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Foreign Minister Penny Wong has spoken in her first major address this year amid landmark improvements in Australia’s wavering relationship with China. 

Speaking at the National Press Club for the first time since Labor won the 2022 Federal Election, Senator Wong repeated warnings of “grave” implications of “unchecked strategic competition”.

She said Australia and the Indo-Pacific faced “unprecedented circumstances” which required coordinated and ambitious statecraft.

“China continues to modernise its military at a pace and scale not seen in the world for nearly a century with little transparency or assurance about its strategic intent,” Senator Wong said on Monday afternoon.

“This combination of factors and the risk of miscalculation will comprise the most confronting circumstances in decades.”

China’s increased military build-up and coercion across diplomatic and economic lines has raised the temperature in the Indo-Pacific.

In light of heightened strategic tensions, Australia has reaffirmed its commitment to the US alliance while China continues its military posturing in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

But Senator Wong warned against simply viewing Australia’s fate in terms of “great powers competing for primacy”.

“Viewing the future of our region simply in terms of great powers competing for primacy means country’s own national interests can fall out of focus, and it diminishes the power of each country to engage other than through the prism of a great power,” she added.

The Foreign Minister said Australia had to ensure it helped “shape a region” which reflected its national interests to “avert war and maintain peace”.

“Those interests lie in a region that operates by rules, standards and norms, where a larger country does not determine the fate of a smaller country.

“Countries like ours in this contested region need to sharpen our focus on what our interests are and how to uphold them.

“And our focus must be on what we need to do so that we can live according to our own laws and values determined by our own citizens, pursuing our own prosperity, making our choices and respecting but not deferring to others.”

Australia and China took major steps in resolving $20 billion of trade sanctions, when the two governments agreed to resume negotiations over hostile barley measures.

While relations are rapidly improving between Beijing and Canberra under the Albanese government, Senator Wong conceded it was the government’s responsibility to “lower the heat” in any possibility of conflict.

“We need not waste energy with shock or outrage at China seeking to its advantage,” she said.

“Instead, we have to channel our energy in pressing for our own advantage. We deploy our own statecraft towards shaping a region that is open, stable and prosperous.

“We will always pursue greater self-reliance. We will always pursue a more active foreign policy. So today, we modernise (Dr Herbet) Everett’s policy, working with partners and friends in the region to exercise it with equilibrium.”

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