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International relations

US bolsters security ties with Indo-Pacific regional powers

Pompeo and Mattis hold 2-plus-2 meetings with Australia and India

WASHINGTON/SYDNEY -- The U.S. is reaching out to regional powers in the Indo-Pacific, holding consecutive "two-plus-two meetings" -- involving foreign affairs and defense chiefs -- with Australia and India, as it contends with China's growing influence in the region.  

"I don't think anyone should underestimate the United States' continued commitment" to a free and open Indo-Pacific, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a joint news conference on Tuesday after meeting Australian ministers in Palo Alto, California.

In a veiled reference to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her country and the U.S. were "committed to the rule of law and the international rules-based order that has underpinned stability and prosperity." The two-plus-two meetings spanned two days. 

The U.S. will hold similar two-plus-two talks in India on September 6. The gathering comes amid growing concern in New Delhi over China's penetration into neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, snapping up long-term rights to make use of strategic ports. 

Along with Japan, another partner with which two-plus-two talks have been held, the U.S., Australia and India share an interest in stepping up security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, despite their varying stances toward Beijing.

On Monday, Pompeo will deliver a keynote speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington titled "America's Indo-Pacific Economic Vision," in which he will highlight the economic and commercial elements of the strategy.   

In a statement from Tuesday's meeting, the U.S. and Australia agreed to strengthen security partnerships with "like-minded Indo-Pacific nations" through joint military exercises. They also said they will increase the number of U.S. Marines rotating to the air base in Darwin to 2,500 from 1,600 as soon as possible, and signed a memorandum of understanding to advance cyberdefense capabilities. All of these measures have an eye toward China.

On its own, Australia is expected to draw up a new framework for maritime defense and surveillance with members of the Pacific Islands Forum this September. As part of this, Canberra agreed with Vanuatu last month to start negotiating a bilateral security treaty. Media reports earlier this year said the tiny Pacific island nation was being eyed by Beijing as a site for a military base.

Elsewhere in the region, Tonga's external debt has swelled to more than 40% of its gross domestic product on Chinese loans.

But Australia is not looking for an all-out clash with its biggest trading partner. On Tuesday, Bishop and Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne refrained from criticizing China by name, unlike Pompeo and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Australian exports to China, mainly of iron ore and other commodities, have continued to grow, reaching 115.9 billion Australian dollars ($85.9 billion) last year, or about 30% of total exports. But in what may prove a worrying sign, Chinese customs are reportedly holding up shipments of Australian wine, likely to discourage Canberra from taking too hard a stance against Beijing.

"We don't always agree with the United States and the United States doesn't always agree with us," Bishop said at the news conference.

Australia's stance on China has swung like a pendulum with every new leader. Kevin Rudd, who first became prime minister in 2007, was more sympathetic to Beijing, while Tony Abbott, who took the helm from 2013 to 2015, shifted Canberra closer to Tokyo.

Current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who took office in 2015, was initially considered to be pro-China owing to his business experience there. But his attitude hardened last year amid revelations of Chinese influence over Australian politics, including a controversy involving a prominent lawmaker who had received a donation from a Chinese businessman.

Turnbull's government proposed several bills at the end of last year designed to curb foreign influence in Australian politics, including banning political donations from abroad.

Similarly, India has toned down its rhetoric on China since Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping in April. While concerned by Beijing's growing influence on neighbors, New Delhi values its economic ties with China and opposes Trump's protectionist moves on steel and other goods. 

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