Australia won’t bite its tongue, Defence Minister warns in clear signal to China

Defence Minister Marise Payne has issued a coded but clear demand on China not to bully other countries that disagree with it.

In a speech to military and political leaders from Asia and the Pacific region on Saturday, Senator Payne will say that no one country can tear up the system of international rules – which she pointedly notes has let countries such as China grow and prosper peacefully.

Senator Marise Payne listens to Foreign Affairs Secretary Frances Adamson during estimates.
Senator Marise Payne listens to Foreign Affairs Secretary Frances Adamson during estimates.Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

In the speech to the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, Senator Payne makes it clear Australia will continue calling out behaviour that tries unilaterally to change what Australia and its allies call “the rules-based order”.

While she doesn’t name China, Senator Payne makes thinly veiled references to China’s behaviour, making it apparent the Turnbull government means to keep pressing Beijing over issues such as the South China Sea and foreign interference even as it tries to improve the relationship after a rocky six months.

Senator Payne warns it is “a vital lesson of history” that “disruptive changes in international relations, when imposed on others, create instability”.

She says the rules-based order – which includes institutions such as trade rules and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – can evolve over time but cannot be rewritten unilaterally by one country.

“Nations must also have the right to be free from coercion or criticism when they lawfully and reasonably communicate objections about the behaviour of other nations,” she says. “This extends to the reasonable expectation that rules, not the exercise of power, govern our actions.”

She cites as an example Australia’s opposition to Beijing’s construction and militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

“When Australia disagrees with the actions of another nation, including partners and allies, we say so.”

Her speech comes at a time when relations between Canberra and Beijing are more precarious than they have been for years, with tensions revolving chiefly around the Turnbull government’s proposed foreign interference laws.

This week the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, said in some of the most explicit terms by a government official that China wants to dominate Asia whereas Australia would like power to be shared by many players.

Asked by Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong what success would mean for China, Ms Adamson said it was a peaceful and stable region but one that “is centred on Beijing”.

Australia’s interests would be better served by “a multipolar region” in which the United States remained deeply engaged in Asia and where rising countries such as India and Indonesia played significant roles in sharing power.

A Chinese base under construction on Mabini (Johnson) Reef, one of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
A Chinese base under construction on Mabini (Johnson) Reef, one of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.Photo: Supplied

Senator Payne said the recent signing of a maritime boundary treaty after a long dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste was “an example of the rules-based order in action”.

Australia has been eager to promote the resolution of this dispute using international law as a case in point when it signals its disagreement with Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea, which has been explicitly repudiated by an arbitration panel in The Hague.

David Wroe

David Wroe is the defence and national security correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House

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