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US and Australia set to launch campaign to counter disinformation

Mr Pompeo on Thursday called for an end to “blind engagement” with China, just days after the US took the historic decision to shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston, setting off a diplomatic firestorm.

Senator Payne, who will be attending her fifth AUSMIN meeting, said this year’s discussions were the “most significant in my time for Australia’s short, medium and long-term interests”.

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“Our Alliance co-operation is essential to promote and realise a stable, open and resilient region for the benefit of all Australians,” she said.

Australia and the US will look to present a united front against disinformation by authoritarian states across the Indo-Pacific, with the two countries particularly concerned by the way in which China has used social media to undermine democracies across the region.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is already setting up a new taskforce to counter online disinformation, with Australia concerned about the effect on developing nations throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Twitter last month revealed it had removed more than 30,000 accounts after investigators found they had ties to state-run propaganda and disinformation operations in China, Russia and Turkey.

The US closed the Chinese consulate in Houston on Friday over allegations it had stolen American research, persuaded dozens of researchers to turn over information to Chinese institutions, and coerced fugitive Chinese citizens to return to China. The Houston consul general Cai Wei was formerly the deputy head of mission for the Chinese embassy in Canberra.

In retaliation, China’s Foreign Ministry announced on Friday it was revoking the licence for the US consulate in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, accusing the US of breaching international law, the basic norms of international relations, and the terms of the China-US Consular Convention.

Chinese police surrounded the US consulate in Chengdu within an hour of Beijing’s announcement on Friday, as US diplomats prepared to vacate the strategically significant consulate that covers the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou as well as the semi-autonomous region of Tibet.

Mr Pompeo and Mr Esper gave three set speeches this week that accused China of threatening global prosperity.

The spiralling diplomatic relationship follows months of sparring over the coronavirus crisis, Hong Kong, a military build-up in the South China Sea and the global future of Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei.

Mr Pompeo said on Wednesday the closure of the Houston consulate was designed to set out “clear expectations on how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave”.

“When they don’t, we’re going to take actions that protect the American people, protect our security, our national security, and also protect our economy and jobs,” he said

The AUSMIN meetings are held every year between the two countries’ top foreign affairs and defence officials, alternating between the US and Australia.

Firefighters respond to reports that officials were burning documents inside the Chinese consulate in Houston, the latest hotspot in US-China relations.

Firefighters respond to reports that officials were burning documents inside the Chinese consulate in Houston, the latest hotspot in US-China relations. Credit:AP

Senator Payne and Senator Reynolds are seeking to reach agreement on a joint effort to help prevent the next case of a virus jumping from animals to the human population by addressing concerns such as wild animal wet markets.

The two nations will also likely agree on a plan to increase their co-operation on foreign aid and infrastructure programs across the Pacific and south-east Asia, where China has been growing its influence in recent years.

China has been accused by the US of engaging in “debt-trap diplomacy” across the region whereby it is saddling countries with unsustainable debts, with the long-term goal of a military presence to rival that of the US.

The ministers will also discuss ways to further expand the “Five Eyes” intelligence network of Australia, the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand to focus on strategic economic issues such as securing supply chains in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. While the Five Eyes network has traditionally focused on intelligence sharing strictly in the national security and foreign affairs space, the global pandemic has sharpened the need to forge closer alliances on economic security.

Senator Payne, Senator Reynolds and Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell will fly off on Sunday and arrive in Washington on Monday morning local time before a series of meetings over the next two days.

The two Australian ministers said they would also discuss ways to deepen the two countries’ defence co-operation in line with Australia’s updated defence strategy released earlier this month.

The new strategy committed Australia to buying long-range anti-ship missiles from the United States to equip its fleet of Super Hornets.

“In the face of an increasingly complex and contested regional environment, it is vital we continue working together across the breadth of our relationship,” Senator Payne and Senator Reynolds said.

“We will continue to make progress on our priorities, including investing in infrastructure in the region, countering disinformation, standing up for human rights, and strengthening science and technology cooperation.”

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