Li Shangfu.
Austin has not spoken with Li since he became the Chinese defence minister in March. He had met with Li’s predecessor, General Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue last year.
Albanese, in an address promoted as the most important he has made as PM on foreign policy, warned of the dangers where there was not “the pressure valve of dialogue”.
“If you don’t have the capacity – at a decision-making level – to pick up the phone, to seek some clarity or provide some context, then there is always a much greater risk of assumptions spilling over into irretrievable action and reaction.
"The consequences of such a breakdown – whether in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere - would not be confined to the big powers or the site of their conflict, they would be devastating for the world.
"That’s why as leaders in this region – and as citizens of it – we should be doing everything we can to support the building of that first and most fundamental guardrail.”
Albanese said Australia had put dialogue “at the heart of our efforts to stabilise our relationship with China”.
It was not naïve about the process or its limitations, he said.
“But we begin from the principle that whatever the issue, whether we agree or disagree, it is always better and more effective if we deal direct.”
Albanese said the government’s investments in new defence capability was “unapologetically about our national defence and our national sovereignty.”
“They are also an investment in regional stability, strengthening our capacity to contribute to the collective security of the Indo-Pacific.
"From shared peacekeeping missions such as the regional assistance mission in Solomon Islands, to providing essential support in times of humanitarian and environmental disaster, most recently in Vanuatu.
"Australia is determined to deepen this cooperation with more shared exercises, building on the recent success of Talisman Sabre and our flagship regional engagement activity Indo-Pacific Endeavour.
"In boosting our nation’s defence capability, Australia’s goal is not to prepare for war but to prevent it - through deterrence and reassurance and building resilience in the region.
"Doing our part to fulfil the shared responsibility all of us have to preserve peace and security.
"And making it crystal clear that when it comes to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force: be it in Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea or elsewhere, the risk of conflict will always far outweigh any potential reward.”
Albanese on Saturday will travel to Vietnam for a two-day official visit before returning home.