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China and South China Sea dominate Aust-US defence talks

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Australia’s defence and foreign ministers have met their US counterparts in Washington DC for talks, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praising Australia for standing up to China despite “coercive pressure from the Chinese Communist Party to bow to Beijing’s wishes”.

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Pompeo and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds in Washington DC on Tuesday for the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations.

The US and Australia committed to pursue increased and regular “maritime cooperation” in the South China Sea and deepen defence science technology cooperation on hypersonic, electronic warfare and space-based capabilities.

“We started this morning by talking at length about the Chinese Communist Party’s malign activity in the Indo-Pacific region, and indeed all around the world,” Pompeo said at a press conference.

“The United States commends 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.

“We stand with our Australian friends.”

Senator Reynolds said as strategic competition between the US and China increased, Australia would continue calling out the “bad and maligned behaviour” from Beijing.

“As we expect of ourselves, to be responsible regional players, we also expect China and all other nations engaging in our region to do so as well,” she told ABC radio.

Reynolds said deteriorating relations between the two superpowers was nowhere near escalating into a full-blown military conflict.

“It is very clear the strategic tensions are increasing but we had a look at ways of de-escalating that,” she said.

“Obviously nobody wants things to escalate any further.”

Reynolds confirmed freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea was discussed and Australia’s “long history of transiting through the region” will continue.

“Our approach remains consistent,” she said.

The ministers also discussed Chinese hacking and foreign interference, as well as helping Pacific nations defend their sovereignty against Beijing’s so-called debt-trap diplomacy.

The US and Australian delegations agreed to the potential expansion of US Marine rotational force joint training exercises in Darwin to include additional partners and allies.

The US and Australia also intend to strengthen supply chains by establishing a US-funded commercially operated strategic military fuel reserve in Darwin.

Payne said Australia has no intention of injuring its relationship with China.

“We are very different countries, we are very different systems, and it’s the points on which we disagree that we should be able to articulate in a mature and sensible way,” she said.

Reynolds and Dr Esper signed a statement of principles on defence cooperation and force posture priorities in the Indo-Pacific to drive Australian-US shared interests for the next decade.

“This includes hypersonics, electronic warfare and space-based capabilities,” she said.

Dr Esper did not specifically answer when a journalist asked if the US and Australia discussed deploying additional US troops or intermediate range missiles on Australian soil.

“We had a very wide ranging discussion about the capabilities that the United States possesses and the capabilities Australia possesses, and our desire to advance them whether they are hypersonics or any other type of capability,” he said.

“And I think it’s important as we think forward about how do we deter bad behaviour in the Indo-Pacific and how we defend the international rules based order, in this case specifically with regard to China.”

Payne and Reynolds will undergo 14 days of quarantine when they return to Australia in case they picked up COVID-19 during the AUSMIN trip.

-with AAP

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