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Despite successful maintenance, AUSMIN needs an upgrade

Posted By on July 26, 2018 @ 06:00

If the Australia–US alliance were a family car, then this year’s AUSMIN was a very successful routine-maintenance period. That’s good news in comparison with other US allies’ engagements with America’s leaders recently (think G7, NATO, UK visit and even the blowback from Helsinki).

But it’s a pretty depressing success metric when two such closely integrated, activist international security actors as the US and Australia miss the opportunity to set out an agenda for success in a world of authoritarian states behaving in militarily and economically coercive ways. California would have been the perfect place for an alliance makeover—after all, it’s the home of West Coast Customs [1].

The two ghosts at AUSMIN were Donald J. Trump and Xi Xinping. Trump’s incorporeal presence was like a lurking storm front, with a 60% chance of driving tweets and rain. Luckily the weather held.

Xi was there too, and clearly became the subject of much behind-closed-doors frank discussion during the meeting itself. The ministers’ and secretaries’ joint statement [2] did all the right things in making strong public proclamations of commitment and resolve, with a free and open Indo-Pacific [3] the shared goal. They ‘reaffirmed their determination to oppose actions that seek to undermine the international rules-based order’. They ‘emphasized that militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea is contrary to the region’s desire for peaceful development’. Left unsaid was whether someone in the region might not agree. There was a mention of MH17.

Trump’s absence allowed the four AUSMIN leaders (Mike Pompeo, Julie Bishop, James Mattis and Marise Payne) to confidently say many lovely, affirming things to and about each other during the press conference and Q&A. It was like a return to happier times, but it felt surreal because the ministers and we observers know that these are not happier times. They are times where Australia’s and the United States’ strategic environments are deteriorating and so they are times requiring clear, active steps to reinvent the alliance and ensure its future success.

We had a promise from Secretary Pompeo [4] that he would set out his vision for ‘a thoroughly successful Indo-Pacific economic relationship’. Not, however, in San Francisco with his Australian partners—but next week at a business forum in Washington.

The four leaders provided us with a fact sheet [5] that sets out their ‘joint work plan’. Its 19 commitments are all worthy things, but very much in the spirit of all the words in text and spoken during the joint press conference: advancing; integrating; continuing; strengthening; holding or beginning various dialogues; coordinating efforts; maintaining pressure; and consulting. A few things had a new or refreshed edge: ‘step up joint engagement in the Pacific’, ‘strengthen defense collaboration on hypersonics’, ‘advance a shared infrastructure agenda’.

Not much new here—and that’s the gap. A clear example of this was on our economic relationship. Pompeo wanted us to ‘make no mistake about it—the economic relationship between our two countries is strong, whether its direct foreign investment, the work we do on technology together, the fact that we have Australian students here and American students learning there … I think everyone in the region should know that’.

Great—but what’s next in growing this partnership? Where are the initiatives and plans to make the US’s recognition that Australia’s economy is part of the US national technical and industrial base [6] mean something?

On technology, the deeper cyber cooperation through a memorandum of understanding is good, as is the shared work on hypersonics which has been lurking around for a few years now. But where is the agenda to integrate US tech firms and defence firms with Australian tech firms and defence firms to create the next wave of strategic advantage for our militaries in key areas like artificial intelligence, communications, remote sensing, new materials and biotechnology?

Where is the joint agenda to protect our two nations’ research bases from being used to advance the military and intelligence capabilities of the Chinese state led by the Chinese Communist Party? Or a public initiative to cooperate on removing vulnerabilities in our two democracies’ electoral machineries to reduce their openness to foreign interference?

So, AUSMIN 2018 was a great foundation on which to build a new alliance agenda. The real work now, though, is to implement that creative agenda. We need to move from successful routine maintenance of the alliance to a vehicle makeover.

With AUSMIN 2019 to be held here in Australia, one option is to hold it right here in Canberra or Queanbeyan, maybe at the premises of ESP racing [7], our street performance experts. The planned result: the alliance wins 2019’s Summernats ‘Tuff Street’ [8] epic against the Great Wall and Avtotor entrants driven by Xi and Putin.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/despite-successful-maintenance-ausmin-needs-an-upgrade/

URLs in this post:

[1] West Coast Customs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Coast_Customs

[2] ministers’ and secretaries’ joint statement: https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/07/284460.htm

[3] free and open Indo-Pacific: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/a-concise-dictionary-of-the-foip-language-1st-edition/

[4] a promise from Secretary Pompeo: https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/07/284471.htm

[5] a fact sheet: https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/07/284462.htm

[6] national technical and industrial base: http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?path=/prelim@title10/subtitleA/part4/chapter148&edition=prelim

[7] ESP racing: http://www.espracing.com.au/

[8] Summernats ‘Tuff Street’: https://www.summernats.com.au/pages/?ParentPageID=42&PageID=56

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