SINGAPORE — Australia’s new defense minister has called for “transparent” military buildups to reassure neighboring countries and avoid an arms race, specifically calling out China’s defense investments.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, Richard Marles said what’s “important is that the exercise of Chinese power exhibits the characteristics necessary for our shared prosperity and security.” That, he said, includes “respect for agreed rules and norms, where trade and investment flow [are] based on agreed rules and binding treaty commitments, and where disputes among states are resolved via dialogue and in accordance with international law.”

He said Australia does not question the right of any country to modernize its military capabilities consistent with their interests and resources, but added that “large-scale military buildups must be transparent, and they must be accompanied by statecraft that reassures.”

He claimed that China’s military buildup is the largest and most ambitious of its kind by any country since the end of World War II. “It is critical that China’s neighbors do not see this buildup as a risk for them because without that reassurance, it is inevitable that countries will seek to upgrade their own military capabilities in response.”

This was Marles’ inaugural appearance as Australia’s defense minister at the summit, which is hosted by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Australia voted for a new government following federal elections on May 21.

Regional commitment

Marles also reiterated Australia’s focus on and commitment toward the South Pacific islands, saying the government will embark on a new era of engagement in the region. This will go beyond the Australian Defence Force’s ongoing support of the islands in response to humanitarian disasters, he added.

He pledged that Australia will establish a Pacific defense school to train regional defense and security forces, as well as to help deter illegal fishing and transnational crime through more support for Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program.

The waning days of the previous government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison saw a renewed security focus on the islands, following the signing of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands. That deal, critics said, is likely the first step toward the establishment of a Chinese military base there.

A subsequent attempt by China to strike a sweeping security and trade deal with 10 Pacific islands failed in late May over several concerns, including Beijing’s motives in proposing the deal, which would have created a free trade area as well as health care support and action against climate change.

Marles also reaffirmed a renewed Australian focus on climate change, pointing out that newly minted Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had previously said climate change was not just about the environment but also about lives, livelihoods and national security.

“Gone are the days when Australia neglected climate change as a security issue and treated it as a marginal priority,” Marles said in a swipe at the previous government’s climate skepticism, which drew international ire on several occasions.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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