Will the lucky ally become the ambitious ally?

What do President Donald Trump and ‘America First’ mean for AUSMIN—the upcoming annual meeting between Australian and US defence ministers Marise Payne and Jim Mattis, and foreign ministers Julie Bishop and Mike Pompeo? What should Australia’s agenda be for the meeting?

Trump’s 17 months in office have shown that he’s consistent in his long-held views about international relationships and alliances. We saw that most recently at the Singapore summit, when he unilaterally froze US–ROK military exercises to please his new friend Kim Jong-un.

The recent G7 meeting, complete with post-meeting tweets, was an even clearer demonstration that Trump sees and treats his allies and partners as supplicants and economic adversaries, not long-term friends who enhance America’s global power and influence.

The easy approach for ministers Payne and Bishop to take is Australia as the ‘lucky ally’. We’ve been blessed with not being a large enough economy to be in the G7. We run a trade deficit with the US, so, unlike those who run a trade surplus, we’re not ‘robbing’ our ally. And, apart from a moment early in the new administration when it looked like Trump would welsh on an Obama–Turnbull refugee deal, we’ve done nothing to cause the Donald to pay attention.

Staying the ‘lucky country’ in this view means behaving like one of our $200-billion future submarines—running silent and deep to avoid damage from incoming fire and avoiding sea mines. Let’s have photos with smiles and handshakes and let’s talk in nostalgic ways about our 100 years of mateship, forged on the battlefields of two world wars and grown since the formal start of our alliance in 1951. You can hear the speeches from here. Moving but a little empty.

That approach would leave the alliance on autopilot at a time of rapid change in Australia’s and the US’s strategic environments, driven by two things: the rise of the Chinese state as an aggressive and active user of coercive economic and military power, and rapid technological change. Either we take advantage of this technological change to build our future military capability edge, or, left unaddressed, we lose this strategic advantage, with fundamental negative implications for both countries’ security strategies, our region and the alliance itself.

So, it’s time to be ambitious in what Australia and the US do to build the alliance for the coming decades. An activist and ambitious agenda may even appeal to Trump, as it involves Australians coming forward not with things we’d rather he didn’t do—or at least not to us, or not now—but with ideas about how to strengthen our security and our economic partnership, to the advantage of the US and Australia. A positive agenda will also be useful in weathering Trumpian tweets, by increasing support for the alliance among stakeholders in the wider administration and Congress.

Besides, there’s plenty of room for an activist approach: both the US National Security Strategy and the US National Defense Strategy are strongly supportive of the broader alliance system. We should be forward-leaning on the future role of those alliances—not merely our own, but the suite of alliances that underpin the global order upon which Australia’s security ultimately rests.

An activist agenda for ministers Payne and Bishop to take forward with General Mattis and Secretary Pompeo must deal with the two big drivers in our strategic environment.

On China, we need clarity between us, in ways that then steer our respective policies and actions.

We need to say—privately and publicly—that particular authoritarian states, notably China and Russia, are using their military, intelligence, economic and cyber powers to coerce other nations and are attempting to interfere in the operation of our domestic debates and processes.

In Australia’s case, there’s a strong attachment to the policies of the past: the approach of focusing our relationship with the Chinese state on areas of mutual benefit and not on our differences.

That worked well for both the Chinese state and for Australia when China’s focus was on economic growth and its ‘peaceful rise’. Now that China has risen, it’s beginning to use its power in ways that matter directly to Australia. It’s also using state power internally in repressive ways against its own people, enabled by new technologies and mass data collection. Early experience shows that the Chinese state is willing to be a coercive power whose actions are quite different to its public diplomacy language of ‘win–win’ and non-intervention.

That coercive use of power will only grow if it’s not opposed, called out and frustrated. In the words of the US National Security Strategy, China is a ‘revisionist power’ that’s asserting itself through an all-of-nation long-term strategy.

So, while we can still pursue mutual benefit in many areas of economic cooperation with China, we can no longer ignore the differences between the Chinese state and ourselves—because the differences are becoming starker and the differences matter to our security, our stability and our sovereignty.

We might have two core principles we agree on with our US ally:

  • to engage the Chinese state positively economically and politically, welcoming positive contributions to global prosperity and security
  • to oppose the Chinese state’s development and use of coercive power.

The principles will include careful management of our communication about and with the Chinese state—but we need to recognise that the coercive actions we have begun to see and experience are the problem, not the fact that we have noticed them. This is about much more than adept public diplomacy.

On technology, we need a new approach in partnering with our tech sectors, and we need a new way of bringing high-tech systems into our militaries’ orders of battle. Running our capability development and procurement processes faster through streamlining is fine for big ships, aircraft and submarines, but not for fast-moving new technologies like drones, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology, autonomy and hypersonics. Rapid investment and a short time from idea to fielded system are the defining variables here.

A bigger shift is required, though, in core relationships. Our governments’ relationships with the tech sectors—whether Australia’s smaller tech firms or US giants like Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon— are antagonistic. Wary tech companies seek to limit governments’ reach into them, while governments focus on regulation, privacy protection and compelling companies to cooperate on counterterrorism.

Our governments and our tech sectors need to realise that each depends on the other and this dependency will grow in coming years. Global tech competition—notably the tight, empowering relationship on data that the Chinese state has with its tech sector, and the increasingly close relationship between China’s civil tech sector, its defence sector and its military—is a strategic competition issue that affects the future viability of Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook as much as it does the strategic power of the US and Australia.

So, two big drivers of our strategic environment, with two big agenda items for ministers Payne and Bishop to pursue for the future viability of our alliance with the US. Deal or no deal?