‘Unbreakable’ alliance: ambassador says US is here to stay

Washington’s ambassador to Australia, Arthur Culvahouse, has used a speech to ASPI to stress the strength of the alliance with the United States and to reject suggestions that China and America are involved in a new cold war.

Ambassador Culvahouse said the view of Americans he’d spoken to, including the president, vice president, secretary of state and defense secretary, was that the US commitment to Australia was incredibly strong.

‘Let me assure you that the United States is a Pacific nation that is here to stay, and that our Alliance with Australia is indeed unbreakable,’ he said in an address to an ASPI seminar on Wednesday.

‘We’re Pacific nations. We care deeply about what happens here and we’re here to stay. We’re both continental democracies and champions for the rule of law and human rights. And we’re both nations of strivers and innovators. We believe that everyone deserves a fair go, and that by working hard and playing by the rules, everyone should have a fair shot at prosperity.

‘These are the values that make the US–Australia alliance unbreakable and will carry it into our next century of partnership.’

Culvahouse said Australia could always rely on the US, and so could the rest of the Indo-Pacific region. The pivot to the Pacific was a reality.

He rejected suggestions that the US and China were involved in a new cold war and recalled serving in the Reagan White House and taking part in evacuation drills where he had five minutes to get onto a helicopter in the event of a nuclear attack. That was a ‘long, tough slog, an expensive and dangerous situation’ and anyone who lived through it was not looking for a new cold war at all, the ambassador said.

The US preference was to engage with China but it also had to call out malign conduct where it appeared.

Culvahouse said regional nations were not being asked to choose between the US and China. ‘That’s not how we operate. As the president has made clear, we seek a constructive relationship with China where our prosperity and security grow together, not apart. Indeed, we would welcome China to get onside and join the US, Australia and the other nations in efforts to create the conditions for rules-based growth in the region.’

But the US, Australia and other Pacific nations also agreed it was important to shine a spotlight on bad behaviour, however and wherever it occurred.

‘That includes speaking out in defence of democracy in Hong Kong and calling out the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against its own citizens, including detaining hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.’

It also meant standing up for freedom of navigation and overflight and condemning China’s militarisation and disruptive activities in the South China Sea, including poaching fisheries belonging to others and disrupting longstanding oil and gas projects.

‘And that includes supporting the pressure campaign against North Korea’s nuclear program,’ the ambassador said. ‘The challenges we face call for strong leadership on behalf of the principles we hold dear.’

Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell gave a similar response to the cold war question, saying the fact that China was America’s largest trading partner made the situation profoundly different from the post–World War II decades of tense strategic rivalry between the Soviet Union and the West. ‘I think there are a lot of options and a lot of space to see better paths emerge,’ General Campbell told the seminar.

The ambassador said the US welcomed Australia’s expanding leadership role in the region.  ‘That’s not only a good thing for the region, but for the world.’

He said the time was right for the US and Australia to do much more together in the region and beyond. ‘Our Indo-Pacific visions are closely entwined, and we support Prime Minister Morrison’s Pacific Step Up program to help Pacific peoples lift living standards, increase their independence and sovereignty over their economic futures, and improve the wellbeing and stability of the region overall.

‘Australia’s $2 billion infrastructure financing initiative for the Pacific is a great, tangible step forward. The US and Australia want our friends to achieve prosperity through responsible economic development, as well as through fair and reciprocal trade and investment.  We’re committed to creating the conditions for that to happen.’

Cooperation with the US and Australia brought mutual benefits, not zero-sum deals and not ‘payday loan diplomacy’ where one side would win big and the others risked losing big.

The ambassador said that along with what he described as the ‘well-established triad’ of Japan, Australia and the United States, there’d been significant, tangible steps towards the Quad with India and the start of positive conversations with other countries in the region.

During consultations in Washington before coming out, he’d heard a lot about the Quad and other partnerships, only to find that what sounded good in concept had yet to take place in reality.

‘Five months later, as our discussions with our Australian counterparts at AUSMIN made clear, now we find that a network of like-minded countries that share our values, principles and vision for the Indo-Pacific region is taking shape.’

Australia did not get enough credit for its leadership in areas where it was out in front of the US and other countries, the ambassador said. ‘And we all need to follow Australia’s lead in safeguarding our 5G networks and taking a hard look at state-sponsored election interference and what Confucius Institutes are really up to on university campuses.’

Gnarly challenges immediately ahead included working out how to stop foreign fighters returning from Syria and setting up camp in Southeast Asia.

Asked how the United States would react if Australia decided it could no longer rely on the American nuclear umbrella and opted to develop its own nuclear weapons, Culvahouse said that was a matter for Australia.

‘But let me also say that our alliance is unbreakable, our commitments to Australia are solid and profound, and I would not be out here unless I believed that. I would not be giving the speeches I’ve been giving unless I believed that.’