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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens while Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Department of State following the 30th AUSMIN in Washington, D.C. July 28, 2020. Brendan Smialowski/Pool via REUTERS
Order from Chaos

In annual meeting, a new direction for US-Australia alliance

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The Trump campaign has long enjoyed delivering an unusual musical message during the president’s rallies, frequently blaring the Rolling Stones’ classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Last week, the music was coming from Down Under, with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne quietly but forcefully reminding U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the same message is true in alliance politics. 

In the press conference following this year’s Australia-U.S. Ministerial (AUSMIN), Secretary Pompeo’s description of the annual meeting was deliberately hard-edged. He featured little more than a litany of shared grievances toward Beijing, expressed in characteristically Manichean terms. In the remarks that followed, Minister Payne provided a notable contrast, offering a wide-ranging assessment of the ministerial’s achievements and Indo-Pacific focus.

The contrast reflects more than differing meeting priorities. Payne and Pompeo advanced starkly different visions of the alliance. The distinction is unmistakable: Whereas the Trump administration envisions a confrontational China-centric agenda, Canberra is working to bend the alliance toward a wider Indo-Pacific focus. Australia is ready and willing to share a larger piece of the Indo-Pacific security burden, but it will do so on its own terms.

He said, she said

Pompeo’s depiction of a narrow, China-focused alliance offers little role for Canberra other than to ride along with Washington in a coordinated decoupling from Beijing. But as Payne ticked through an extensive list of ministerial agreements — ranging from cooperation on COVID-19 and global health security to defense industry integration, critical minerals, and engagement with multilateral bodies — she sketched-out a far more expansive agenda for the alliance. It is one in which Australia will play a more equally balanced and multidimensional role, rather than being shoe-horned into an all-consuming great power struggle. This message of confidence and independence within the alliance also looms large in Canberra’s recently issued 2020 Defence Strategic Update. Australia, as Payne pointedly noted, not only shares common values with the United States, but also the “confidence in making decisions in our [own] interests.”

Canberra’s more active and independent assertion of its interests should not be misread as an effort to create distance in the alliance. On the contrary, Australia is highly supportive of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, so much so that Canberra is investing a lot of time and energy into helping Washington get it right. This is a welcome effort, and one that could help the Trump administration more finely tune its strategy to regional needs and perceptions — if it is willing to listen.

Refocusing the alliance

Last week’s meeting marked three important shifts that highlight Australia’s ongoing effort to put the alliance on a new and stronger regional footing.

First, AUSMIN 2020 signalled the completion of an historic shift in the regional focus of the alliance, pivoting it away from the Middle East toward a laser-like prioritization of the Indo-Pacific. This has been a long time in the making. Although the alliance was born in 1951 as a Pacific pact, it has devoted far too much of the past two decades to strategically peripheral counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East. Neither country had a political interest in changing this setup until recently. As anxieties about China have rapidly accelerated in Canberra and Washington, both countries have attempted to pull the alliance’s gaze back on the region. Both agreed in 2018 to refocus the alliance on the Indo-Pacific, in line with the strategic priorities set out in Canberra’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and Washington’s 2018 National Defense Strategy. But it is Australia that has been the more determined partner in making this goal a reality, working to rebuff ongoing requests from Washington for new Middle East commitments. Unlike last year’s AUSMIN, which turned into a quiet clash over the White House’s request for Australia to take part in a new maritime security deployment in the Strait of Hormuz, this year’s communique was the first since 9/11 to not mention Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Iran by name. Whatever discussions went on behind closed doors, Australia clearly made its reservations heard.

Second, this year’s AUSMIN showed that Australia is also able and willing to take the lead in articulating how the alliance can best contribute in the region. While the ministerial’s China discussions featured prominently in the American media, there was little mention of what was arguably the meeting’s most significant achievement: an unprecedented suite of health security initiatives aimed at supporting the COVID-19 recovery in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Canberra appears to have spearheaded this initiative. Its effort to bend the Trump administration’s attention toward the region’s most urgent and practical needs provides a much-needed counternarrative to Washington’s “America First” agenda.

