By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia will send a senior defence official to China’s top international security forum in October for the first time in four years, officials said on Friday.
China will host foreign defence officials in Beijing on Oct. 29-31 for the Xiangshan Forum, styled by Beijing as its answer to Singapore’s annual Shangri-La Dialogue.
Reuters has reported General Liu Zhenli, the head of the military body responsible for China’s combat operations and planning, has emerged as the top contender to replace Defence Minister Li Shangfu, who has not been seen in public for more than six weeks.
The appointment of Liu to replace Li was likely to happen before Beijing holds the security forum, which a U.S. representative is also expected to attend, Reuters reported.
U.S. security ally Australia has previously sent a defence assistant secretary to the forum, which has not been held since 2019, before a diplomatic dispute erupted between Beijing and Canberra that is now thawing.
“As it did for the most recent iterations of the forum held prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Defence will be represented at the 2023 Beijing Xiangshan Forum by a senior official,” a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Defence said in a statement to Reuters.
Chinese and Australian defence officials held their first meeting since 2019 in March, a week after Australia’s AUKUS partnership with U.S. and Britain unveiled details of a plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines from the early 2030s, which China opposes.
The deportation on Wednesday of an Australian journalist who had been detained in China for three years on national security charges is the latest step in warming ties between Beijing and Canberra.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who came to power last year with a goal of stabilising relations with Australia’s biggest trade partner, said he expects to visit China this year, the first by an Australian leader since 2016.
Australia has been stepping up its participation in military exercises with its allies, from amphibious drills in the Philippines to navy exercises with Japan, the U.S. and India, amid concern about Chinese pressure on self-ruled Taiwan.
On Wednesday, Defence Minister Richard Marles said dialogue with Chinese defence officials was important to understand each other, “making sure there’s not miscalculation”.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; editing by Robert Birsel)