When two Australian Ministers travel to the US at such an uncertain and volatile time in history, it says something about the strength and significance of the relationship between the United States and Australia.
This week, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds traveled to Washington D.C for the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations. AUSMIN provides a principal bilateral forum to discuss approaches on major global and regional political issues and cooperate on foreign security and defence. Notably, Marise and Linda are the first members of the Australian executive to travel overseas since Australia borders closed in March.
While other American allies have declined the Trump administration’s request to resume in-person meetings, suggesting instead to delay appointments or hold conferences virtually, the effort made by Payne and Reynolds to attend AUSMIN in Washington D.C demonstrates the level of priority that the Australian government places on the bilateral relationship.
A hallmark of the Trump Administration has been the trade war against Beijing. Trump has clashed with Beijing over numerous issues including Huawei, unfair trading practices and China’s cyber warfare. COVID-19, has only agitated tensions further with the US strongly criticising China for its mismanagement of the pandemic which has taken the lives of 150,000 Americans to date, destroyed the US economy and severely harmed Trump’s re-election prospects. Throughout this time, members of the Trump Administration such as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo have rallied for their partners to take a unified stand with them against China.
Australia, a small population in the Indo-Pacific region of the world has managed to live up to this call by confronting the challenge of an increasingly belligerent China. Australia was the first among the international community to call for an inquiry into the mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, a move that deeply angered and offended China. Despite relentless economic threats and bullying from Beijing, the Australian government also declared that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were illegal. Further, in response to China’s new security laws in Hong Kong which seek to undermine the human rights protections of Hong Kong citizens, Australia suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offered citizenship to dissidents.
Australia has shown that when it counts, it is not afraid to stand up for its values and choose a side. For decades, politicians, diplomats and scholars have stressed the difficult decision Australia will be forced to make due to its strong trade with China and military alliance with the United States as tensions between the countries reach an inevitable boiling point. While it is early days, it appears the choice has not been as difficult as some presumed. Australia has chosen to uphold its values and stand by its closest ally, despite the obvious risk of economic reprisal.
The AUSMIN meeting between the respective foreign and defence ministers – Mike Pompeo, Mark Esper, Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds went beyond the usual formalities as both countries are deeply engaged and committed to the challenge presented by China. The US acknowledged Australia’s bravery in standing up to China’s threats and utilised the opportunity to model the AUS-US alliance, juxtaposing Australia’s support with the tepid support it has received from some of its other allies.
A commitment to stick closest when times are tough is the true test of any relationship. This year, Australia and America have continuously proven that the relationship is far more than mateship or an obligatory tradition, it is a world-class model of an alliance which is above personalities and greater than the challenges of the day.
Australia is a middle economic power in the Indo-Pacific, geographically distanced from Europe and the US. Regardless of its relatively small population and military, Australia has galvanised international attention and support regarding its recent call for an international inquiry into the coronavirus. In Australian colloquial terms, the nation is ‘punching above its weight’ to pursue their own interests through advancing global cooperation. Though Australia faces increasingly tense relations with China, this reality has not prevented Australian officials from taking a stand on the world stage to criticise Beijing for its management of the coronavirus. This week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged the international community to support an inquiry into the origins and transmission of COVID in addition to the WHO’s response.
China, fearing that such an investigation would harm its international reputation has responded to Australia’s suggestion for an independent investigation with threats of economic coercion. Chinese ambassador to Australia Jingye Cheng has threatened a freeze on tourists and students coming to Australia and a boycott on Australian beef and wine. While it would be easy for Australian officials to scale back their rhetoric in light of Beijing’s bullying tactics, Australia continues to remain vocal on the international stage, presenting a compelling case for the inquiry. At this early stage, Australia’s efforts appear to be successful in gaining international recognition with recent support pledged from the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
Australia is a regional power with global interests. Pursuing this inquiry is within our national interest as we seek to uphold international rules and norms of transparency and rule of law. An international community which respects these values and has international institutions which support integrity and facts over politics enables peace and prosperity to flourish among nations. The COVID inquiry will help to achieve this vision by seeking to uncover the truth amidst a sea of informational warfare. It will hold China accountable for their negligent handling of the coronavirus and set a clear standard for China’s future cooperation, forcing them and others to think twice before censoring critical health information and delaying international coordination. The inquiry will also uncover problems with the World Health Organisation’s response to this pandemic, a needed step to ensure the institution can develop clearer guidelines and international expectations for dealing with future international health risks.
Australia’s announcement to pursue the COVID inquiry follows in the footsteps of the successful Australian-led MH17 inquiry. In the aftermath of a transnational tragedy, Australia capitalised its seat on the UN security council by introducing resolution 2166, leading the international community’s response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The binding UN resolution called for a ‘full, thorough and independent investigation’ into the crash and demanded military actives in the area cease to enable site access. Through active and determined diplomacy, Australia put vital pressure on those who controlled the crash site to allow access for investigators and for the victims to be repatriated and returned to their loved ones. Australia’s leadership from the downing of MH17 to the coronavirus pandemic indicates a promising pattern of behaviour emerging within Australian Foreign Policy. Australia is filling a US leadership void and acting independently to help maintain regional peace and security.
