US–Australia talks: relationship returns to ‘normal’

Past communiqués from Australia–US Ministerial Consultations often contained pages on international developments and few ‘action items’ shaping what the US and Australia really do. Wednesday’s joint statement reverses that pattern by offering a long list of practical measures.

This starts with plans to deliver urgent medical equipment and know-how to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and others in a region that looks to be only on the early foothills of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the harder end of the security spectrum, we have a commitment to ‘increased and regularized maritime cooperation’, while the allies ‘strengthened their resolve to support Taiwan’.

Australia is coy about saying it will send ships or aircraft inside Beijing’s South China Sea maritime claims, now described as ‘not valid under international law’. Perhaps we have already done this in recent military exercises. There will be many such opportunities coming up.

What is more important is that Washington and Canberra are letting Beijing know that threats to Taiwan and further adventurism in the South China Sea will be resisted. There will be no repeat of the Obama administration’s dithering over rocks and shoals.

Supporting that allied precision is a list of China’s ‘coercive and destabilizing actions’, ‘disinformation efforts’, ‘campaign of repression of Uyghurs’, undermining of Hong Kong, failure to ‘negotiate in good faith’ on nuclear weapons, intelligence ‘targeting of intellectual property and sensitive business information’ and ‘burdening’ developing countries ‘with unsustainable debt’.

The language is calm but exceptionally pointed. From 5G to freedom of navigation operations, it’s clear that Canberra has thought through its own policy prescriptions. The standard Chinese Communist Party line that we are just following Washington should be dismissed as amateurish propaganda.

Australia and the US are developing closer supply-chain links. Australian rare-earth miner Lynas will receive Pentagon funding to establish a processing plant in Texas. This will reduce American dependence on China for a range of materials critical to defence manufacture: for example, every F-35 contains 418 kilograms of rare-earth materials.

These connections extend into shared research and investment in technology and innovation. Our cash-starved university system should watch this closely as there are financial benefits for universities that sever research links with Beijing and opt instead for a Five Eyes–friendly research environment.

The decision ‘to establish a US-funded commercially operated strategic military fuel reserve in Darwin’ is welcome. The Americans must wonder why we don’t appear to appreciate the strategic value of Darwin as much as they, the Chinese and the Japanese do. No one builds a big petrol station without planning to use it. That suggests we will see significant enhancements to the US Marine Corps presence in northern Australia.

The AUSMIN communiqué reads like a return to ‘normal’ US engagement with friends and allies. There is nothing in it that a Biden administration could not live with. It points to the strength of cooperation between like-minded democracies as the best way to resist a growing authoritarian assault on global norms and human decency.