2 Australian ministers begin 4-nation visit ending in US

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s foreign and defense ministers are visiting Indonesia, India, South Korea and the United States to bolster economic and security relationships within the Asia-Pacific region, where tensions are rising with China.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defense Minister Peter Dutton left Australia on Wednesday despite pandemic restrictions which continue to make overseas travel rare for government officials.

The trip will prepare for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to Washington, D.C., later this month to meet with U.S., Indian and Japanese leaders in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

China has called the so-called Quad an attempt to contain its ambitions.

Payne and Dutton will have their inaugural meeting with their Indian counterparts while in New Delhi.

They will discuss economic security, cybersecurity, climate, critical technology and supply chains, Payne said in statement.

Australia wants to strike a free trade deal with Quad partner India to reduce its economic reliance on an increasingly hostile China.

Australian special trade envoy for India and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said last month that an India-Australia free trade deal would signal the “democratic world’s tilt away from China.”

The trip by the Australian ministers “strongly reinforces Australia’s active engagement in our region,” a government statement said.

Australia’s tough quarantine restrictions for international visitors mean that Payne and Dutton will meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the United States. The two countries normally take turns hosting the annual meeting, which was held in Washington, D.C., last year.

Dutton, who was infected with the coronavirus during a Washington, D.C., visit last year when he was minister for home affairs, said his upcoming U.S. trip is an important opportunity to build on an already-strong defense relationship near the 70th anniversary of the signing of their bilateral defense treaty.

Payne said one of the most pressing issues to be discussed in all four countries is cooperation on the region’s recovery from the pandemic.