Mr Morrison goes to Washington
14 Sep 2019|

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is heading to Washington for an official visit and the rare privilege of a state dinner in the White House. According to the US announcement: ‘The visit will celebrate our two countries’ close friendship and shared history, and reaffirm our common vision for global peace, security, and prosperity.’

There’s no doubting the friendship and shared history, but it’s not immediately obvious that the two countries have a common vision for peace, security and prosperity. Australia is most comforted by a United States willing to carry the bulk of the security burden in the Indo-Pacific. But Donald Trump has ruled a sharp red line through allied expectations of America’s willingness to pay the bulk of the global defence bill.

Add to this an increasingly competitive American relationship with China. The glory days of Australian economic growth based on China’s rise are being replaced with Cold War–style rivalry involving a race to secure military dominance, unprecedented levels of espionage and intellectual property theft and the search for cyber weapons that can attack critical domestic infrastructure.

Australian officials wistfully long for a return to the uncomplicated days when Beijing operated according to Deng Xiaoping’s famous phrase, ‘Hide your capacities, bide your time.’ Much of our political incapacity to speak openly about the reality of China’s more assertive direction is based on the hope that if we stay quiet long enough, maybe we’ll return to the 1990s—the time when much of Canberra’s thinking about China was developed.

In Washington there is a very clear consensus across the administration, Congress and the national security system—indeed, a new common vision—that China has emerged as the biggest strategic threat to the interests of democratic countries.

Reading Morrison’s speeches since the election, it’s clear that he understands this American thinking and shares many of their concerns. But the Australian system has yet to work out how to articulate these worries publicly. Australian official language on China is all over the shop, mixing veiled hints about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the Pacific islands with increasingly implausible claims of ‘shared interests, mutual benefit and mutual respect’ with Beijing.

This should lead to some fascinating discussion between Morrison and Trump and, surely, to some Australian anxiety about where the conversation will take them. Two and a half years into the most powerful job in the world, Trump remains unpredictable, instinctive and not attached to the history of American diplomatic relations with friends and allies.

Of all of America’s allies, Australia has done well to avoid the presidential tongue-lashings that Trump has delivered to NATO partners. It helps that the US has a trade surplus with Australia and that we are close, sort of, to spending 2% of our GDP on defence—the benchmark for allied defence adequacy.

Malcolm Turnbull’s feisty phone conversation with Trump in January 2017 helped as well. Trump did then what he probably would not do now, which was to agree to Turnbull’s request that the president honour an Obama administration commitment to accept some individuals from the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. In retrospect, Trump may have come out of that encounter respecting the fact that Australia could negotiate well from a tough position.

We also know that Trump admired Morrison’s come-from-behind election win. This, along with Joe Hockey’s ‘100 years of mateship’ campaign, buys Australia a ready hearing in Washington even at the height of Trump’s ‘America first’ approach.

The key question for Morrison is how he should make use of the opportunity to spend several hours in conversation with Trump. It’s an unavoidable reality of the relationship that, although Australia is a well-regarded ally, America’s top leaders spend far less time thinking about what’s happening in Canberra than we do thinking about what’s going on in Washington. This means that substantive prime ministerial contacts with presidents are golden opportunities that don’t come along often.

Morrison’s best approach would be to arrive at the White House with a list of things that Australia can offer to boost defence and security cooperation with the US. Both in perception and in reality we need to emphasise that Australia is more than pulling its own weight in terms of our defence and the security of the wider Indo-Pacific.

Trump has made it painfully clear that he sees alliances as potentially unfair drains on the US purse. Earlier this year, for example, he argued that reducing American military exercises in South Korea was about saving money. Deterring North Korea seemed to be a lower priority.

One can debate whether Trump is valuing the right things, but he is unlikely to change his views. The challenge for Morrison is to show how Australia adds material value to American security in the Indo-Pacific. It is a vital Australian interest to cement continued American engagement in the region. Looking and acting like rent-seeking European allies would be disastrous in this context.

Morrison’s Pacific step-up strategy of doing more with Pacific island states, and thereby helping to reduce a growing dependence on China, will be well received in Washington, but Australia shouldn’t be doing too many high-fives over something that should have been a key part of our defence strategy years earlier.

America will also appreciate that we have made a substantial air and naval commitment to support freedom of navigation for shipping in the Persian Gulf region. Canberra could have done nothing less given the premium we have put on freedom of navigation against China’s de facto illegal annexation of much of the South China Sea.

What comes next? While ‘America first’ prevails, the allies are only as useful as the next big thing driving new cooperation. Here are four ideas that the prime minister should put to Trump with a view to making the alliance closer and deepening the US commitment to Indo-Pacific security.

First, he should pitch Australian participation in a Trump signal initiative—the plan to revitalise US space policy, put Americans back on the moon by 2028, ‘and then chart a path forward to the exploration of Mars’.

Having established the Australian Space Agency and with a lively private sector industry focused on space technologies, Morrison is well placed to make the case to Trump that Australia should join the new American effort to ultimately have a permanent settlement on Mars.

An Australian role could be bought for a relatively modest commitment of several hundred million dollars—barely the cost of a couple of joint strike fighters. The industry spin-offs could be immense and attract many people into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a critical gap in the Australian employment market.

Second, Morrison should propose Australian participation in the American development of a new strike aircraft. The direction of military technology is putting a premium on projecting force at great range.

Just as Australia did with the joint strike fighter, we should propose to make an investment of several hundreds of millions into the research and development required to make a new long-range strike aircraft a reality. This will benefit Australian industry and tie us more deeply into American thinking about evolving technology.

Third, now that the US Marine Corps deployments in northern Australia have reached their long-planned target of 2,500 personnel, it’s time for Australia and the US to actively design the next phases of expanded military cooperation.

At the time of the US–Australian agreement on expanded cooperation in 2011, it was thought that an American naval presence operating out of HMAS Stirling in Western Australia would be a new phase of cooperation. Since then, strategic competition in the Indian Ocean region has grown as China has taken on a much more visible military presence. That should lead Australia and the US to expand their own naval efforts in the Indian Ocean.

Finally, Australia’s approach to the next generation of critical technology, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing, is, at best, fragmentary and underinvested and needs more thought from a defence and security perspective.

Following Australia’s ground-breaking decision on the 5G mobile network that effectively excluded Chinese companies from this most critical piece of critical infrastructure, Morrison is in a good position to propose to Trump that Australia and the US jointly work on a project to determine the alliance value of emerging technology. Modest early investments could pay big dividends.

All up, these suggestions amount to around $2 billion of investment in forward-looking space and defence capabilities. That’s modest enough given an annual defence budget of $38.7 billion. No one has ever claimed that the cost of Australian defence leadership was cheap. Aside from being valuable for our own defence efforts, these additional investments would bullet-proof the US alliance at a time of strategic uncertainty.