Australia to step up South China Sea defence cooperation with US – but won't commit to patrols

Australia to step up South China Sea defence cooperation with US – but won't commit to patrols

Allies release joint statement of ‘deep concern’ over China’s actions in Hong Kong and repression of Uighurs and vow to fight disinformation.

Australia has pledged to increase defence cooperation with the US in the South China Sea – but stopped short of making any specific new commitment on freedom of navigation operations, despite American pressure.

The two allies have also decided during high-level talks in Washington to set up a working group to push back at false information across the Indo-Pacific region, warning that “state-sponsored malicious disinformation and interference in democratic processes are significant and evolving threats”.

While the joint statement expressed “deep concern” over a range of actions taken by China – including a “campaign of repression of Uyghurs” and undermining of freedoms in Hong Kong – Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said her country had “no intention of injuring” its important relationship with Beijing.

Payne and the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, agreed in face-to-face talks with their US counterparts, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, to pursue “increased and regularised maritime cooperation” in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, “bilaterally and in concert with other likeminded and regional partners”.

The joint statement declares that Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea “are not valid under international law”, but Australia appears to have held firm against conducting freedom of navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of disputed features.

Experts say the US has long been pushing for Australia to conduct such exercises, but Australia has resisted taking such a step to date – in part to avoid inflaming tensions with China, its largest trading partner.

Payne said Australia and the US had a close and enduring relationship but made their own decisions based on their values.

“We don’t agree on everything though, and that’s part of a respectful relationship,” she said after the meeting.

Payne also noted that Australia’s relationship with China was important “and we have no intention of injuring it … but nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests”.

Reynolds told reporters freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea was a subject of discussion, but Australia already had a long history of transiting through the region.

“Our approach remains consistent, and we will continue to transit through the region in accordance with international law,” the defence minister said.

China responded angrily to the statement, accusing Australia and the US of “unfounded accusations” in relation to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.

“Their assertions, in disregard of basic facts, violated international law and basic norms governing international relations and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs,” the Chinese embassy said in a statement.

The embassy warned that “any attempt to pressure China will never succeed” and urged Australia “not to go further on the road of harming China-Australia relations”.

Australia and the US also agreed to set up a new mechanism to work together to tackle disinformation, having recently joined other countries in pledging to combat the “infodemic” linked to Covid-19.

“They plan to continue to counter these threats vigorously, including through collaboration with international partners, and through a new working group between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of State, which will monitor and respond to disinformation efforts,” said the joint statement issued early on Wednesday, Australian time.

In the talks – known as Ausmin – both sides also agreed to establish a US-funded strategic military fuel reserve in Darwin.

The plans for a fuel reserve – to be commercially operated – are driven by concerns that “the operational effectiveness of the alliance relies increasingly on secure supply chains to support our combined capability and readiness”.

The statement revealed Australia and the US had signed a classified statement related to how their militaries work together. The move would establish “a bilateral force posture Working Group to develop recommendations that will advance force-posture cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to promote a secure and stable region and deter coercive acts and the use of force”.

Reynolds said the agreement would “strengthen our shared ability to contribute to regional security and to deter malign behaviour in our region”.

She later told ABC Radio National that Australia had its own policy on China and was “very clear on articulating that during Ausmin”.

“On our strategic issues and our strategic values and objectives, we are still very closely aligned with the United States, but not completely aligned, and that’s as it should be,” Reynolds said.

Pompeo commended the Australian government “for standing up for democratic values and the rule of law, despite intense, continued, coercive pressure from the Chinese Communist Party to bow to Beijing’s wishes”.

Referring to recent trade tensions, the US secretary of state said: “It is unacceptable for Beijing to use exports or student fees as a cudgel against Australia. We stand with our Australian friends.”

Payne and Reynolds have pledged to isolate for two weeks upon their return to Australia.

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