Australia says it has “no intention of injuring” its relationship with China following two days of talks with US officials aimed at hardening its stance against Beijing.
The comments from Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, underlined the uphill task faced by the Trump administration as it seeks to cajole and coerce a coalition of allies to take a harder line on China.
While Linda Reynolds, Australia’s defence minister, vowed to deepen defence co-operation with the US, she also stopped short of committing to more aggressive so-called freedom of navigation exercises closer to disputed islands built by China in the South China Sea. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner.
Washington is seeking to frame its rivalry with China in ideological terms as it jostles with Beijing over trade, military ambitions, Hong Kong, coronavirus and more. Last week Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, called for an end to “blind engagement” with China, claiming allies and partners faced a choice “between freedom and tyranny”.
Ms Payne committed to work “more closely” with international groupings implicitly ranged against China, including the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and “the Quad”, which includes the US, India and Japan.
But she was short on concrete commitments. While the foreign minister said Australia should articulate disagreements with China in “a mature and sensible way”, she said Canberra also had “no intention of injuring” its relationship with Beijing, on which it relies for trade.
The trip by Australia’s foreign and defence ministers to meet their US counterparts comes at a time when Canberra’s relationship with Beijing has fallen to its lowest level in a generation, following Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, revealed last week he had not spoken to Chinese president Xi Jinping in more than a year.
Relations between Australia and China have deteriorated further in recent weeks following Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong and Canberra’s decision to make a formal declaration to the UN last week stating that “there is no legal basis” to China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea.
In turn, Beijing has imposed trade sanctions on Australian farm products and publicly accused Canberra of joining Washington in a “political campaign against China”.
Following talks described by Mr Pompeo as “lively”, a joint ministerial statement explicitly addressed perceived threats from China, underscoring Washington and Canberra’s “deep concern” over a host of issues from the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy to the repression of Muslim Uighurs in the north-west Xinjiang region and bolstering mutual support for Taiwan.
The stakes are high for Australia. While it had A$235bn ($168bn) in trade with Beijing in the year to end of June 2019, it is also one of Washington’s closest allies and a key partner in the Asia Pacific, a strategic priority for the Trump administration.
Mr Morrison has repeatedly said his government does not have to choose between Washington and Beijing. But analysts warn this is becoming an increasingly difficult position given the pressure exerted by the Trump administration on Canberra and other allies to do more to challenge China’s maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Hugh White, professor at Australian National University in Canberra, said it was clear Mr Pompeo had been pressing hard for Australia to commit to completely rethinking its relationship with China and aligning itself more closely with Washington’s anti-Chinese rhetoric.
But he added: “Australia will want to be very careful not to be seen to become a puck in the ice hockey of American presidential politics”, just months before the US election.