Rules and surprises, wars and trade
15 Feb 2016|

You can see the many currents in the Australia–US relationship by using different lenses: war fighting and alliance, strategy, economics and trade.

Add filters for surprises and rule writing and ambition and history and the nature of the two nations.

Lots of important stuff is flowing through the relationship. Already in 2016, note the Turnbull government’s polite refusal of the US’s form letter asking for extra effort in Iraq and Syria (lenses: surprise, alliance, war fighting.) And the less than all-out-gush in the Prime Minister’s January visit to Washington (every lens, especially history).

Next up, a multi-lens effort when the Defence White Paper is delivered. ASPI’s conference on the meaning of the White Paper starts April 6—microscope metaphors, please.

Later this year, the submarine choice. If Japan loses the race to build the next Oz sub, Washington will be as disappointed as Tokyo.

The submarine is a huge decision—and that’s before you get to the cash. View the submarine choice through lots of lenses: domestic Oz politics, alliance management and strategy (and history and ambition). Not surprising, as Andrew Davies notes, so much attention is on the politics of the build rather than the design.

The just-signed Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty is about plenty more than economics and trade. The benefits of the deal are deeply contested, depending on modelling assumptions. The sceptical argument is that the ‘gain is very small’ and the TPP is no ‘slam dunk’ that should be approved automatically.

The economic arguments over ratification will be intense—nearly as powerful as the politics. This US election year means the American polity wants to defer the ratification wrangle in Congress to next year.

If economics and politics are murky lenses, the clearest arguments for the TPP can be made when viewing it as strategy and rule writing. The TPP is the trade arm of the pivot, an economic hard power weapon. The TPP is about who rules and who writes the rules. This is the Barack Obama proposition: ‘If we don’t write the rules, China will write the rules.’

The surprises in the Oz–US relationship—the unexpected bits—are always revealing. Two recent examples:

  1. The decision to lease the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company. Obama expressed Washington’s displeasure at being blindsided in his first meeting with Turnbull: ‘Let us know next time.’ That was about the alliance and the US marines in Darwin and it was about China, China, China.
  2. The US form letter to 40 partners, including Australia, asking for extra effort in Iraq and Syria. Australia was gobsmacked when the letter from the US Defense Secretary lobbed without prior consultation. For an excellent account of the letter that made Canberra go ‘Whoa!’ see Karen Middleton:

‘When it comes to seeking support in military operations, there is an understanding between Australia and the US: Australia won’t be asked for a contribution unless and until it is in a position to say yes. If the US wants to ask, the issue will be discussed in a conversation between officials. If the Australians indicate the response will be positive, then a written request will be made—sometimes along with a leader-to-leader phone call—in very specific terms. But if the answer is not going to be yes, then the request is never officially lodged.’

Here was Washington making a formal alliance request in a way that produced a rare formal response from Australia: No.

The surprise lens offers the view that Canberra’s response was about more than war fighting—it was about how the great and powerful friend should treat a close ally.

Amid all the other currents, no great harm done from the two surprises. Do better next time.

The unusual sight of Australia saying ‘No’ provided one filter for Turnbull’s pilgrimage to the White House, with much textual analysis devoted to his Washington speech, ‘Australia and the United States: New responsibilities for an enduring partnership’.

The ‘enduring partnership’ title meant Turnbull stood in line with every Australian leader since Curtin and Menzies.

It’s hard to salute and embrace at the same time. Yet for Australian leaders in Washington, it’s the standard gesture.

Despite Turnbull’s enduring partnership usage, analysts detected change.

James Curran saw a shift beyond the ‘faint whiff of uncritical subservience’ of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott that exemplified an ‘extraordinary bipartisan intensity’ in the alliance that had distorted how Australia presents itself to the region and the world:

‘Turnbull’s speech in Washington may very well have exhibited a difference in degree rather than kind in terms of alliance rhetoric, but that fits perfectly the current moment. It is a time for shades of grey, not thunderous absolutes.’

One of Canberra’s wise owls, Allan Gyngell, also noted the ‘absence of absolutes’ in the speech.

When using lenses, beware the distortions of magnification. Don’t read too much into one speech.

So the commentary that got it into one phrase, for me, was Bruce Grant’s judgement that Turnbull ‘showed flickers of independence.’

Flicker is about right. And in the White Paper next month the flicker will be invisible amongst the alliance love.

The Turnbull embrace of the alliance will be as fervent as all the official statements that went before—the White Papers of Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd and Gillard.

Expect the classic Canberra signal to the US where history and politics meet the alliance—the simultaneous salute and embrace.