AUSMIN: Happy talk?
19 Nov 2012|

Image courtesy of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website –

A glance at the AUSMIN 2012 communiqué reveals an obvious but important point: the alliance actually does stuff. It has moving parts and decisions lead to real actions, such as cooperation between military forces. Our strategic engagement with the US is built on a substantive and substantial defence and intelligence relationship which has got busier in recent years. Even in what is branded a year of consolidation after 2011’s pivot, new layers of cooperation were added in 2012, with the announcement of a C-band radar being relocated from Antigua to Exmouth in Western Australia.

The radar will be the first low-earth orbit space surveillance network sensor in the southern hemisphere. A Pentagon media release rather dryly notes that the ‘C-Band radar can also significantly contribute to tracking high-interest space launches from Asia.’ This multi-million dollar decision will grow US-Australian cooperation on space matters at a time when space is becoming more and more critical to global security.

On this point alone, we might have expected Australian ministers to be spruiking the delivery of yet more tangible cooperation with the US. Not a bit of it. The post AUSMIN media conference was an amusing combo of muted Australian understatement and American enthusiasm. Bob Carr opened with: ‘AUSMIN concluded its meeting today very much in a spirit of business as usual, steady as she goes, no new strategic content or announcements but a matter of consolidation.’ Hillary Clinton countered with: ‘[b]ut if you look at what we’re doing, and Minister Carr gave a brief overview, it’s quite extensive’.

Stephen Smith struck a blow for understatement with ‘this is very much a consolidation AUSMIN, a business as usual AUSMIN’, and went on to explain why it would take many studies and years of deliberation to make more progress on Marine, Air Force and Navy cooperation. But Leon Panetta ended with a rousing: ‘[a]nd we also agreed to move forward with all due deliberate speed in the further implementation of this important initiative that fosters great cooperation between our forces’.

The two sides were actually at the same meeting, as the communiqué makes clear, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. It seems the Australians want to downplay the delivery of defence substance in favour of Asian Century White Paper happy talk. As the song says, ‘you got to have a dream’. Could it be that we are a little spooked by China right now? At the media conference Hillary Clinton was asked about China’s reaction to US-Australia cooperation. Her answer is worth reading carefully:

… we both recognise that increased cooperation with China is mutually beneficial, so this is not a zero-sum competition, rather it is up to the United States and Australia to lead the way in demonstrating that the strong relationship between us can also help foster strong healthy relations with China, because the entire region will benefit from a peaceful rise of China. And, as I’ve said many times, we welcome a strong and prosperous China that plays a constructive and greater role in world affairs.But we also want to see China act in fair and transparent ways that respect international norms and standards, follow international law, protect the fundamental freedoms and human rights of its people and all people. And the Pacific is big enough for all of us …

This is not the voice of an America bent on turning China into a threat, as is argued by a string of twitching Australian commentators. In fact, Clinton’s approach is balanced and accommodating but also quite unashamed in setting out American interests and expectations. Australia really should give Washington more credit for being able to think intelligently about China. Interesting then that Bob Carr found the need to add this after Clinton’s answer: ‘I’d just add that there’s no news in this communiqué that would surprise China or any other nation in the region.’ Surprisingly, no news is good news right now.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website.