AUSMIN 2022 delivered the US and Australia a major strategic reset
22 Dec 2022|

After their latest AUSMIN talks, Australia’s defence and foreign ministers and their US equivalents noted that the alliance and partnership had never been stronger or more vital to regional peace and prosperity. They resolved to evolve their countries’ defence and security cooperation to ensure they’re equipped to deter aggression, to counter coercion and to make space for sovereign decision-making.

This is a far cry from the mindset immediately after World War II. Australia’s engagement in that conflict had been deep. We were one of the most mobilised belligerents of the war and the main supplier to the South West Pacific Area command for much of it, and of personnel to General Douglas MacArthur’s forces until 1944. But we were viewed globally as a secondary zone. We’d been the ‘last bastion’, but the line rapidly receded.

We learned that, in the war’s aftermath, vigorous efforts by Ben Chifley’s government to secure a joint base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and defence agreements had withered on American indifference. During the Berlin airlift and then the Korean War, Australia and the US were mutually engaged, but Australia not prominently. When it came to ANZUS, the US joint chiefs resisted the treaty. When the agreement became inevitable, they ensured it involved no joint command or deep military engagement. For the State Department, ANZUS was to ensure Canberra’s support for a Japanese peace treaty. For the military now planning around the focal points of the Cold War—Europe, North Asia and the Middle East—Australia was geographically and strategically irrelevant.

The 1960s saw a major adjustment, symbolised in 1962 by Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s trip to Australia for the ANZUS Council meeting, the first held outside the US. That reflected growing American concerns with Vietnam and put the hitherto strategically less significant Southeast Asia in American focus. Badly burned by his country’s ongoing involvement in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon, however, restored the region’s previously lower level of significance in 1969 with his Guam doctrine. Australia was effectively enjoined to look to its own defences in the first instance.

Less noticed at the time was the development of a heightened enmeshment of Australian geography with the central balance. As Defense Secretary Robert McNamara enhanced the US triad of nuclear-force platforms, he recognised a critical need for southern hemisphere bases. Pine Gap, North West Cape and Nurrungar became, as the late Des Ball described them, the ‘strategic essence of the US alliance’.

In the 1980s, the logical consequence of these shifts came to be reflected in our defence strategy—self-reliance within the framework of the alliance. Our strategy and force posture were based solely on our capacity to deal with assessed threats by using our ‘force in being’. We determined that we needed to be able to defend ourselves without taxing the US. Pine Gap and Nurrungar were made genuinely joint as the US sought to strengthen its permanence and we situated them in our order of battle. We moved to take over North West Cape.

We were still not central to main American concerns. I recollect Ronald Reagan’s defence secretary, Caspar Weinberger, saying to me: ‘I have to wind up this conversation, Kim. The German defence minister is here, and he is a real intellectual challenge. I have to prepare!’

The end of the Cold War brought an era of peace dividends in defence spending in America and among its allies—disastrously, I would argue, in our case. That was amended after 2001 by the 11 September terrorist attacks on the US, which led to an overwhelming focus on militant Islamic fundamentalism. This incorporated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more broadly global terrorist activities. The period did, however, see the negotiation of additional space-related joint facilities from 2010.

Everything changed with the emergence of an economically and militarily competitive China, particularly its militarising of the South China Sea with its island base building, arguments over islands with Japan and South Korea, and the possibility of a military conclusion to the one-China policy with regard to Taiwan. The ‘war on terror’ has now been downgraded in priority. The struggle in Ukraine distracts from the picture. It has brought some American forces back to Europe, but the US has struggled to keep its main engagement as the provision of supplies and intelligence and the imposition of sanctions on Russia. This conflict is highly dangerous and carries the possibility of a broader war. The US is desperately hopeful it can be concluded without spreading. The war’s consequences are immensely costly to the global and European economies and to vital American military supplies.

Which brings us to AUSMIN 2022. The first thing to note is a much more realistic appreciation by the US of the limits of its own capabilities. When I was ambassador to Washington, administration officials would get very annoyed if we failed to describe the US as the pre-eminent power in the Northwest Pacific. That tonality has changed. The US now seeks deterrence through its close interrelationship with militarily effective allies. Diplomatically it seeks the emergence in our region of good relationships with a multiplicity of nations in the main through common views on issues like climate change, food security, infrastructure, natural emergencies and economic prosperity. The AUSMIN communiqué reflects this.

The military dimension, however, is heavily focused on Australia and Japan and the extent to which our military capabilities can be added to those of the US. While AUKUS has much in it about joint research on a wide variety of high-end military technologies, it is driven by Australia’s desire for a nuclear-powered submarine. Underwater is where the Americans hold an edge. In nuclear submarines the US outweighs China, at the moment, by a substantial margin. The US doesn’t want Australia to lose its conventional submarine capability, especially not before it can be replaced by nuclear submarines. It doesn’t want Australia to go to the expense of having to replace its conventional fleet while moving to nuclear submarines. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US ‘will not allow Australia to have a capability gap going forward’.

Geographically, Australia is now critical for the first time since World War II. Darwin is closer to the South China Sea than it is to Melbourne. It’s interesting for me to see the facilities we built for the self-reliant defence of our approaches under the 1987 defence white paper come into our ally’s strategic focus. The army to Darwin; submarines and surface vessels to HMAS Stirling; the US Air Force to use the bare bases Scherger, Curtin and Learmonth in northern Australia.

The AUSMIN statement goes quite granular on this, detailing enhanced land cooperation and combined logistics alongside the existing initiatives announced in 2011.

Priority locations will be identified for rotations of US air, land and maritime capabilities, which will support ‘enhanced US force posture with associated infrastructure, including runway improvements, parking aprons, fuel infrastructure, explosive ordinance storage infrastructure, and facilities to support the workforce’. This will include Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal, where facilities for six B-52 long-range bombers are being developed. At selected bases, land forces would include US army elements with the marines, and Japan would be ‘invited to increase its participation in force posture initiatives in Australia’.

There was much in the communiqué on enhancing Australian technological capability, particularly our guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise, with the US committed to maintain, repair and overhaul more priority munitions in Australia to improve stock holdings.

A picture builds of substantial changes to Australian forward-basing facilities in the maritime, air and land domains. If all this occurs quickly, Australia’s defence will look very different. This is full circle. It embeds the US in Australia. Though the American presence is rotational, adjustment in wartime would be immediate.

The statement includes a great deal about joint diplomatic activity in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. This is Guam doctrine no more. We are not in an area of lesser significance. If not distracted elsewhere, the US now sees us as a focal point of its strategic interests.