Australia’s foreign policy is predominately focused on the Indo-Pacific region. Australia seeks to increase the stability, prosperity and health within Pacific nations and such objectives will likely be advanced due to a COVID inquiry into the WHO. The WHO works to advance public health infrastructure within the Pacific. It is for this reason that Australia has not followed the US to halt the organisation’s funding as this would unnecessarily hurt the people we seek to empower most through Australian aid. Advocating for an inquiry on the other hand provides a more nuanced policy approach. Australia can criticise the inadequacy of the WHO’s response, demanding a higher standard for future compliance, whilst continuing to support the organisation’s valuable work within the Pacific. An inquiry into the management of COVID will help to ensure that the future work of the WHO is more transparent and therefore more effective at managing future health risks through improving infrastructure and resilience among vulnerable states.
Furthermore, an inquiry provides an opportunity for Australia to differentiate itself from China as a partner of choice for future trade and development partnerships within the Pacific. Over the course of the past decade, China has increased its presence in the Pacific providing new opportunities for the Pacific to participate in the Belt in Road Initiative and accept concessional loans to grow their economies. Australia now faces exceptional competition with China, particularly in the area of development. By standing up to China and exposing their negligent management of this pandemic, Australia is presenting a strong case for why it should continue to be a partner of choice in the Pacific. Australia’s display of leadership has outlined its priorities for transparency and international cooperation while exposing the risks associated with participating in trade and accepting development from China.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on Australia’s ability to lead the international community and contribute to global stability and prosperity. As a regional power, it is within Australia’s interests to hold states accountable for their disruptive actions and to build international institutions that promote transparency and integrity. In a time of great pessimism and uncertainty, Australia’s recent leadership provides hope for an international system more committed to truth, transparency and cooperation.
The enduring alliance with the United States remains Australia’s most important defence relationship. Close economic and cultural ties between the nations also continue to flourish and significantly benefit Australia and the US. The historic US-Australia partnership is unique, resilient and enviable among other nations.
Former Australian prime ministers Malcom Fraser, Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating have each consistently argued for a recalibration of our alliance with the United States. Fraser, a former Liberal prime minister who passed away in 2015, was a major critic of Australia’s military alliance with the US and the implications for our relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Fraser called for Australia to forge an independent strategic posture apart from the US, arguing that the defence risks of our close relationship with the US outweighed any possible benefits. Likewise, previous Labor prime ministers Rudd and Keating have both asserted a need to scale back our alliance with the US government, in favour of stronger relationships within Asia.
Though the positions of these outspoken former prime ministers might indicate division within Australian foreign policy community, our most recent Foreign Policy or Defence White Papers reflect the Morrison Government’s clear commitment to deepening Australia’s long-standing alliance with the United States and keeping this relationship at the centre of Australian security.
Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a robust relationship underpinned by shared democratic values, common interests and strong cultural affinities. The US-Australia partnership is formally recognised in the ANZUS treaty, which has seen significant military coordination between the two nations. The relationship extends much further, however, securing an economic boost for America and Australia and a wealth of cultural exchanges in areas such as health, science and education. For these reasons, Australia should continue to foster and strengthen close cooperation with the United States to secure a safe, prosperous and enlightened future for our country.
Defence and Security
The history of Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a close military alliance which has served both American and Australian national interests. The ANZUS Treaty, concluded in 1951, is Australia’s foremost security treaty alliance. While the ANZUS Treaty was created in the wake of World War II when the risk of invasion from Japan was still live in our collective memory, our military relationship has since deepened due to the ANZUS Treaty and ensures that Australia continues to develop its military alongside the strongest in the world. The US-Australia Force Posture Agreement signed in 2014 and the 2015 Joint Statement on Defence Cooperation have instructed the annual rotation of US Marines to Darwin and enhanced rotations of US aircraft to Australia. The Talisman Saber is a biennial military endeavour between the two militaries, enhancing our respective combat readiness and interoperability of our forces. This project reflects the progressive, forward- thinking military relationship that America and Australia have managed to create that is responsive to modern security threats.
Our relationship with the strongest military in the world provides Australia with privileged access to information and high-end military equipment. This has allowed Australians to foil at least a dozen domestic terrorist plots since 2014, break up transnational crime networks, and stop money laundering and illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people. Our military alliance with the US assists the Australian Defence Force as it responds to security threats and provides an added edge for us within the Pacific region. As China continues to rise, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda, the muscle of the US Armed Forces can be leveraged as a counter-balance to China and shape a stable, prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Australia is a small population, with limited military force in a culturally diverse region. For this reason, it is important that hubris does not stain foreign policy, leading us to think we are better or more powerful than we really are. Our military relationship with the United States has ensured that Australia remains a secure, free and open state in a region where this is not the status quo.
