China on agenda in Payne, Dutton talks with US counterparts

China on agenda in Payne, Dutton talks with US counterparts

Measures to counter China’s trade strikes and other “grey zone” attacks will top the agenda when Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton travel to the United States later this month for talks with the Biden administration.

Senator Payne and Mr Dutton will meet US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin for the annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) in Washington DC.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne will travel to Washington later this month.Credit:Sydney Morning Herald

The trip, which comes against the backdrop of the hurried withdrawal from Afghanistan and China’s growing presence in the Indo-Pacific, will also include stop-offs in other countries in the region. The meetings are scheduled to take place somewhere between September 13 and 17 and will be Mr Dutton’s first face-to-face encounter with his US counterpart.

Australian officials are also hoping Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s first one-on-one, in-person discussion with US President Joe Biden will go ahead later this month after a planned meeting of the Quad grouping – Australia, the US, India and Japan – was thrown into doubt by the upcoming Japanese election.

Mr Morrison met Mr Biden for the first time on the sidelines of the G7 summit in June but the encounter was not one-on-one as originally planned, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joining in. Australian officials viewed Mr Johnson’s inclusion as part of a broader plan to get Britain more engaged in the Indo-Pacific region and expect more concrete policies to flow from that meeting in the coming months.

It was Australia’s turn to host the AUSMIN talks but the requirement for Mr Blinken and Mr Austin to quarantine for 14 days made it unworkable. A “reverse travel bubble” whereby Senator Payne and Mr Dutton would quarantine after meeting their US counterparts was also ruled out.

The two sides discussed holding the talks virtually but decided it would be preferable to meet in person. Senator Payne and Mr Dutton will enter quarantine on their return to Australia.

Senior government sources confirmed they were expecting measures to combat Chinese economic coercion would be discussed at the meeting. The Biden administration has been forthright in its rhetoric against China’s more than $20 billion in trade strikes against Australia over the past 18 months.

A report by the United States Studies Centre, released on Thursday, urged Australia and the US to diversify their economic partners and reduce dependence on any single source to deal with the risk of China’s trade strikes.

USSC chief executive Simon Jackman said AUSMIN needed to be reformed to deal with challenges including the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, infrastructure spending, cyber security and “grey zone” attacks from countries such as China. The “grey zone” refers to attacks such as cyber hacks, economic coercion, disinformation campaigns and intellectual property theft, calibrated so they fall short of requiring a military response.

Professor Jackman said Australia would want the US to do something “meaningful” on China’s economic coercion.

“We are coming all the way to Washington. The expectation will be there will be a significant statement on that,” he said. “Reassuring tweets are great, you would prefer to have them than not have them. But the trick for Australian foreign policy is to convert that goodwill from the Americans to policy facts on the ground … practical measures that flow from that.”

While Australia would be looking for more practical measures on China’s trade strikes, Professor Jackman said the Americans would be pushing Canberra for more commitments on combatting climate change.

Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, said there were many questions surfacing over American credibility after the withdrawal from Afghanistan but “the wrong lessons are being taken from that”. He said the fact Mr Biden had withdrawn from a part of the world that did not align with American interests was a “good thing” and meant it could be more focused on the Indo-Pacific.

“Previously, the US’s military commitments were not being aligned with its national interests. Biden has realigned its military commitments with its national interests,” he said.

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