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Widening the alliance while retaining focus: foreign policy at AUSMIN 2023

Posted By on July 25, 2023 @ 14:00

The Australia–US Ministerial Meeting (AUSMIN), an annual 2+2 meeting between foreign and defence ministers held nearly without fail [1] since 1985, is referred to officially [2] as ‘the primary forum at which Australia and the United States set the strategic direction for our Alliance’.

AUSMIN 2023 will take place this weekend in Brisbane against the backdrop of Exercise Talisman Sabre [3], which Defence Minister Richard Marles and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will head on to north Queensland to observe parts of. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s counterpart, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, arrives in Brisbane [4] via Tonga, where he is opening a new embassy in Nuku’alofa, and New Zealand, where he will snatch time outside ministerial meetings to watch the US team play in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The media’s gaze will inevitably be drawn to the exciting military optics around Talisman Sabre, including the whereabouts of Chinese surveillance ships [5]. Equally, the joint announcements at AUSMIN on deepening the defence component [6] of the Australia–US alliance will probably garner more attention than foreign policy outputs.

But AUSMIN is a 2+2 meeting because the Australia–US alliance is most effective when defence and diplomacy work in lockstep. That synergy is encapsulated in the concept of statecraft [7]—the coordinated use of all levers of power in pursuit of national objectives—which Wong adopted in opposition [8] and has inserted into the heart of Australian strategy.

In its response to the defence strategic review [9], the government tasked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade ‘to lead a whole-of-government statecraft effort in the Indo-Pacific’. With intentional choreography, Wong announced the goal of Australian statecraft [10] in a speech at the National Press Club days before the review was published:

We deploy our own statecraft toward shaping a region that is open, stable and prosperous. A predictable region, operating by agreed rules, standards and laws. Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated. A region where sovereignty is respected, and all countries benefit from a strategic equilibrium.

We can expect similar language in the AUSMIN joint statement. But talk of an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific is familiarly boilerplate. To cut through to regional ears, Wong has said that AUSMIN this year will broaden to integrate emerging technologies, the clean-energy transition and the essential role of critical minerals. This reflects the agreement [11] between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Tokyo in May that climate and energy would form a third pillar of the bilateral alliance, alongside security and economic cooperation.

This is a logical application of statecraft, given the importance of these sectors to national power and regional priorities. Critical minerals provides a particularly good example of an area in which Australia can make an outsized contribution to the resilience of the US alliance and the region, as Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Madeleine King told ASPI’s Darwin Dialogue [12] in April.

While we can expect AUSMIN announcements on climate and energy, the acid test for widening the alliance will be showing that Wong and Blinken can apply statecraft across portfolios beyond their direct control, overcoming the iron laws of bureaucratic politics that tend towards stovepiping and inertia. That remains harder while Canberra lacks a cross-government national security strategy—a gap that next year’s inaugural national defence strategy is ill-shaped to plug.

While it’s impractical to expand AUSMIN to include more principals, there need to be complementary mechanisms for ministers covering briefs like economics and home affairs to contribute. This is even more important in the US, given the size of its government and the bureaucratic weight of departments like Commerce and Justice.

It’s also essential that widening the alliance doesn’t come at the expense of its core purposes, which are collective security through the ANZUS Treaty and a joint platform to speak plainly and truthfully about international threats. AUSMIN is not and should not try to resemble a forum like the Quad, which eschews a formal defence role and focuses its public messaging on a positive vision for the region. The Australia–US alliance is and needs to remain hardboiled in outlook and rhetoric, which includes pointy language in the AUSMIN communiqué calling out coercion by China, Russia, North Korea and others.

Behind closed doors, the main topic of this AUSMIN will be competing with Beijing and deterring its regional ambitions. Wong and Blinken can compare notes from their respective [13] meetings [14] in Jakarta this month with Wang Yi, who directs the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign affairs apparatus and outranks [15] the elusive foreign minister, Qin Gang.

The Goldilocks point in statecraft towards China is signalling unity, resolve and capability to Beijing on the one hand, while reassuring the region that a robust Australia–US alliance will mitigate, not exacerbate, the risk of war. To that end, we can expect the AUSMIN principals to focus on crisis management through the establishment of ‘guardrails [16]’, which are intended to prevent accidents or miscalculation from escalating into conflict. Recent Chinese brinkmanship [17], such as the unsafe manoeuvre by a Chinese destroyer monitoring US and Canadian warships in the Taiwan Strait in June, serves as a timely reminder of the importance of these measures.

