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New Delhi: China’s “level of aggression” across the region, including border disputes with India and the Philippines, is causing a lot of concern in the Indo-Pacific, Australia’s leader of opposition Peter Dutton said on Wednesday.
Dutton, who was defence minister when the AUKUS partnership between Australia, Britain and the US was forged in 2021, told a group of reporters that both his country and India have important trading relations with China but this has to be balanced with protecting values and maintaining peace in the Indo-Pacific.
“There is a level of aggression [by China] that causes a lot of concern and angst because in the end, what we all desire is for continued peace in…the Indo-Pacific. We want to make sure the trading relationship can continue to prosper but Australia should never shed our values or step back from arguing for what we believe is right and just,” he said.
In this context, he pointed to India’s “experience on the land border” with China and the Philippines’ experience in the South China Sea. He also pointed to issues faced by the US in the South China Sea in recent weeks.
India and China have been locked in a military standoff in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since early 2020. The face-off has taken the bilateral relationship to its lowest ebb in six decades, and the Indian leadership has said ties cannot be normalised until there is peace and tranquillity in the border areas.
Referring to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s upcoming trip to China next week, Dutton said Albanese “has been clear that he has some hard messages to deliver to President Xi [Jinping] during his visit”. Australia’s opposition will support Albanese in “delivering those messages”, he said.
While Australia’s Chinese diaspora of 1.2 million is an integral part of the country’s society, Xi “leads a different China than many of his predecessors and that’s the reality the world has to deal with”, he added.
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Mike Burgess, the chief of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, recently pointed to the “industrial scale theft of intellectual property and other actions” by China that have caused “a lot of grief”, Dutton said.
Dutton, who also served as minister for home affairs during 2017-21, declined to comment on the India-Canada diplomatic row over the killing of Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar but said Australia is sensitive to New Delhi’s concerns on the activities of Khalistani groups.
“From our own perspective, I think the approach that we’ve taken is to be very respectful of the sensitivities, the requests for support,” he said.
People in Australia can protest for many causes but they “need to be respectful of equities and the interests that we have and that includes the relationship with India”, he said. Indian and Australian security agencies have done a lot of work on activities they are concerned about, and “if there’s more that we can do in that regard, we would welcome that opportunity”, he added.
In the context of India-Australia negotiations on a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (CECA), Dutton said there will be sensitivities on dairy or agricultural issues. However, the two sides should look for new opportunities in agriculture, education, critical minerals and mining, and energy security.
“There’s an emerging opportunity, as trust continues to build, in the space of defence material, of manufacturing potentially here in India by Australian companies working in collaboration with defence industry partners from India, both for the export market and for domestic consumption,” Dutton said.
Rezaul H Laskar is the Foreign Affairs Editor at Hindustan Times. His interests include movies and music.
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