Strengthening ties with America, Japan and India creates a “strategic balance”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says, as Australia and the US signed a secret 10-year agreement on defence co-operation to “deter coercive acts and the use of force” in the Indo-Pacific amid rising tensions with China.
The agreement, signed at the AUSMIN talks between Australian and US foreign affairs and defence officials on Tuesday in Washington (Wednesday AEST), paves the way potentially for a stronger American military presence in Australia, including establishing a strategic fuel reserve in Darwin and carrying out maintenance on US hardware such as aircraft. The two countries will also co-ordinate training to strengthen regional militaries and have committed to “increased and regularised” maritime co-operation in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, including exercises.
However, as flagged ahead of the meeting, that will not involve Australian warships sailing within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands in the South China Sea to challenge China’s claims of sovereignty.
The Chinese embassy issued a statement on Wednesday night saying it rejected “unfounded accusations and attacks” over Hong Kong, the treatment of Uighurs and the South China Sea. ”We reiterate that the Chinese side is unwavering in upholding national sovereignty, security and its legitimate rights and interests. Any attempt to pressure China will never succeed,” the statement said.
“We urge Australia not to go further on the road of harming China-Australia relations, and truly proceeding from its own interests, do more things that are conducive to mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries,” the statement said.
Speaking at the joint press conference after the meetings, Foreign Minister Marise Payne walked a diplomatic tightrope, stressing the importance of the US-Australian alliance as a force for regional order while reiterating several times that Australia had an independent foreign policy.
“We will use the Australia-US alliance as the basis to deepen our friendship with others,” Senator Payne said.
“We will build new groupings, cementing friendships, improving our security through a network of nations that share our vision of an open, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific.
“We have a demonstrable track record of making decisions in our own national interest. We don’t agree on everything – that’s part of a respectful relationship.”
Her comments came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week called for “a new grouping of like-minded nations … a new alliance of democracies” to “change communist China”.
Asked to comment on Mr Pompeo’s message, Mr Morrison said he was heartened like-minded democracies were coming together amid the deteriorating strategic and economic outlook.
“The like-minded partnership that has increased, which is strengthening between Japan, Australia, the United States and India, not just on economic issues but broader strategic issues, I think contributes to a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific which promotes peace and stability, which is what we want,” Mr Morrison said.
Under the defence agreement, a bilateral Force Working Group will be established to develop recommendations on how Australian and US forces should be deployed throughout the Indo-Pacific “to promote a secure and stable region and deter coercive acts and the use of force”.
While the agreement is classified, it is expected to cover issues such as military infrastructure, the tempo of joint exercises, increased interoperability with other countries’ defence forces, and training regional militaries. In a sign of the increasing importance the US puts on Darwin’s Marine rotation, America will fund a strategic military fuel reserve and has opened the door to invite other nations to participate in war games with Australian and US forces in the Top End.
The fuel reserve is billed as a move to strengthen the “resilience of supply chains”, while a related measure will see the US examine performing greater maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade of its military platforms and components in Australia.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute defence program director Michael Shoebridge said building up Darwin was part of a dispersal of US forces across the Indo-Pacific designed to “make it harder for adversaries in a conflict”.
Mr Pompeo said the four ministers’ discussion on China had been “at length”, and had particularly focused on Chinese technology companies such as Huawei and ZTE. The communique indicates there could be further security-related bans on Chinese technology.
Mr Pompeo praised the Morrison 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.”
“It is unacceptable for Beijing to use exports or student fees as a cudgel against Australia,” he said.
In a significant shift, the communique stated “recent events only strengthened their resolve to support Taiwan”.
The two countries also pledged to establish an officials-level taskforce to counter disinformation.
Australian officials successfully pushed for a strong statement on health security, including working to eliminate the wildlife trade at wet markets, which is being blamed as the source of the coronavirus pandemic and providing access to vaccines to infectious diseases.