China at center of US-Australia meeting on shared challenges
“Our two great democracies face immediate crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and longer term challenges like the Chinese Communist Party's ambitions,” Pompeo said, “and we need to deal with each of these challenges simultaneously.”
Trump administration officials have ratcheted up rhetoric against China in recent weeks alongside actions meant to punish Beijing for what they say is a campaign of covert and coercive behavior threatening U.S. national security. This comes on top of the administration's criticism that China is responsible for the spread of COVID-19 and its condemnation of Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong.
“We started this morning by talking at length about the Chinese Communist Party's malign activity in the Indo-Pacific region, and indeed all around the world,” Pompeo said, speaking alongside Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds.
Australia, while one of the U.S.’s closest allies and intelligence-sharing partners through the Five Eyes agreement, is seeking to balance confrontation with China alongside cooperation on areas of trade and the economy.
“As my prime minister put it recently, the relationship that we have with China is important, and we have no intention of injuring it,” Payne said. “But nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests, and that is the premise from which we begin.”
The two delegations met over two days as part of the 30th annual U.S. and Australian Ministerial Consultations. The face-to-face meetings are notable for taking place amid the pandemic, where the U.S. has the highest case count in the world with over 4 million cases — though numbers are rising across the globe, including in Australia.
The entire Australian delegation, including the top ranking foreign and defense officials, have committed to quarantining for a two-week period upon their return to Canberra.
“Your entire delegation will be quarantining when you get back. Not many partners would do that for us,” Pompeo said. “It was very important that we all be together to have this important conversation.”
Payne announced that the U.S. and Australia would partner on a working group “to monitor and respond to harmful disinformation.”
While not specifically naming China and Russia, both countries are seen as leading states in campaigns of disinformation and influence operations, called out by the European Union, the State Department and tech companies that have pulled down networks made up of tens of thousands of inauthentic users.
Pompeo further commended Australia on confronting Chinese telecommunications companies that have come under U.S. scrutiny as being a front for collecting private information for the Chinese Communist Party.
“We also addressed the CCP's attempts to dominate the technology space,” Pompeo said. “Australia was ahead of us in awakening to the threat of untrusted vendors like Huawei and ZTE. We look forward to nations becoming clean countries together.”
Both sides also accused China of violating international norms in the South China Sea and pledged to uphold freedom of navigation and the rule of the law in the region, though officials were cagey with details as to how their countries would do so.
Esper sidestepped questions on whether the officials had discussed deploying additional U.S. troops or intermediate-range missiles on Australian soil, only telling reporters that they “had a very wide-ranging discussion about the capabilities that the United States possesses and the capabilities that Australia possesses and our desire to enhance them - whether they are hypersonic [missiles] or any other type of capability.”
He added that the discussions also touched on deterring “bad behavior in the Indo-Pacific ... specifically with regard to China.”
Esper last year while visiting Australia said that he hoped to soon place ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia as such a weapon would be “important” to have in the Asia-Pacific region.
At the time, he did not offer a location for where the missiles would be placed, as discussions with allies would first need to happen. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at the time that Washington would not deploy such weapons in Australia.
“It’s not been asked to us, not being considered, not been put to us. I think I can rule a line under that,” Morrison said.
Such a plan, which China has already condemned, is likely to lead to more tension between Beijing and Washington.
China has already accused the United States of “flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region,” after the State Department earlier this month issued a formal statement declaring most of China's claims in the South China Sea to be illegitimate.
Pompeo accused China's government of making "unlawful" maritime territory claims in the South China Sea and "bullying" nearby nations into acceding to China's demands.
Asked if the United States had pressed Australia to conduct freedom of navigation operations closer to the disputed island chains in the South China Sea than Sydney has been willing to go in the past, Reynolds would only say that it was a “subject of discussion,” and that Australian ships “will continue to transit through the region in accordance with international law.”