Penny Wong has refused to be drawn on whether Australia is now in an arms race with China, despite one of her colleagues claiming it has already begun.

The Foreign Minister sidestepped several questions about whether the government was trying to keep up with Beijing’s military build-up when asked on Sunday morning.

“The question is not commenting about it, the question is what we do about it,” she told ABC’s Insiders.

“What we have to do with other countries is to ensure that there is a strategic balance in the region.

“We want to make sure that no country ever thinks that conflict is worth it. That’s the calculus we always have to change, and we do that both by deterrence and by reassurance.”

Last week, the government stared down dissent from rank-and-file Labor members and unions over its support for AUKUS.

The tripartite security pact with the US and the UK, agreed to by Scott Morrison and inked by Anthony Albanese, would lead to Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy told delegates on Friday the “arms race is already happening before our very eyes”.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham said the conference debate showed Labor “could never have initiated AUKUS”.

“There are some real tests for Labor in terms of demonstrating they can make the hard decisions for the delivery of AUKUS over the next few years,” he told Sky News on Sunday.

Defence Minister Richard Marles offered reassurances about non-proliferation and the storage of waste.

On Sunday, Senator Wong reaffirmed the government’s belief the submarines would not lead to the greater proliferation of nuclear material.

But she would not say if Australia should sign a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Speaking earlier, the Prime Minister told Sky News the vessels were critical considering Australia’s position as an island continent.

“This is the right thing to do, as a part of our Defence Strategic Review, which has looked at, what are the assets that we need, where we need them,” he said.

Mr Albanese is expected to travel to China later in the year to meet with President Xi Jinping, following the icebreaking meeting on the sidelines of the G20 last year.

Senator Wong travelled to Beijing last December, becoming the first Australian minister to travel to China in more than three years.

Talks are underway for the next dialogue between the minister and counterpart Wang Yi to be held in Australia.

“I know officials are talking through when that would be convenient for Chinese – for a Chinese minister to attend the dialogue,” she said.

“We’ve made clear we will co-operate with China where we can, disagree where we must and we will engage in our national interests, because even if you don’t agree, it is important to engage.”

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