Trade and Investment
Australia and the United States are not only strong military allies. Our economic partnership is critical to our interests. While Australia’s trade relationships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, has lead to unprecedented growth and prosperity, the United States remains Australia’s most indispensable economic partner. Our economic relationship encompasses extensive two-way investment supporting production, growth and jobs in both countries. The United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has served as the basis of our bilateral trade relationship since the agreement came into effect on January 1, 2005. Under the FTA, all tariffs have been eliminated for products exported from the United States to Australia. The FTA has led to the growth of trade and investment in both countries. The United States is the largest foreign direct investor in Australia, accounting for nearly 25 per cent of foreign investment – more than the next two countries – Japan and the UK – combined. The foreign capital provided by the United States is a crucial driver of employment, economic growth, and also the ability to export. Ultimately, foreign investment facilitates Australia’s trading relationships by providing the necessary capital and know-how for production of goods and services.
Innovation and Cultural Exchange
Australia and the US have successfully established and maintained partnerships that benefit both states. As part of the Australian National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Australian government has established a ‘Landing Pad’ in San Francisco to facilitate cooperation by US and Australian entrepreneurs. Australian scientists, researchers, and innovators enjoy maximum access to America’s world-class innovation ecosystem, and US academics and researchers travel to Australia to share their findings and learn from Australian counterparts. US and Australian government agencies also work together to advance global environmental goals. Zoos and universities in the United States and Australia are working collaboratively to save threatened species, such as the iconic Tasmanian Devil.
The United States and Australia also share best practices, personnel, and technology and equipment to combat wildland fires. In 2017 Wildland Fire Management Agreement was signed, building on 15 years of close collaboration. The United States and Australia also work together to build and strengthen health system capacities, including addressing antimicrobial resistance, human resources for health, and infrastructure within the Asia Pacific region. A recent example of this strong coordination was demonstrated in a call between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicating plans to coordinate responses to the coronavirus in the Pacific. With President Trump’s recent decision to halt funding to the WHO this may make further funding available to strengthen bilateral and regional health coordination between the United States, Australia and their allies.
A special relationship worth preserving
US presidents and officials have often referred to Australia as America’s closest friend and most trusted ally. This reputation is consistent with the special treatment and benefits Australian’s receive within the United States. For instance, the E3 visa is a United States visa only available to Australian citizens created by an Act of the United States Congress. Approving 10,500 slots for Australians each year, this visa is exceptional and signifies America’s appreciation of our alliance. In 2013, Ireland called for the E3 visa to be shared among Australians and the Irish, but these calls have so far been resisted in Congress. Then-Australian Ambassador Joe Hockey and the Embassy’s congressional liaison team successfully advocated for a change in the language of the first version of the proposed E3 amendment to ensure this outcome. Australia succeeded in Congress because of our historical defence bond and strong relationship with America.
Nonetheless, the narrative that Australia must choose between China and the United States has gained considerable traction in the media in recent years. At the heart of the story is the notion that Australia is economically beholden to China—a perception that China encourages. While there is no denying that escalating competition between China and the United States carries risks, Australia can continue to enjoy a strong, multifaceted partnership with the US whilst trading with China. The argument that Australia is at a cross-roads and somehow at the behest of China is weakened by the fact that China and the US have closer economic independence than China and Australia. Australia’s significant trade with China provides few, if any channels for the PRC to coerce Australia economically. The Chinese are not purchasing Australian commodities because they want to cultivate a friendship or drive a wedge between Australia and the United States. We are a supplier of choice to the Chinese as we have proven ourselves to be an efficient and reliable supplier by international standards. If China does not buy our commodities, someone else will. Research by Shiro Armstrong on the China–Japan relationship—a relationship marked by deep mistrust and periodic heightened tensions concluded that “trade has not been diminished or disturbed by politics to a significant extent”.
If Japan and a host of other countries in our region including South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan can enjoy growing trade with China while maintaining a strategic relationship with the US, surely Australia can do the same. Australia’s foreign policy debate needs to progress beyond an unhelpful focus on binary alignment choices toward a deeper dialogue about the practical challenges that China’s influence poses for alliance management. In saying this, it would be beneficial for the US and Australia to build a more resilient coalition where we discuss areas of divergence in our approach to China. This will secure productive, US-Australia relations and a united front on future foreign policy.
Shared history, values, and prosperity have allowed the US-Australia alliance to thrive for the better part of a century, furthering both states militarily, economically and culturally. It is within our interests to maintain and grow the US-Australia partnership to ensure both nations can work together to tackle geo-political challenges with force and unity.