The past fortnight witnessed a few significant developments, the highlight being the AUSMIN meeting between US and Australian foreign and defence leaders in Washington this week. Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds became the first Australian government ministers to travel abroad during the pandemic, raising questions about Covid-19 protocols. However, their visit yielded important results for the region, with the announcement of key measures that the US and Australia can undertake to safeguard our mutual interests.  From closer collaboration on health security and aid to Pacific island nations, and further enmeshed supply chain links, to strengthening maritime cooperation in the South China Sea and support for Taiwan, the joint communique ‘reads like a return to “normal” US engagement with friends and allies’, as Peter Jennings puts it. 

The two nations have agreed upon a classified ‘Statement of Principles on Alliance Defense Cooperation and Force Posture Priorities in the Indo-Pacific’, as part of which a new bilateral force posture working group has been created to coordinate on joint operations and deployment of military equipment, hardware and personnel across the region. They have also set up a ‘top-secret defence co-operation framework’ and announced the establishment of a strategic fuel-reserve at Darwin, making it central to bilateral military engagement. The plan also includes a new joint working group to fight against Chinese disinformation campaigns and a proposal to help regional countries to prevent the outbreaks of pandemics from wildlife wet markets.

Regarding the all-important question of conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea,  Australia fell short of agreeing to join the US FONOPs in the region but has committed to participating in more military exercises in the maritime space of the Indo-Pacific. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne stressed that Australia retained its independent stance on its foreign and defence policy and that disagreements within Australia-US ties were ‘part of a respectful relationship.’

On a related note, Australia, this fortnight also shifted its stance on the South China Sea to outrightly reject China’s claims in the region, mirroring the recent US decision to support the verdict of the 2016 UNCLOS ruling. Before this, Canberra had maintained neutrality on the maritime disputes in the South China Sea. While still being neutral to the overlapping sovereignty claims over the Paracel Islands, Canberra has rejected Beijing’s assertion that its claims over the Paracel and Spratly islands were ‘widely recognized by the international community’.  Canberra has, in effect, rejected ‘any claims by China that are inconsistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS’ , especially vis-à-vis ‘drawing baselines, delimiting maritime zones, and classifying features.’ Unsurprisingly, China has threatened Australia with more economic punishment over this decision.

Moving on, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a scathing speech titled ‘Communist China and the Free World’s Future’ last week, which experts say marks yet another salvo in what might be seen as the further hardening of the Trump administration’s position on China. Speaking at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California, Pompeo, criticised Beijing’s illiberalism and called on free societies to assert themselves against the Chinese Communist Party’s bullying.

However, as Thomas A. Wright points out, this sits uncomfortably with President Donald Trump’s personal record and thinking, including his refusal to condemn the Hong Kong riots last year, praise for authoritarian leaders such as Xi Jinping and Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and repression of black people in the US. If the US is to champion liberal values abroad, Wright notes, it must get its own house in order first.

The US and China were involved in yet another diplomatic stoush this fortnight, with the US government ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, accusing its diplomats of spying and intellectual property theft. The Chinese Consul-General, Cai Wei, and two diplomats in Houston are said to have used fake identification papers while accompanying Chinese travellers at the international airport. Mr Wei used to be a senior diplomat at the Chinese embassy in Australia before this. In retaliation, Beijing ordered the  US consulate in Chengdu to cease operations.

Two major military exercises were held in the Indo-Pacific region in the past couple of weeks. While the US and India conducted a joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean, Australia and Japan joined the US in exercises in the South China Sea. There is also growing speculation that India is close to inviting Australia in the Malabar naval exercises, operationalising the military dimension of the Quad. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper remarked in this context that the US was actively seeking like-minded partners to counter China’s aggressive behaviour in the region.

China and India have issued contradictory statements about the status of the disengagement between their troops along the Line of Actual Control. While China said this week that its troops had ‘disengaged in most localities’, India claimed that the process had only been partially completed at one of the locations that China mentioned.  The fifth round of the Corps Commander-level talks are due to be held next week. According to The Hindu, China has acknowledged, for the first time, that the Pangong Lake issues were unresolved.

Elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been found guilty of all corruption charges and has been sentenced to 12 years in prison after a much-publicised trial. The verdict is likely to increase the popularity of current Prime Minister Mr Muhyiddin Yassin, according to The Australian, and marks a major victory for Malaysian reformists.

Significance to Australia

This was an important fortnight for Australia, and one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences for our strategic policy. Payne and Reynolds’ visit to Washington DC will be judged as an immensely successful one, not only because of the practical agreements that were concluded but also because Australia successfully conveyed the message that its foreign and defence policy were independent of its ties to the United States and that there is room for respectful disagreement even between close allies.  

As Michael Shoebridge puts it, ‘This allowed Australia to work with the US on the substance of how to handle Beijing while not being identified with the particular rhetoric and tone of the US administration’s messaging. By doing this, Payne and Reynolds role-modelled how other US partners- whether in Europe or the Indo-Pacific- want to work with the US.’

The AUSMIN 2020 communique outlines US-Australia synergies in a several key areas, and refreshingly includes practical policy decisions, instead of a summary of aligned interests, as Jennings notes.

Australia’s shift on the South China Sea is also an important policy decision. As Bec Strating observes, while ‘Australia’s advocacy in the South China Sea reflects another small win for international law and represents an evolution of its normative approach to the South China Sea…(it puts it) in the potentially awkward position of being more stridently opposed to the PRC’s claims than the maritime Southeast Asian states that have a direct stake in the disputes.’ Canberra’s decision not to participate in US FONOPs in the South China Sea may be a reflection of this dilemma.

Nonetheless, with the overall direction of Australia’s new defence strategic update and key decisions made by Canberra in the past three years, it is clear that we aren’t losing sight of the fundamental problems posed by a revisionist China and we aren’t shying away from making difficult calls.


Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher with the Defence and Strategy team at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.