Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a joint press conference where they discussed a joint response to China, Washington, July 29, 2020. Image: Pool

SYDNEY — Australia has agreed to support US efforts to forge an alliance of democratic nations to counter China’s geopolitical ambitions but will not join US-led freedom of navigation naval flotillas in the volatile South China Sea.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne reaffirmed Canberra’s commitment to the US-Australian pact after talks in Washington while insisting it would also pursue policies independent of both the US and close trade ally China.

“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,” the minister told a press briefing today (July 29).

Payne and Defense Minister Linda Reynolds spoke after two days of talks with their US counterparts Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper during AUSMIN, an annual series of ministerial meetings on security cooperation.

It was one of the few face-to-face summits that have been held since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Australian ministers and their entire entourages will have to go into self-isolation for 14 days upon their return from the US.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listen while US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks during a press conference at the US Department of State following the 30th AUSMIN, July 28, 2020, Washington, DC. Photo: AFP/Pool/Brendan Smialowski

Issues covered ranged from the health and economic implications of  Covid-19 to cooperation in defense technologies. Notably, Washington did not get one of its key asks: Australian warships joining exercises and freedom of navigation operations to contest China’s wide-reaching claims and militarization of the South China Sea.

Five Australian naval vessels sailed through the sea a week ago as part of a regular visit to Southeast Asia, and were confronted by Chinese ships. However, they did not intrude into the waters now claimed by Beijing, even though Canberra last week declared that these claims were “illegal.”

The Australian vessels later joined the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and a Japanese destroyer for a “trilateral exercise” in the Philippine Sea and will take part in the annual Rim Of The Pacific exercises off Hawaii next month.

Reynolds said she and Esper signed a statement of principles “on alliance defense cooperation and on force posture priorities in the Indo-Pacific”, which would “drive the next decade of our defense cooperation.” However, both declined to discuss the issue of joint South China Sea patrols.

China is Australia’s biggest economic partner, and it has already imposed some trade sanctions over Canberra’s increasing criticism of its actions.

China has been particularly irked by Australia’s leadership role in calling for an international inquiry into the pandemic’s origin, which by all credible accounts started in the Chinese city of Wuhan.  

Asked if the US had lobbied Australia to send ships closer to the atolls occupied by China in the South China Sea, Reynolds said only that it was a “subject of discussion.”

US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan CVN 76 (L), amphibious assault ship USS Boxer LHD 6 and associated ships in formation while conducting security and stability operations on October 6, 2019 in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP/US Navy/Erwin Jacob

“Most importantly, from our perspective, we make our decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interest and about upholding our security, our prosperity and our values,” Payne added “Our relationship with China is important and we have no intention of injuring it. But nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests.”

Talks also centered on Pentagon efforts to expand the role of an Australian military base in Darwin that is used on a rotational basis by US Marines. It reportedly wants to base missiles and test weapons systems at the site, which opens onto the South China Sea.

The two sides did agree to establish a US-funded military fuel stockpile in Darwin that would be used if supply lines were somehow disrupted, possibly by China occupying the entire South China Sea passageway.

The statement of intent, which is classified, sets out new guidelines for how the US and Australian militaries will work together, which suggests there will be a higher degree of cooperation despite the flotilla rebuff.

According to a joint communique, the agreement will 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.”

This is likely to dovetail with Australia’s plans for an increased Indo-Pacific security umbrella, revealed on July 1, that will include a more potent strike force, increased cyber vigilance and other technological advancements. 

It is expected that US and Australian forces will jointly patrol the South Pacific out of Darwin and monitor China’s actions in the South China Sea through the Manus Island naval base in Papua New Guinea, which is being upgraded.

Manus Island opposes the deal for Lobrum Naval Base, but it is expected to go ahead. At the time of the deal’s announcement in 2018, then-defense chief Christopher Pyne said some Australian ships would be permanently based at Lombrum.

US Marines from the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines arrive in Darwin as part of the Marine Rotational Force in 2016. Photo: Twitter.

Australia and the US agreed at the just concluded talks to work more closely on hypersonics, electronic warfare and space-based capabilities, which were focus areas identified in Australia’s new policy document.

Payne said the two allies would also set up a working group to “monitor and respond to harmful disinformation.” She did not elaborate, but countering China’s growing diplomatic influence is expected to be a key facet of the “democratic alliance” now being forged by Washington.

Both nations have also been targets for cyber attacks that were blamed on Beijing’s security apparatus. Government agencies, universities, political parties, corporations and medical facilities have all reported incursions.

Beijing has not yet commented on the Washington discussions.