Australia has formed a new partnership with the US and Japan to build infrastructure and promote economic growth across the Indo-Pacific region.
The trilateral partnership will “mobilise investment in projects that drive economic growth, create opportunities, and foster a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific”, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement.
The agreement is in direct competition to China’s “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure drive, and is widely seen as an attempt by the US to offer smaller nations an alternative to Beijing.
Without making specific reference to China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said overnight the Trump administration was seeking “partners, not domination” in the Indo-Pacific.
Mr Pompeo said America would deeply engage in the region’s economic, political, cultural and security affairs and help nations “keep their people free from coercion or great power domination”.
“The great theme of our engagement is this: where America goes we seek partnership not domination,” he told the US Chamber of Commerce Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Washington.
Trade Minister Steve Ciobo denied the three-way initiative was a challenge to China, saying it only added to various regional programs already underway.
“I think it’s wrong to view these things as either/or. The fact is we can participate in and be part of all of the initiatives in the region,” Mr Ciobo told Sky News on Tuesday.
“All of this, this broad sweep of initiatives in the region, is all about addressing the huge unmet demand for the provision of infrastructure throughout the Indo-Pacific region.”
Mr Ciobo said he was not bracing for any backlash from China.
“The fact is that we demonstrate consistently that Australia is very focused on making sure that we can help the least developed economies in our region to get onto a more economically sustainable footing,” he said.
“This is also about opening a wealth of opportunities to Australian businesses.”
In a joint statement with officials from the US and Japan, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the partnership recognised that more support was needed to enhance peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
“We share the belief that good investments stem from transparency, open competition, sustainability, adhering to robust global standards, employing the local workforce, and avoiding unsustainable debt burdens,” it said.
“By working together, we can attract more private capital to achieve greater results.”
Australia and China have signed a memorandum of understanding on One Belt, One Road, but it has not been made public.
China has aggressively expanded its influence in the Indo-Pacific and other parts of the globe, including constructing militarised islands in the South China Sea and pursuing the One Belt, One Road strategy.
“When we say ‘open’ in the Indo-Pacific it means we want all nations to enjoy open access to seas and airways,” Mr Pompeo said.
We want the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes. This is key to international peace.”
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who also addressed the Washington forum, said US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade bloc should not be viewed as America’s retreat from the region.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Mr Ross said.
He also rebuffed China’s global expansion, declaring the US believes there “are more than one belt and more than one road” in the Indo-Pacific and the rest of the world.