Tough messages needed at AUSMIN
21 Nov 2013|

Secretary of State John F. Kerry confers with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Australia’s new Foreign and Defence Ministers will sit down for the first time with their US counterparts in Washington on Wednesday (Thursday morning Australian time) at the annual AUSMIN consultations. Julie Bishop and David Johnston, along with John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, will say that the alliance relationship is strong and that the two countries have many strategic interests in common.

The reality is that Canberra and Washington each harbour doubts about the other’s strength of commitment to alliance cooperation. Both countries should use AUSMIN to assure themselves that they really are committed to current plans increasing defence engagement.

All four political leaders have changed since the previous AUSMIN in Perth in November last year.  Then, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, two of the Obama Administration’s most assured performers, met Bob Carr and Stephen Smith. The Perth meeting made for strange political theatre. Carr and Smith chose to downplay significant boosts to defence cooperation involving a growing US Marine and Air Force presence in Northern Australia.

New cooperation on monitoring missile and satellite movements in space was quickly passed over in the Australian minister’s eagerness to hold a low-key, business-as-usual meeting. While Clinton and Panetta enthused about major steps forward in cooperation, Carr fretted ‘there’s no news in this communiqué that would surprise China or any other nation in the region’.

The oddity of the Perth meeting was that it made some important steps forward in alliance cooperation which the Labor ministers wanted to understate, not least out of concern to avoid a negative reaction in Beijing. By contrast, this week’s AUSMIN in Washington is likely to be warmer on alliance rhetoric while actually having less substance to offer. Australia’s change of government and Obama’s limping start to his second term have meant that the focus on practical cooperation has drifted.

This AUSMIN meeting can play a useful role if it allows both countries to have a frank, closed-door discussion about the worries each has over alliance cooperation.  Key concerns are defence spending, strategic priorities after Afghanistan and the agenda for practical defence cooperation and military acquisitions.

Australian ministers should be in no-doubt that Washington is unimpressed by Canberra’s performance on defence spending. In a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last week, Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson captured the reality of defence spending in his own pithy way: ‘No sooner had [the 2009 Defence White Paper] been announced and ‘sold’ within the Department when broader fiscal measures not only led to a moving of the goal posts but to their cutting down for use as firewood’.

The Abbott government has promised a return to defence growth with the aim of spending 2% of GDP on defence in a decade. The more immediate reality is that deeper cuts and efficiencies will force unwelcome choices on the Government. In the next defence White Paper review, Tony Abbott will have no choice other than to cut Army battalions, ship and aircraft acquisitions unless spending growth happens soon.

From Washington’s perspective, Australian defence spending is below the critical acceptable minimum needed to sustain effective alliance cooperation. But worries about defence spending cut both ways. Australia should make plain its own concerns about the impact of sequestration cuts on US defence spending.

There’s a critical difference, though, between the two countries’ defence spending dilemmas. In 2012, US military spending was US$645 billion (4.12% of GDP). In the same year, Australia’s AUS$24.2 billion spend was 1.63% of GDP. The bottom line is that the US can afford to make defence spending cuts, especially after the massive increases that followed the 9/11 terror attacks. By contrast there’s little fat left in Australia’s minimal defence spending effort.

After spending, strategic priorities will be the next source of concern. Australia worries that Obama’s rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific has run out of steam. John Kerry’s key focus has been on Syria, Iran and a faltering attempt to restart the Middle-East peace process. President Obama’s non-attendance at the Bali APEC summit last month may well have been for compelling domestic political reasons, but his absence damaged the credibility of US policy in Asia and left the region fretting about American commitment.

For its part, US officials who follow Australian policy worry that our military withdrawals from Timor Leste, Solomon Islands and Afghanistan point to an introspective mood. Does Australia remain willing to play our part in regional military contingencies? Both countries need to use AUSMIN to reassure each other that the key objective of rebalancing strategic priority to the Asia-Pacific remains on track.

The AUSMIN meeting should reaffirm US and Australian commitments to boost cooperation with the US Marines and Air Force in the North and with maritime forces the Indian Ocean Region. The strategic need for this cooperation has only increased since President Obama announced his ‘pivot’ to Asia in Canberra late in 2011. Now comes the gritty task of finding the dollars to build the infrastructure to support a larger US presence. Both countries must pay up or risk looking like they are failing to back the rhetoric with practical action.

Peter Jennings is Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.