Australia’s defence minister Linda Reynolds says the Morrison government is giving “very serious consideration” to a formal request from the Trump administration to join a US-led coalition to protect shipping in the Gulf from Iranian military forces.
Reynolds told journalists on Sunday after annual security talks between the Australian and American foreign affairs and defence ministers that the Morrison government was deeply concerned by the heightened tensions in the region, and strongly condemned the attacks on shipping in the Gulf.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who was set to dine with Scott Morrison in Sydney on Sunday night, made it clear in his opening remarks at the Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (Ausmin) press conference that America wanted Australia to join the operation to stare down Iran.
Characterising the relationship between Washington and Canberra as “unbreakable”, Pompeo said: “We hope Australia will partner with us [on] some of the most pressing foreign policy challenges of our time, like efforts to stabilise Syria and keep Afghanistan free of terror, and confront the Islamic Republic of Iran’s unprovoked attacks on international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.”
The US defence secretary, Mark Esper, said the purpose of the proposed operation in the Gulf was to promote the principles of freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce and to “prevent any provocative actions that would lead to some misunderstanding or miscalculation that would lead to a conflict”.
Reynolds said the American request was a complex one, and a final decision had not yet been made. Australia, she said Sunday, would “decide what is in our own sovereign interests”.
Morrison signalled after dining with Trump before the recent G20 summit in Osaka that Australia would consider any request from the administration about intervention in the gulf “seriously and on its merits”. The Australian prime minister will visit Trump in Washington in September.
As well as the discussion about potential intervention in the Gulf, Pompeo used his appearance on Sunday to insist that America remained engaged in the Pacific, and he declared Australia “can always rely on the United States of America”.
Implicitly referencing the current tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade, and the difficulties Australia faces balancing its most important security relationship with its most important economic relationship, Trump’s secretary of state said the US was not in the business of “asking nations to choose between the United States and China”.
The secretary of state noted Australia had “courageously and independently raised the alarm about the risk of China’s 5G ambitions before we caught on” and America and Australia were both concerned about China’s militarisation of their manmade islands in the South China Sea.
Esper’s language was more forceful.
On the back of Trump threatening to impose new tariffs on $300bn worth of Chinese goods (the latest sortie in the tit-for-tat trade war between Washington and Beijing that has rattled global financial markets), the defence secretary declared in Sydney the US stood against a “disturbing pattern of aggressive behaviour” by China.
This behaviour, Esper said, included “predatory economics” and the promotion of “state-sponsored theft of other nations’ intellectual property”.
“In the Indo-Pacific, power should not determine position and that should not determine destiny,” Esper said. “The US will not stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favour at the expense of others.
“We know that our allies and partners would not either.”
Esper also commended Australia’s Pacific step up (the Morrison government’s more proactive stance on aid and development in the Pacific), which is a response to China’s diplomatic courtship in the region.
The US defence secretary said the step up “mirrors our own engagement in the region and together we remain committed to maintaining the openness of the global commons”.
Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said America’s military presence in the Pacific had been a force stability for decades, and China was also a vitally important strategic partner for Australia.
“It is not in anybody’s interest for the Indo-Pacific to become adversarial in character, so we work closely with our key partners, with our strongest alliance partner, the US, and our key trading partner, China, to pursue those issues of stability and security and prosperity,” Payne said.