Detailed in a four-page Global Health Security Statement, the United States and Australia laid out a serious agenda to “prevent, prepare and respond to the collective threat posed by infectious diseases and pandemics.” With deliverables ranging from vaccine development, to strengthening regional health systems, to advancing health security partnerships between the Australian Defence Force and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, this was an unusually detailed work plan that signals care and investment in the region’s wellbeing. Moreover, the statement was clearly prepared with international optics in mind, peppered with references to multilateral organizations — including the World Health Assembly, the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, the U.N. World Food Program, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Pacific Islands Forum — that matter deeply to regional partners and which the Trump administration has at times dismissed. Canberra’s advocacy for these Indo-Pacific priorities can enhance the alliance’s value proposition and Washington’s image in the region at a time when both are becoming more central to strategic competition with China.

Sharpening up

Finally, AUSMIN 2020 also saw Australia preview a closer alignment between Washington and Canberra on two important foreign policy issues: China and defense. Media reports focused on one comment from the press conference — Payne’s remark that “we have no intention of injuring” the Australia-China relationship — as evidence of an ongoing divide on China policy. To be fair, Australia is as likely to annex New Zealand as it is to pursue a China policy that neatly aligns with the zero-sum narrative outlined in Pompeo’s recent Nixon library speech. But Canberra’s China policy has shifted and sharpened in significant ways over the past several years.

Australia has been at the forefront of global efforts to limit China’s political interference, espionage, and disinformation campaigns. It has willingly taken on sizable risks by being the world’s first mover on banning Huawei from 5G networks and calling for an international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak. More recently, Australia and the United States have been in virtual lockstep in condemning China’s aggression in the South China Sea, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. All of these priorities were noted in the AUSMIN communique. Perhaps most significant is that this year’s AUSMIN was the first to feature a prominent discussion of Taiwan. While nothing in the communique’s carefully worded text broke new policy ground, the fact that preserving “Taiwan’s important role in the Indo-Pacific” was included as an item of alliance cooperation is an important shift in Australia’s public rhetoric on this most sensitive of issues.

In another sign of Canberra’s determination to deal more seriously with Beijing, Australia’s new Defence Strategic Update commits to $270 billion Australian dollars in defense investments over the next decade and refocuses the military around efforts to “shape, deter and respond” to grey zone challenges and high-end aggression. Flowing from this shift in Canberra’s approach, AUSMIN placed an emphasis on more closely integrating allied forces and capabilities in the years ahead. In addition to signing a classified “Statement of Principles on Alliance Defense Cooperation and Force Posture Priorities,” both sides agreed to restart the bilateral Force Posture Working Group. This is a significant development, albeit the start of a long process. It will not only help U.S. policymakers put meat on the bones of Congress’ new Pacific Deterrence Initiative, but could also strengthen Australia’s role as a logistics, munitions, and operating hub for the alliance, and enable a more strategic approach to allied and regional military planning. There are also a range of new defense initiatives on the table — including a possible expansion of the Marine Rotational Forces-Darwin, a new U.S. military fuel depot in Australia’s north, plans to enhance maritime operations in support of regional partners, and Canberra’s investment in long-range strike systems — that could meaningfully advance the alliance’s regional security contributions in the coming years.

Get what you need

Australians have often chafed at being viewed as the United States’ “deputy sheriff.” But Canberra is now seeking to open the door to a bigger and more mature alliance — one that will be needed as Washington grapples with the erosion of its unilateral moment and seeks to reset the terms of its own international leadership. Admittedly, there is much more to be done. Some of the missed alliance opportunities at AUSMIN 2020 included a firmer commitment to build an integrated defense industrial base or an agreement to pursue a unified approach to dealing with China’s industrial subsidies. Nonetheless, this year’s meeting suggests a major transformation is underway, one that will set the alliance on a path to better addressing Indo-Pacific priorities, adopting a China policy that is calibrated to regional realities, and establishing a credible basis for collective defense in the region.

Did the United States get everything it wanted this year at AUSMIN? Likely not. But it just might have gotten what it needs.

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