NEW YORK — In a move likely to irk Beijing, the U.S. and Australia look to strengthen the web of regional alliances and partnerships to maintain a rules-based Indo-Pacific.
The topic of China dominated the “two plus two” dialogue, where U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper hosted Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defense Minister Linda Reynolds. Their two-day gathering in Washington, which ended Tuesday, was the 30th edition of the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, or AUSMIN.
As Sino-American tensions rise, Washington successfully brought Australia to its side of the superpower tug of war, with Canberra vowing to make better use of current alliances and build new groupings to counter Beijing.
“We’ll work more closely with existing partnerships,” Payne told a news conference after the meeting, “such as the Five Eyes, ASEAN, the Quad, the Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership, the East Asia Summit,” name-checking a list of multilateral Asian alliances, collectives and organizations.
She pledged to 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.”
The Five Eyes intelligence alliance comprises the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The Quad, or Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue, is a framework formed by the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. The Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership is a grouping of development finance institutions of the U.S., Japan and Australia.
A joint statement issued after the event also vowed to cooperate with ASEAN and Five Eyes but also named South Korea as a partner and made special mention of Vietnam — the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — lauding its leadership in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
Esper said the recent trilateral exercises in the Philippine Sea by the U.S., Australia and Japan aimed to send China a message.
“Last week, five Australian warships joined the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group and a Japanese destroyer in conducting a trilateral naval exercise,” he said.
“These exercises not only bolster interoperability, but also send a clear signal to Beijing that that we will fly, we will sail, and we will operate wherever international law allows,” Esper said.
The four officials used their joint statement to express “serious concerns over recent coercive and destabilizing actions across the Indo-Pacific.”
“In line with the 2016 decision of the Arbitral Tribunal, they affirmed that China’s maritime claims are not valid under international law,” the statement said. It said Beijing “cannot assert maritime claims in the South China Sea based on the ‘nine-dash line,’ ‘historic rights,’ or entire South China Sea island groups, which are incompatible with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
Reynolds, Esper’s Australian counterpart, said the two countries agreed to further deepen cooperation in defense, science, technology and industry.
“This includes hypersonics, electronic warfare and space-based capabilities,” she said.
These are seen as key capabilities in penetrating China’s anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, strategy — which combines ships, missiles and sensors to prevent adversaries from approaching the Chinese mainland.
Hypersonic missiles, for instance, can travel five times the speed of sound at high altitudes, making them difficult to intercept and ideal for targeting Chinese aircraft carriers. Electronic warfare and space capabilities are seen as crucial in denying China satellite communications and to access its Beidou global navigation system.
“My biggest takeaway is that the U.S. and Australia are very much on the same page when it comes to dealing with China,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the California-based Rand Corp., adding that “we shouldn’t take that for granted because Australia in the past has been hesitant to push China too far.”
Grossman said that “since perhaps as early as the publication of Canberra’s last defense white paper in 2016, and certainly within the last few months as punctuated by the 2020 defense strategy and force posture update, Australian policymakers have appeared more willing to support the U.S. in great-power competition against China.”
However, Foreign Minister Payne towed a line of caution because of Australia’s economic dependence on and geographic proximity to China. “As my prime minister put it recently, the relationship that we have with China is important, and we have no intention of injuring it,” she said.
Reynolds did not commit to freedom-of-navigation operations closer to the disputed island chains in the South China Sea when asked by a reporter, saying instead that “our approach remains consistent, and we will continue to transit through the region in accordance with international law.”
“There probably is some wiggle room in Australian policy to keep the relationship with Beijing on an even keel,” Grossman observed. “China is Australia’s No. 1 trade partner, and so I think they will be more reluctant to ‘decouple,’ so to speak, from Beijing,” he said.
China is Australia’s largest two-way trading partner, accounting for more than a quarter of the Oceanic country’s total trade in the 2018-19 fiscal year. Beijing has suspended beef imports from four of Australia’s largest abattoirs and slapped tariffs on Australian barley this year in apparent retaliation for Canberra’s call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
The Chinese education ministry in June warned students of the risks of studying in Australia, such as racism. International education is Australia’s fourth-largest export. Chinese students made up nearly 30% of Australia’s international student population before the pandemic.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Pompeo called it “unacceptable for Beijing to use exports or student fees as a cudgel against Australia.”
Michael Shoebridge, director of defense, strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, emphasized that the rivalry between Washington and Beijing should not be about them alone.
“AUSMIN is all about China, but our approach needs to escape the gravitational pull of US-China rivalry — because China is a challenge to many nations, not just a bilateral tussle with Washington, & what Australia does matters beyond Beijing & DC,” he tweeted.
Analysts see the future of Indo-Pacific security as depending largely on naval power. This puts into question the future of the Quad, now an informal group for promoting “trade and culture.”
But with recent media reports indicating that the Australian military will likely be invited to the Malabar naval exercise held annually in the Indian Ocean between the U.S. and Indian navies and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, the Quad will like turn into a military grouping — an act likely to raise concerns in Beijing.
Additional reporting by Ken Moriyasu in New York.