Despite Blinken reporting [18] some progress from his trip to Beijing in June, China continues to withhold tangible measures like hotlines and military-to-military talks. This is not just because Chinese leaders relish rebuffing their US counterparts. They are also unwilling to concede that all countries have a legitimate stake in what Beijing misrepresents as its ‘internal affairs’, like the stability of the Taiwan Strait. And they want the US and others to curb the legal exercise of free overflight and passage through the region for fear of uncontrollable escalation if Beijing provokes an incident.

Wong has used her own channels to Chinese counterparts to urge progress on Beijing–Washington guardrails. But as China continues to drag its feet, AUSMIN is an opportunity for Wong to brainstorm some alternative ways forward. A wider range of countries, including in Southeast Asia, need to persuade Beijing to come to the table [19] on risk-reduction measures, remaining clear that it is the Chinese side holding this up. Although Beijing won’t regard Australia as an honest broker, Canberra has an important role to play in influencing Washington and quietly building consensus among partners, as Prime Minister Robert Menzies did during the First Taiwan Strait Crisis [20] in the 1950s.

The broadening of the Australia–US alliance that Wong will lead at this AUSMIN is timely and intelligent statecraft, provided it doesn’t come at the expense of the format’s focus and incisive public messaging. Behind closed doors, this AUSMIN is an opportunity to leverage some middle-power agency: speaking bravely and carrying a big idea.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/widening-the-alliance-while-retaining-focus-foreign-policy-at-ausmin-2023/

URLs in this post:

[1] held nearly without fail: https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/united-states-of-america/ausmin/ausmin-fact-sheet-dates-and-locations

[2] referred to officially: https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/penny-wong/media-release/australia-united-states-ministerial-consultations

[3] Exercise Talisman Sabre: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/media-releases/2023-07-21/official-opening-exercise-talisman-sabre

[4] arrives in Brisbane: https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-trip-to-tonga-new-zealand-and-australia/

[5] Chinese surveillance ships: https://news.usni.org/2023/07/21/chinese-spy-ship-off-coast-of-australia-as-talisman-sabre-exercise-begins#:~:text=A%20Chinese%20surveillance%20ship%20is,senior%20military%20officer%20announced%20Friday.

[6] deepening the defence component: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/putting-meat-on-the-bones-defence-priorities-at-ausmin-2023/

[7] concept of statecraft: https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-welcome-turn-to-statecraft/

[8] adopted in opposition: https://www.pennywong.com.au/media-hub/speeches/expanding-australia-s-power-and-influence-speech-to-the-national-security-college-australian-national-university-canberra-23-11-2021/

[9] defence strategic review: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/reviews-inquiries/defence-strategic-review

[10] the goal of Australian statecraft: https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/penny-wong/speech/national-press-club-address-australian-interests-regional-balance-power

[11] agreement: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/alliance-our-times#:~:text=We%2C%20Prime%20Minister%20Albanese%20and,respect%2C%20friendship%20and%20shared%20sacrifice.

[12] told ASPI’s Darwin Dialogue: https://www.minister.industry.gov.au/ministers/king/speeches/speech-aspi-darwin-dialogue

[13] respective: https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/penny-wong/media-release/meeting-chinas-director-office-central-commission-foreign-affairs-wang-yi

[14] meetings: https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-meeting-with-peoples-republic-of-china-prc-director-of-the-ccp-central-foreign-affairs-office-wang-yi-2/

[15] outranks: https://www.economist.com/china/2023/07/20/chinas-foreign-minister-goes-missing

[16] guardrails: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-importance-of-guardrails-in-us-china-relations/

[17] brinkmanship: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/us-china-cold-war-lesson-apply-rules-road-sea

[18] reporting: https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-visit-to-the-peoples-republic-of-china-prc/

[19] persuade Beijing to come to the table: https://www.afr.com/policy/foreign-affairs/why-china-relations-need-the-guardrails-on-them-20230412-p5czyb

[20] during the First Taiwan Strait Crisis: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/taiwan-flashpoint-what-australia-can-do-stop-coming-taiwan-crisis

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