Scott Morrison has met with Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G7 summit and agreed to work closely on challenges in the increasingly contested Indo-Pacific region including China.
Regional issues dominated the Australian prime minister’s first face-to-face meeting with the US president late on Saturday – but the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, also attended in what became a trilateral engagement.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said Morrison’s inability to secure a one-on-one meeting with Biden was “disappointing”. She suggested Morrison’s “stubborn refusal” to unequivocally commit to net zero emissions by 2050 was damaging Australia’s reputation on the world stage.
Morrison has been seeking diplomatic support in Cornwall, England, from other leaders amid increasing tensions with China, which has rolled out a series of trade actions against Australian export sectors over the past year in a move Canberra has described as “economic coercion”.
The references to the Indo-Pacific region point to concerns among western countries about China’s increasingly assertive actions and what they see as challenges to the rules-based order.
But it remains unclear whether Australia and the UK will reach their own free trade agreement within the next 48 hours, with the Australian trade minister, Dan Tehan, declaring on Sunday that “the clock’s ticking and time’s running out” and “if we need more time then we’ll take more time”.
After the G7 wraps up on Sunday, Morrison is due to travel to London for further meetings with Johnson where they hope to announce an in-principle trade deal – but the Australian government has signalled it will only sign up to a “comprehensive and ambitious” agreement that opens up access to the British market for Australian agricultural exporters.
Biden, Morrison and Johnson said in a joint statement after their meeting that they had “discussed a number of issues of mutual concern, including the Indo-Pacific region”.
“They agreed that the strategic context in the Indo-Pacific was changing and that there was a strong rationale for deepening cooperation between the three governments,” the statement said.
The leaders also “welcomed the forthcoming visits and exercises in the Indo-Pacific” by the British carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth.
At a later doorstop interview, Morrison characterised it as “a meeting of great friends and allies who share a view on the world” and played down any suggestion of a diplomatic snub.
Morrison said the meeting became a trilateral because it “was an opportunity that presented because we’re all here and so it was mutual”.
“It was a great opportunity for my first meeting, of course, with the president. I mean I’ve known Boris for many years,” the prime minister told reporters.
“And there was a very easy understanding amongst the three of us and as liberal democracies with a great history of friendship and partnership and a shared view on the world and its challenges and strategic challenges at that.”
Morrison did not say how many times China came up in the trilateral meeting – but said Australia “has no greater friends than the United States and the United Kingdom”.
In a Sky News interview on Sunday, Tehan described the trilateral meeting as a “very historic” chance to talk about how the three countries could work together to address challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
“That is something which I think all Australians should take reassurance from,” Tehan said.
“The US under President Biden have come out very clearly and said that they’ve got our back, they won’t leave us on the field by ourselves – and I think that is also incredibly reassuring.”
But the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said Australia needed to be pushing for de-escalation of tensions between the US and China.
Bandt told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday he was concerned the Australian government was talking publicly about the risk of military conflict with China because it was “gearing up for a khaki election” – a reference to a poll influenced by wartime sentiment.
Bandt raised concern over a proposal floated by the defence minister, Peter Dutton, for more US military personnel to rotate through the Northern Territory. Bandt said he was worried Australia might accept any US requests rather than assessing Australia’s interests.
Before travelling to the G7, Morrison met with the Singaporean prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who advised him to deal with “rough spots” with China “as issues in a partnership which you want to keep going” rather than trying to “suppress” the other side.
Tehan argued on Sunday that this was the approach the Australian government had been “trying to” take – but he was still awaiting a response from his Chinese counterpart to a letter Tehan sent in January seeking constructive talks.
Late last week a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson responded to news of a US naval vessel and an Australian naval vessel sailing together through the South China Sea by saying: “We hope relevant countries can do more to promote regional peace and stability, rather than flex muscles.”
The G7 also agreed on plans to set up an alternative to China’s belt and road initiative as part of a broad pushback against Beijing covering human rights, supply chains, support for Taiwan and demands to reveal more about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Morrison, attending the G7 as one of the invited observer nations, noted Australia had previously led calls for investigations into the origin and handling of the pandemic, but these exercises were “not yet done”. China had objected to Australia’s public calls for those investigations, arguing it was being singled out.
“The purpose of these inquiries is to understand – it’s got nothing to do with politics or frankly blame or anything else – it is about understanding it,” Morrison said.