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And senator Eric Abetz said China’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric was viewed with unease in his country – stressing conflict needed to be averted at all costs. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans to increase Australia’s defence budget sharply earlier this year – and while he did not mention China by name, it was clear Beijing’s activities in the waterway, where it has built military fortifications on numerous uninhabited islands, were a major factor.
Tasmanian senator Mr Abetz, who is a member of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, told Express.co.uk: “Australia allowed its defence expenditure as a percentage of its GDP to slip to historically low levels, something which the Liberal Government has been rectifying since its election in 2013.
“Further, there is unease at the aggressive build-up by a major player in our region.
“The extra outlays are to modernise defence materiel and preparedness in all spheres of our defences – from submarines through to land warfare.”
Mr Abetz said: “The Chinese Communist dictatorship’s illegal land grab is seen as indicative of a mindset unrelated to its own defence needs.
“This highly provocative act is seen by all regional neighbours as a highly aggressive posture.”
China’s activities, especially in relation to islands in the Pacific Ocean, were “aggressively expansionist and manipulative”, Mr Abetz said.
Beijing has reacted angrily to Australia’s decision, and has threatened economic reprisals targeting exports.
But Mr Abetz insisted: “Australia enhancing its self-defence preparedness cannot be sensibly interpreted as an act of hostility.
“The unfortunate rhetoric emanating from the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship is viewed with concern in Australia, as are the trade barriers imposed in response to Australia’s request for an international investigation into the handling of COVID-19.”
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Despite the deterioration in relations between China and the West – and associated countries such as his own – Mr Abetz said he did not believe the situation was likely to boil over, at least not in the short term.
He said: “The tensions between the Chinese Communist Dictatorship and the Australian Government are often over-stated and the Chinese regime’s reactiveness is seen as clumsy and belligerent which, in fact, hinders China’s cause.
“That said, conflict must be avoided and can be with the dictatorship abiding by basic human rights and honouring the obligations into which it has entered.”
In reference to China’s controversial imposition of a security law in Hong Kong, and treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, to name just two human rights concerns, Mr Abetz added: “Australia needs to continue taking its strong, principled stand on human rights and transparency, which stands in stark contrast to the dictatorship’s.
“Ultimately, freedom wins out because embedded in each of us is the desire for peace and freedom.
“Australia can and should continue to trade and maintain its relationship with China in a respectful yet uncompromising manner.”
Speaking to Express.co.uk earlier this month, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Committee, told Express.co.uk: “We need to learn from Australia – they are ahead of us.
“They have been upgrading their stance on China.
“And it is critical that we work together with one of our closest allies.
“Because it is only collectively that we can stand up to the might of China’s technology, growing economy and indeed military machine.”
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