AUSMIN 2022: foreign policy
28 Nov 2022|

As Australia’s foreign and defence ministers and the US secretaries of state and defence prepare to meet for the annual AUSMIN consultations, ASPI is releasing a volume of essays exploring the policy context and recommending Australian priorities for the talks. This is an abridged version of a chapter from the collection, which will be published this week.

It is probably inevitable that the defence dimensions of AUSMIN receive the most attention, especially given the ongoing war in Ukraine, the announcements on a pathway to nuclear-powered submarines and the defence strategic review due in March.

The emphasis on defence reflects the strategic context and the need to demonstrably affirm and strengthen the military alliance. However, the integration of foreign and defence policies and messaging is essential for the Australia–US alliance to perform effectively in this region, including in its most important contemporary task of managing China.

The foreign policy priorities of countries in the Indo-Pacific—from development to respect for sovereignty and the centrality of regional institutions—need to have due prominence not only in the AUSMIN joint statement, but also at the media conference and side events. To succeed bilaterally and regionally, AUSMIN will need to project the robust nature of the Australia–US alliance as well as the benefits it brings to the Indo-Pacific.

Setting the tone

AUSMINs are generally led by the respective foreign ministries. Notwithstanding the war in Ukraine and the AUKUS arrangement, this should still be the case.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will want to ensure that the Australia–US partnership signals both strength and resolve, as well as a holistic and positive vision for the Indo-Pacific that reflects regional priorities, including sovereignty and economic development. They’ll aim to present a realistic view of the challenges facing the region, while emphasising stability and allaying concerns about a US–China conflict.

This all rests on clear signalling that the US is irreversibly committed to the Indo-Pacific, despite economic challenges at home, long-term support for Ukraine and concerns over Iran. US credentials need some repair after President Donald Trump’s piecemeal attendance at regional forums and the underwhelming delivery of President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia.

Any positive vision for this region must also weather an inevitable tide of propaganda and disinformation from Beijing, which will claim the US views the region solely through the lens of great-power confrontation and will dismiss Canberra as a US stooge. We need to work together to address Beijing’s false narratives, as we’ve had to do when explaining AUKUS to the region. Silence on our part only allows Chinese narratives to take deeper root.

The recent bilateral meetings in Bali with Chinese President Xi Jinping don’t alter the need to publicly address Chinese malign activity, including activity relating to the South China Sea, Taiwan and Xinjiang.

Leveraging Australia’s perspective

The Australian delegation comes to AUSMIN with certain geopolitical advantages. Australia is situated in and oriented fully towards the Indo-Pacific region in a way that the US, with its global reach and Euro-Atlantic alliances, is not. Australia’s undistracted focus on the Indo-Pacific lends knowledge, nuance and credibility to the viewpoints that Australian ministers present across the AUSMIN discussion table.

Played carefully, Canberra’s insider’s view of the Indo-Pacific could have synergistic effects on the soft-power advantages Washington still enjoys in the region, as shown by the US and Australia respectively ranking first and fifth for cultural influence in the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index 2021.

The change of government in Canberra also brings opportunity. Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles approach their first AUSMIN able to show broad continuity with the robust China settings of the former government, but with room to try new things, such as on climate cooperation.

The case for strategic equilibrium

Wong has proposed ‘strategic equilibrium’ as the basis for Indo-Pacific order, blending realist elements such as alliances along with faith in the value of institutions and rules-based order, as these excerpts from her speeches in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore reveal:

[We seek] an order framed by a strategic equilibrium where countries are not forced to choose but can make their own sovereign choices, including about their alignments and partnerships.

[We seek a region] where disputes are guided by international law and norms, not by power and size … Achieving this requires a strategic equilibrium in the region.

If strategic equilibrium sounds vague, that’s probably somewhat deliberate—only a flexible concept with wide appeal can catalyse the diversity of countries we must engage across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Those countries are sceptical of joining either formal alliances or values-based coalitions. They’ll be most receptive to a positive vision, backed by practical initiatives about which they have the sovereign choice whether and how to engage.

In addition, strategic equilibrium provides some helpful rhetorical distance from ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP)—the strategy masterminded by late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and adopted by the US and others. This distance is important, as some countries in the region, encouraged by Chinese propaganda, misinterpret FOIP as a shibboleth for containment or democracy promotion.

While Australia has effectively had an Indo-Pacific strategy since the foreign policy white paper in 2017, we’ve tended to avoid the FOIP moniker by fiddling with adjectives. For instance, the last AUSMIN joint statement advocated an ‘open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific’. By adopting strategic equilibrium, Australia has a more elegant alternative lexicon.

Therefore, Wong should reference strategic equilibrium at AUSMIN. The aim isn’t to persuade the US to adopt or amplify the term. It could be included in the joint statement and raised at the media conference, which would juxtapose Australia’s positive vision for the region alongside the necessary and robust language calling out Chinese conduct. This communicates Australian agency and leadership to an Indo-Pacific audience.

