The Morrison government is expected to come under further pressure over climate policy when the foreign minister and the defence minister meet face-to-face with their US counterparts in Washington next week.
Marise Payne and Peter Dutton flew out of Australia on Wednesday evening bound for Indonesia, the first stop in a two-week trip that will also include meetings with counterparts in India and South Korea.
Climate will be on the agenda when the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, host the pair for the annual talks between the allies known as Ausmin – the first since the Biden administration took office.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said the Morrison government’s “failure to address climate change and commit to net zero emissions by 2050” risked “undermining Australia’s relationship with the US”.
“When your closest ally is repeatedly and publicly urging you to act, but you refuse to do so, it sends the message that you’re not on the same page,” Wong said on Wednesday.
The Biden administration has promised to “weave” the climate crisis into the fabric of all of its diplomatic engagements, and a top US climate official told the Guardian last month that Australia’s 2030 target of reducing emissions by 26-28% on 2005 levels was “not sufficient”.
Dr Jonathan Pershing, the deputy to US presidential climate envoy John Kerry, said Australia should be considering a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, given the urgency of the threat outlined in the latest climate science report.
The US, together with the United Kingdom and the European Union, has been seeking to rally increased global commitments ahead of an international climate conference in Glasgow in November – but Scott Morrison has faced resistance from the Nationals to the idea of making a concrete pledge to achieve net zero by 2050.
The leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce, said last week he would not be “bullied” on the climate issue, and argued Morrison should explain to Joe Biden and Boris Johnson “what we can do and what we can’t do and the process of how we do it”.
Morrison has said the government is focused on developing low-emissions technology, which could be deployed to help developing countries cut their climate footprint. It has promised to release a long-term emissions strategy before the Glasgow conference.
The Ausmin talks will be held in Washington on Thursday 16 September. The Australian government confirmed climate would be one of the topics on the agenda, along with other pressing challenges like countering China’s use of tariffs and other trade actions against Australia.
“The ministers will discuss deepening cooperation on issues such as Covid-19 response and recovery, economic coercion, defence posture, climate, cyber and critical technology, space and supply chains,” Payne and Dutton’s office said in a statement.
Defence ties are set to be a major focus of those talks, with Dutton flagging a desire to expand a Gillard government initiative – the hosting of US marines in Darwin as part of a rotational force.
“The number of marines has grown from 200 to over 2,000 – I want to see that number increase further,” Dutton told the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia on Wednesday.
Dutton said it was important to maintain freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region and to deter “the most egregious forms of coercion and aggression”.
He said the alliance with the US was “absolutely more important than ever”, because the region was more complex and less predictable than at any time since the second world war, and there were “echoes of the 1930s”.
Dutton said the rhetoric of Chinese Communist party had “become increasingly bellicose over recent years”, and its activities were “increasingly coercive”.
The US secretary of state Antony Blinken will meet with Dutton and Payne in Washington. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, Wang Wenbin, said the Australian government should stop promoting a “coercive China narrative for selfish political gain”, and argued tensions in the relationship were “entirely of Australia’s own making”.
Payne and Dutton’s four-country trip is significant at a time when Australia’s strict pandemic-related border restrictions remain in place. The government said the travel “strongly reinforces Australia’s active engagement in our region”.
The first stop is Jakarta, where the ministers will join the Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, and the defence minister, Prabowo Subianto, for talks on Thursday. Payne said they would “take stock” of Covid-19 response and recovery efforts.
Australia pledged in July to send 2.5m AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Indonesia by the end of this year, amid concerns about the significant Covid-19 outbreak in the country, but so far only 500,000 of those doses have arrived.
Payne and Dutton will then travel to New Delhi for the first-ever “2+2” talks with their Indian counterparts, Dr S Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh, on Saturday.
The Australian government said the relationship with India was “at a historic high”, and the agenda in New Delhi would include “economic security, cyber, climate, critical technology and supply chains”.
Payne and Dutton will then travel to Seoul for a 2+2 meeting with South Korea’s foreign minister, Chung Eui-yong, and the defence minister, Suh Wook. Tuesday’s meeting is expected to focus on strategic and security issues.
After the Ausmin talks in Washington, Payne will travel to New York to attend the opening of the 76th United Nations General Assembly and represent Australia at several events.