Australian warships could soon join US forces carrying out elite naval operations in the South China Sea, with high-level bilateral talks in Washington set to outline a strategy for ‘concrete cooperation’.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds landed in the US capital on Monday and will meet with President Donald Trump’s top diplomat Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Tuesday evening.
Soaring tensions with China are expected to be at the top of the agenda for the 30th Australia–US Ministerial Consultations meeting, as the rift between Beijing and the rest of the world grows.
An American official has confirmed that Secretaries Pompeo and Esper are looking for ways the US can enhance and increase ‘concrete cooperation’ with Australia on operations in the South China Sea.
‘We (the US) do regular freedom of navigation operations,’ the official told The Australian.
‘There have been examples where Australia has supported those operations or worked alongside them, even if they haven’t done strictly defined freedom of navigation operations by going within 12 nautical miles of a feature or asserting a right of operation or free passage consistent with international law.
‘So we will be looking to enhance that sort of cooperation.’
The US has previously sought Australia’s support conducting the operations, but Canberra has been wary of angering Beijing.
With relations between China and Australia already at a new low, Scott Morrison’s government are looking to push back against the authoritarian state.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea – an area rich in fishing and natural gas reserves – as its own based on the ‘nine-dash line’, a vague delineation which dates back to the 1940s.
But last week Australia filed a declaration to the United Nations in New York rejecting China’s claim over the territory.
The declaration said Australia does not accept the assertion made by Beijing, who believes it claim to islands and parts of the South China Sea are recognised by the international community.
‘There is no legal basis for China to draw straight baselines connecting the outermost points of maritime features or ”island groups” in the South China Sea, including around the ”Four Sha” or ”continental” or ”outlying” archipelagos.
‘Australia rejects any claims to internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf based on such straight baselines.’
Australia said China cannot change the classification of a feature in the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Tensions between Canberra and Beijing have escalated significantly since Mr Morrison called for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the coronvirus pandemic.
Since then, China has brought in harsh trade tariffs which hit Australian farmers, including an 80 per cent tariff on barley and threatened further boycotts of Australian products.
The dispute heightened last week when Chinese Navy and Australian warships were engaged in a stand-off.
The Australian vessels were sailing close to the Spratly Islands – which are claimed by Beijing as well as the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – when the incident happened, the ABC reported.
Australian warships – including HMAS Canberra, HMAS Hobart, HMAS Stuart, HMAS Arunta and HMAS Sirius – are on exercise in the region ahead of military war games off Hawaii with the US and Japan.
On Saturday, Senator Payne and Senator Reynolds wrote about the importance of working with the US to counter the rising threat of China in the Indo-Pacific.
‘Never has it been more important that we, as allies, sit down together and find every possible way to advance our shared interests,’ the Senators wrote in The Weekend Australian.
‘Sweeping and vague ”national security” legislation imposed on Hong Kong has undermined the rights, freedoms and futures of millions of people.
‘Coercive actions in the South China Sea, such as the escalation of disputes and militarisation of disputed features, continue to create tension that destabilise the region.
‘Cyber attacks are on the rise, while authoritarian governments imperil hopes for an open, interoperable, reliable and secure internet.’
Other issues set to be discussed at the meeting include the development of defence technologies, the strengthen of supply chains, disinformation by ‘malicious actors’ and infrastructure development projects to aid economic the economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.