Washington – The United States and close ally Australia held high-level talks on China on Tuesday and agreed on the need to uphold a rules-based global order, but the Australian foreign minister stressed that Canberra’s relationship with China was important and it had no intention of injuring it.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper held two days of talks in Washington with their Australian counterparts, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defense Minister Linda Reynolds, who had flown around the world for the meetings despite the COVID-19 pandemic and face two weeks of quarantine on their return.
At a joint news conference, Pompeo praised Australia for standing up to pressure from China and said Washington and Canberra would continue to work together to reassert the rule of law in the South China Sea, where China has been pressing its claims.
Payne said the United States and Australia shared a commitment to the rule of law and had reiterated their commitment to hold countries to account for breaches, such as China’s erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.
She said the two sides had also agreed to form a working group to monitor and respond to harmful disinformation and would look at ways to expand cooperation on infectious diseases, including access to vaccines.
At the same time, she said Australia did not agree on everything with Beijing — or with the United States.
“The relationship that we have with China is important. And we have no intention of injuring it,” she said. “But nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests.”
She said Australia and the United States had a shared interest in an Asia-Pacific region that was free, prosperous and secure and were broadly aligned on issues, including China.
“We don’t agree on everything though. And that’s part of a respectful relationship, is part of a relationship that has endured over 100 years of ‘mateship.'”
Payne did not elaborate on disagreements with Washington, but said Australia made its own decisions and judgments based on its national interests and security.
“We deal with China in the same way. We have a strong economic engagement, other engagement, and it works in the interests of both countries,” Payne said.
Pompeo, a persistent and forceful critic of Beijing, said in a speech last week that Washington and its allies must use “more creative and assertive ways” to press China to change its ways and called it the “mission of our time.”
Pompeo also said then it may be time for “a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies” for this purpose.
The two countries did said they will expand military cooperation, presenting a common front between the allies amid the hawkish shift on China by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
“The United States knows the threats that you and the rest of the free world face. And the United States stands with you in our unbreakable alliance,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Australian ministers during a joint news conference.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper hailed the participation of five Australian warships last week in exercises with a US carrier strike group and a Japanese destroyer in the Philippine Sea.
“These exercises not only bolster interoperability, but also send a clear signal to Beijing that we will fly, we will sail and we will operate wherever international law allows and defend the rights of our allies and partners to do the same,” Esper said.
Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said the two countries will build ties across a slew of defense areas including hypersonic, electronic and space-based warfare.
The cooperation will “strengthen our shared ability to contribute to regional security and to deter malign behavior in our region,” she said.
In a joint statement, the ministers said they discussed expanding operations in the northern Australian city of Darwin, where U.S. Marines have been rotating in since 2012 under an initiative of former President Barack Obama.
The United States will establish a military fuel reserve in Darwin and the allies will consider exercises there with like-minded countries — a likely reference to Japan and India.
In one step that had been too far, Australia last year said it would not serve as a base for U.S. intermediate-range missiles — widely seen as a way to target China.
Esper, asked if Australia had warmed to the missiles, said the allies had a “full suite of capabilities and strategies we intend to roll out together in the years ahead.”
Japan has also been eyed as a potential site for basing the weapons.
Pompeo has championed a hard line on China, questioning the half-century U.S. policy of engagement and urging an alliance to confront a “Frankenstein” Beijing.
Despite Australia’s reliance on trade with China, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s right-leaning government has largely backed the United States.
Australia has seconded its longtime ally’s calls for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and joined Pompeo in rejecting Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
Pompeo hailed Morrison for refusing to “bow to Beijing’s wishes” after China retaliated by discouraging travel and trade with Australia and was accused of waging cyberattacks against government sites.
As the ministers met, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi — in a phone call with his counterpart from another U.S. ally, France — accused Washington of “reckless provocation of confrontation.”
China as well as Trump’s domestic critics accuse the U.S. president, who is trailing in polls ahead of November elections, of seizing on China to divert from criticism of his own handling of the pandemic in the United States, which has suffered the highest death toll of any country.
But Trump’s presumptive Democratic rival Joe Biden has also vowed a tough approach on China amid widespread criticism of the Asian power on issues from trade to its incarceration of Uighur Muslims to its clampdown in semiautonomous Hong Kong.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, a close U.S. ally that maintains cordial relations with China, said Washington’s relationship with Beijing historically “always gets entangled” in U.S. presidential elections but stabilizes afterward.
“I’m not sure whether it will happen this time because I feel it’s quite different,” Lee told the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“The degree of animus and, sad to say, bipartisan consensus on treating China as a threat is quite extraordinary and I fear that it may carry over past the election and, if it does, I think that bodes ill for the world.”