AUSMIN summit to discuss Australia’s role in South China


China’s militarisation of the South China Sea will be a key topic at next week’s AUSMIN summit, but the government is declining to say whether Australia will play a greater role in asserting freedom of navigation through the disputed waterways.

Defence Minister Marise Payne offered a spirited defence of Australia’s role in ensuring free movement through the shipping channels of the South China Sea, which for the past five years have been the site of a steady build-up of military assets by Beijing.

Ms Payne declined to say whether Australia would cede to a long-held US desire that Australia take a more forward stance by conducting freedom-of-navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of disputed territories claimed by China as its own. She defended Australia as a “very strong partner’’ in the region.

“We regularly and consistently prosecute the case and argument for freedom of navigation and oversight,’’ Ms Payne said. “We haven’t taken a backwards step in this respect.’’

Ms Payne and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop are preparing to meet their US counterparts, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at the AUSMIN meeting of defence and foreign ministers, to be held at California’s Stanford University next week.

The meeting comes at an awkward time for Australia, with relations between Beijing and Canberra at a low ebb following the prolonged national debate about Chinese interference in Australian politics.

Last month, parliament passed a suite of tough new foreign interference laws that were widely seen as an attempt to curb Beijing’s meddling in Australia’s electoral affairs.

Ms Payne said the choice of venue was significant. “For the first time in my experience, the meeting is on the west coast,’’ she said. “That’s a firm and clear statement to the interest we share in the Indo-Pacific.’’

US Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver indicated on Monday that the Trump administration was preparing to take a tougher line on China’s creeping militarisation of the South China Sea.