Australia is set to join the United States in military exercises through the South China Sea after branding Beijing’s maritime claims to the disputed waters unlawful.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds will meet with their US counterparts in Washington this week.
It is expected Australia will be asked to join increased US naval missions to push back against China’s militarisation of disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was in both countries’ interests to promote stability in the Indo-Pacific, despite risking a flare-up with China.
“I don’t believe it poses a risk when we’re acting to secure the peace and stability of the region,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
“The peace and stability of the region is in the interests of everybody in our region, and that would include China.”
Before the meeting, Senator Payne played down the risk of a miscalculation or mistake by either side during the joint military exercises, which could spark a heated conflict.
“We expect all participants and all present in the South China Sea waters – and anywhere else, frankly – to behave and to act in a way that is responsible and sensible and contributes to safety and security,” she told ABC radio.
“Avoiding miscalculation and avoiding those sorts of issues is a very important part of the way that a responsible military force behaves.”
Labor deputy leader and defence spokesman Richard Marles said as 60 per cent of Australian shipping trade passes through the South China Sea, freedom of navigation was critical.
However, he said it was not in Australia’s interests to engage in territorial claims in the contested waters.
“We’ve got core national interests at issue in terms of navigating the South China Sea,” Mr Marles said.
“As a matter of principle that (freedom of navigation exercises) does need to be on the table.”
Chinese state media has warned further trade strikes could be on the cards should the joint Australia-US exercises go ahead.
Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said it would be important for the ministers to raise the issue of the US-China trade deal to ensure Australian farmers and exporters are not impacted.
As well, a commitment was needed around cooperation on the international rollout of any coronavirus vaccine.