Australia has promised to increase defense cooperation with the US in the South China Sea – but stop making specific new commitments on freedom of navigation operations, despite pressure from America.
The two allies have also decided during high-level talks in Washington to form a working group to push back false information throughout the Indo-Pacific region, warning that “dangerous state-sponsored disinformation and disruptions in the democratic process are significant and growing threats” “
While the joint statement expressed “deep concern” over a series of actions taken by China – including a “suppression campaign against the Uyghurs” and undermining freedom in Hong Kong – Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said his country did not “have the intention” to hurt “its relationship important with Beijing.
Payne and defense minister, Linda Reynolds, agreed in face-to-face talks with their US counterparts, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, to pursue “increased and regular maritime cooperation” in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, “bilaterally and in concerts with other regional and similar partners “.
The joint statement stated that Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea were “illegitimate under international law”, but Australia appears to have held firmly to carrying out freedom of navigation within 12 nautical miles of disputed features.
Experts say the US has long pushed Australia to conduct such exercises, but Australia has refused to take such steps until now – partly to avoid increasing tensions with China, its biggest trading partner.
Payne said Australia and the US had close and lasting relationships but made their own decisions based on their values.
“We do not agree with everything, and that is part of a relationship of mutual respect,” he said after the meeting.
Payne also noted that Australia’s relations with China were important “and we do not intend to hurt it … but we also do not intend to do things that are contrary to our interests”.
Reynolds told reporters freedom of navigation and flying in the South China Sea was a topic of conversation, but Australia already has a long history of transit in the region.
“Our approach remains consistent, and we will continue to transit through the region in accordance with international law,” the defense minister said.
Australia and the US also agreed to create a new mechanism to work together to overcome disinformation, after recently joining other countries in pledging to fight the “infodemic” associated with Covid-19.
“They plan to continue to face these threats vigorously, including through collaboration with international partners, and through a new working group between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which will monitor and respond to disinformation efforts,” a joint statement issued on the day Wednesday morning, Australian time.
In the talks – known as Ausmin – the two sides also agreed to build a strategic US-funded strategic military fuel reserve in Darwin.
The fuel reserve plan – to be operated commercially – is driven by concerns that “the operational effectiveness of the alliance increasingly depends on a secure supply chain to support our combined capabilities and readiness”.
The statement revealed that Australia and the United States had signed secret statements related to how their military worked together. This step will establish a “bilateral force posture working group to develop recommendations that will advance co-strength posture in the Indo-Pacific to promote a safe and stable region and prevent coercive action and use of force”.
Reynolds said the agreement would “strengthen our shared capacity to contribute to regional security and to prevent defamatory behavior in our region”.
He later told ABC National Radio that Australia had its own policy regarding China and “was very clear in articulating it during Ausmin”.
“Regarding our strategic issues and our values and strategic objectives, we are still very much in tune with the United States, but not fully aligned, and that should be,” said Reynolds.
Pompeo praised the Australian government “for defending democratic values and the rule of law, despite strong, ongoing pressure from the Chinese Communist Party to submit to Beijing’s wishes”.
Referring to the recent trade tensions, the US secretary of state said: “Beijing is not acceptable to use exports or student fees as a club against Australia. We stand with our Australian friends.”
Payne and Reynolds had promised to isolate for two weeks after they returned to Australia.