Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have received a warm welcome from their Trump administration counterparts ahead of crucial talks in Washington DC about China, COVID-19 and other global issues.
Ms Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo donned masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus when they met for dinner at the State Department on Monday (local time).
Masks were also on and an elbow bump replaced the traditional handshake when Ms Reynolds visited Defence Secretary Mark Esper at the Pentagon.
The four will convene, along with military and diplomatic leaders from both nations, on Tuesday for the annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations.
“Looking forward to a productive AUSMIN 2020 – our shared values of freedom & democracy are the bedrock of our alliance,” Senator Payne tweeted after the State Department visit.
The Australian delegation has avoided publicly talking directly about China, but the Trump administration, and particularly Mr Pompeo, uses most public appearances to berate what he calls “the Chinese Communist Party”.
In a speech on Thursday in California, Mr Pompeo raised the prospect of “a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies” to counter what he describes as China’s bullying, military island building in the South China Sea, theft of intellectual property and attempted destruction of rules-based order.
The US is expected to urge Australian warships to take part in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Senator Payne declined to pre-empt the AUSMIN talks.
“What I will say is the strength of the alliance places us well to respond to what are immense health and economic and security challenges within the region, particularly in light of COVID-19,” she told ABC’s AM on Monday.
The AUSMIN discussions are considered so important that the Australian delegation chose to attend in person despite the COVID-19 pandemic and a video conferencing option.
Around 70,000 people in the US are testing positive and 1100-plus are dying from the virus each day.
The White House was rocked on Monday when US President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien tested positive for COVID-19.
Mr O’Brien is the closest known official to Mr Trump to test positive so far.
Senator Payne said the Australian delegation will take every precaution to avoid the virus.
Senator Payne, Senator Reynolds and the seven other members of the downsized delegation will have to quarantine for 14 days when they return to Australia.