WASHINGTON - The United States and Australia said Tuesday they were expanding military cooperation amid soaring tensions with China, vowing a common front between the allies.
After two days of talks in Washington, Australia's foreign and defense ministers offered clear, if more mildly stated, support for a hawkish shift on China by President Donald Trump's administration.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper hailed the participation of five Australian warships last week in exercises with a US carrier strike group and a Japanese destroyer.
"These exercises not only bolster interoperability but also send a clear signal to Beijing that we will fly, we will sail and we will operate wherever international law allows and defend the rights of our allies and partners to do the same," Esper told a joint news conference.
Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said she agreed to strengthen ties with the United States across a slew of defense areas including hypersonic, electronic and space-based warfare.
The cooperation will "strengthen our shared ability to contribute to regional security and to deter malign behavior in our region," she said.
In one step that had been too far, Australia last year said it would not serve as a base for US intermediate-range missiles -- widely seen as a way to confront China.
Esper, asked if Australia had warmed to the missiles, said that the allies had a "full suite of capabilities and strategies we intend to roll out together in the years ahead."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has championed a hardline stance on China, questioning the half-century US policy of engagement and urging an alliance to confront a "Frankenstein" Beijing.
Despite Australia's heavy reliance on trade with China, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's right-leaning government has largely backed the United States.
Australia, which has fought alongside the United States in every major conflict since World War I, has seconded US calls for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, news of which was initially suppressed in China, and joined Pompeo in rejecting Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
Pompeo, hailing the "unbreakable alliance," saluted Morrison for defying Chinese actions aimed at forcing him to "bow to Beijing's wishes."
"It is unacceptable for Beijing to use exports or student fees as a cudgel against Australia," Pompeo said.
Australia has also reported cyberattacks against its parliament, political parties and universities, with Beijing seen as the likely culprit.
As the United States and Australia held their talks, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi -- in a phone call with his counterpart of another US ally, France -- accused Washington of "reckless provocation of confrontation."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin separately warned that the US-Australia talks "should not target a third party or hurt the interests of a third party."
TIED TO US ELECTION?
China, as well as Trump's domestic critics, accuse the US president, who is trailing in polls ahead of November elections, of seizing on China to divert from criticism of his own handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, which has suffered by far the highest death toll of any country.
But Trump's presumptive Democratic rival Joe Biden has also vowed a tough approach to China amid wide criticism of the Asian power on issues from trade to its incarceration of Uighur Muslims to its clampdown in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, a close US ally that maintains cordial relations with China, said that the US relationship with Beijing historically "always gets entangled" in US presidential elections but stabilizes afterward.
"I'm not sure whether it will happen this time because I feel it's quite different," Lee told the Atlantic Council in Washington.
"The degree of animus and, sad to say, bipartisan consensus on treating China as a threat is quite extraordinary and I fear that it may carry over past the election and, if it does, I think that bodes ill for the world."