When US officials of the calibre of Pacific Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell say they are worried about Australian defence spending, you can take it as read that they are putting views shared with their bosses, Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton. It’s puzzling that Stephen Smith has so quickly dismissed their comments by saying [here and here] that there’s no American concern about Australian defence spending because he hasn’t heard that personally from Panetta. With AUSMIN to be held in Perth this Wednesday, Mr Smith may need to revise his talking points.
Based on recent visits to the US, I can confirm that a wide range of current and previous administration officials—and others watching the relationship—are worried about Australian policy. Americans are dismayed that there has been such a quick reversal of Australian defence spending plans from 2009 to now. They worry about Australian commentary saying we should distance ourselves from the US in order to get closer to China and are concerned that the Asian Century White Paper, with its cursory treatment of the US, is a big step in that direction. Although they may not bluntly say so, many of the Americans knowledgeable about Australia think that we are ‘off the reservation’ on strategic policy right now.
AUSMIN would therefore be a good opportunity for both parties to reassure each other that they are staying the course on defence cooperation and that spending cuts won’t be allowed to slow or reduce American Marine and Air Force deployments and the other proposed activities announced under the pivot. The elephant in the room just keeps getting bigger the more Mr Smith says that spending cuts are not on the agenda for discussion. The smartest way to deal with that pesky pachyderm is to give him a seat at the table. Rather than hope that Mr Panetta doesn’t raise it, Mr Smith should put spending cuts on the agenda (not that AUSMIN really works that way) in order to explain the situation. That would enable him to reiterate the point about ‘ring-fencing’ spending on alliance cooperation. The AUSMIN Communique could say something like this:
We discussed the impact of fiscal challenges on our respective defence budgets and resolved to ensure that our plans for enhanced alliance cooperation would not be reduced by otherwise necessary spending restraint. We agreed to share our budget strategies so as to develop the best approaches to efficient defence spending. At a time of spending restraint we agreed that our enhanced cooperation is all the more important to promote stability in the Asia-Pacific.
When the first question on defence spending comes at the post AUSMIN media conference, it would be far better to have a statement like that in one’s back pocket than to look blank and deny that the elephant is in the room.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Hawk.