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.