A prominent role for strategic equilibrium also reinforces the principle that foreign and defence policies are two sides of the same coin. The post–Cold War turn towards soft power and non-traditional concepts of security loosened our grip on the fact that foreign policy and diplomacy are at heart about war and peace. While the term is Wong’s, strategic equilibrium rests comfortably alongside Marles’s call for ‘an effective balance of military power’ at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June. To be effective, Australian foreign and defence policies must also be in equilibrium. Achieving that balance will make Australia’s voice more credible and respected in the region.

An opportunity to engage on indigenous diplomacy

Wong could use AUSMIN to highlight Australia’s indigenous diplomacy agenda and propose avenues for practical cooperation with the US in the region.

Wong emphasised First Nations perspectives in Australian foreign policy in her statement to the UN General Assembly in September. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s indigenous diplomacy agenda pre-dates the current Labor government, but Wong is elevating it by creating a new office of First Nations engagement, headed by an ambassador for First Nations peoples. To be effective, it will require adequate resourcing and a sense of mission that acknowledges both areas of common experience and the differences between indigenous peoples here and around the world.

There’s a place for the US in indigenous diplomacy. New Zealand, Canada and Taiwan are among the other countries elevating indigenous priorities in their foreign policies, including through the Indigenous Peoples Economic and Trade Cooperation Arrangement launched in Ottawa. The US State Department has held some consultations with indigenous groups already, but seemingly only in a domestic context. Over time, this is another area on which the US, Australia and others could cooperate with Taiwan, reinforcing Taipei’s space in international forums without contradicting one-China policies.

While indigenous diplomacy has domestic dimensions, it also promises to become a channel for delivering Australian foreign policy objectives, especially in the Pacific. The US has diverse indigenous communities, which include the Pacific islanders on Hawaii and the other US territories in the Pacific. The US also has a special relationship through the Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Wong could use AUSMIN to propose incorporating indigenous diplomacy into like-minded aid donor coordination meetings for the Pacific. In addition, Australia and the US could potentially both participate in an indigenous diplomacy side event at a Pacific forum.

Handling China and other thorny issues

Inevitably, China will be the organising principle behind the AUSMIN discussions because it’s the primary challenge facing both Australia and the US. Both countries’ approaches to China converge around what Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Wong have called ‘cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, and act in the national interest’, which aligns broadly with the US’s three ‘Cs’ of competition, cooperation, confrontation.

The thorniest issues in the AUSMIN joint statement relate to China, including calling out regional assertiveness in places like the South China Sea and the violation of human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere in China. Taiwan will require the most careful handling, and any change in language on Taiwan, even the number of words in the relevant paragraph, will be unpicked at length by commentators. Last year’s communiqué contained strong supportive language on maintaining the status quo relating to Taiwan, and cross-strait tensions have only increased since. Robust language on all these topics is essential—any backsliding would be noted by China and the region.

However, as both governments will already be aware, a focus on China shouldn’t drown out the positive message to the Indo-Pacific that’s the hallmark of a successful AUSMIN. Similar logic applies to other concerns, such as Myanmar and North Korea. There’ll be questions about China at the media conference of course, where it would be sensible to ensure coordinated but not identical responses on foreign and defence policy. Wong could affirm Australia’s agency over its China policy by referring to acting consistently in the national interest, while citing the homegrown concept of strategic equilibrium as the basis of regional engagement.

Behind closed doors, there’ll be much agreement on the scale and urgency of the China challenge. Commentators may speculate that the US side will seek reassurances that the recent revival of top-level Australia–China meetings, and what seem to have been mistaken remarks by Albanese on Taiwan and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, don’t equate to potential softening of Australia’s China policy. A strong communiqué will help assuage any lingering concerns. But channels of communication between Canberra and Washington are so attuned these days that such reassurance would also have been communicated well ahead of AUSMIN, reserving the precious time in meetings to mull more sensitive topics, such as Chinese intentions and regional contingencies.

In private meetings with US counterparts, Wong and Marles should seek assurances that the US is committed to strategic competition with China over the long term. Countries across the Indo-Pacific dislike great-power competition on their doorstep, but many fear the US’s absence and inconsistency even more.

To compete, the US must be persuaded to work with Australia and other allies and partners to expound a positive vision for the region, including a persuasive pathway to prosperity. In this regard, the Australian delegation should reiterate that the US’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has ongoing and negative strategic implications. That might seem like wasted breath, as the US returning to the pact lies outside the Overton window for the foreseeable future. But political winds change and political muscle memory fades—it pays to keep this at the forefront of minds. For now, Australia and the US should put more flesh on the bones of the available alternatives, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework agreement.