US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper hosted Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds on Tuesday in Washington for the 30th Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN 2020).
During their discussions, the Secretaries and Ministers built on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s official visit to Washington in September 2019.
The talks first covered the Covid-19 pandemic, including the need to strengthen global efforts to ‘prevent and mitigate’ future health crises.
“[The Ministers] noted the World Health Assembly resolution on identifying the zoonotic origin of the virus and evaluating the WHO-coordinated international health response, and reaffirmed their commitment to facilitating timely and broad deployment of affordable, safe, and effective COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics,” the two ministers said in a joint statement.
The talks then went to familiar ground, including: reaffirming the joint focus on a stable and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific; supporting economic stability in the Pacific and an undersea cable for Palau; and countering China.
“The Secretaries and Ministers noted that the pandemic has reduced States’ resilience to shocks and created incentives for some actors to pursue strategic gains in ways that undermine the rules-based international order and regional stability,” the statement said.
“In particular, the principals expressed deep concern at the imposition of sweeping and vague “national security” legislation on Hong Kong that has imperilled the rule of law and undermined the rights to freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and to peaceful assembly.
“The Secretaries and Ministers noted that both the US and Australia are taking steps to suspend their respective extradition treaties with Hong Kong as a result of the PRC’s actions.”
The statement also denounced gross human rights abuses underway in China’s western provinces: “The US and Australia expressed deep concern over the PRC's campaign of repression of Uyghurs and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, including mass detentions, forced labour, pervasive surveillance, restrictions on freedom of religion, and reports of forced abortions and involuntary birth control.”
The statement also included strong language rejecting China’s maritime claims and its ‘nine-dash line’ concept; ‘reaffirmed’ the ‘significant role’ of the UN; specified explicit support for Taiwan; acknowledged that ‘state-sponsored malicious disinformation and interference in democratic processes are significant and evolving threats’; and touched on Huawei’s exclusion from 5G networks.
Defence industry was also a topic of discussion: “The US and Australia also determined to advance initiatives that diversify and harness our industry cooperation, including further pursuing options that enable greater maintenance, repair, overhaul, and upgrade of US military platforms and components in Australia to further strengthen our supply chain resilience in the Indo-Pacific.
“In addition, they noted the ongoing collaboration through the AUS-US Defence Trade Working Group is expected to identify and help resolve defence trade issues of mutual concern, including on export controls.”
ADM Comment: The talks reaffirmed Australia’s recent refusal to be cowed by China following Canberra’s calls for an independent review into the origins of the pandemic and protests against Beijing’s gross human rights abuses in Hong Kong and its western provinces. This is evident in explicit denouncements of China’s maritime claims, explicit support for Taiwan, the suspension of extradition treaties, and US support for Australia’s recent strategic reviews.
The language on defence industry cooperation will be noted by many. It does not go into specifics, but the statement on resolving export control issues is perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that all is not as well as both sides might like.
There is also an obvious disconnect between the language of this joint statement and the actions of the US. Both sides agreed to strengthen global efforts to ‘prevent and mitigate’ health crises, but the US has withdrawn its membership and funding for the World Health Organisation and acquired the entire global stock of remdesivir, one of two drugs proven to assist in COVID-19 recovery, leaving none for ‘close allies’ such as Australia.
The statement also noted that disinformation is a threat to democracy, but US President Donald Trump has been criticised for spreading false information regarding US mail-in voting processes and refused to accept the validity of November’s election should he lose.
The actions of the US President do not necessarily reflect official US policy, but certainly do not help Australia’s efforts to shape a ‘secure and stable’ Indo-Pacific amidst a pandemic.