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AUSMIN sets the stage for Morrison's White House visit

By Michael Shoebridge

Four clear themes emerged from last weekend’s AUSMIN talks between US and Australian foreign and defence ministers. Australia will join efforts to protect Gulf shipping; American long-range missiles won’t be based in Australia any time soon; the alliance is being re-energised through initiatives that are good for our economies and our security, but Australia still has some way to go squaring the circle of our China policy.

The scene is now set for Scott Morrison’s state visit to Washington...

The scene is now set for Scott Morrison’s state visit to Washington in September. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Espers joined in a four-voice choir with their Australian counterparts Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds repeating the core approach Australia, the US and other regional partners – notably Japan and India – are taking to change in the region.

We heard a lot about Indo-Pacific prosperity and security, south-east Asian engagement, the Pacific Step Up, and global terrorism. Iran’s threat to freedom of navigation and trade affecting oil shipments through the Gulf also came up. Linda Reynolds’ “very serious consideration” to a US request to help protect shipping in the Gulf signals that Scott Morrison will use his White House visit to tell Donald Trump Australia will join this international effort.

Pompeo, Payne, Espers and Reynolds declared  “our alliance today is more vital than ever”, with “the Indo-Pacific region the clear, shared focus”. Their communique “expressed serious concerns at continued militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea. They strongly objected to coercive unilateral actions by any claimant state.” It also “expressed concern about the potential establishment of new military bases that could undermine stability and sovereignty in the Indo-Pacific region”, mentioning Cambodia.

Why might the Australia-US alliance be “more vital than ever”? Who is doing all these things to generate these concerns?

While Australian ministers find it far harder to say the “China” word in public than their US counterparts, Mark Espers’ first words when briefing journalists on his way to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mongolia and Korea were a reminder that the US “is now in an era of great power competition. And our strategic competitors are China and Russia, principally in that order.”

Similarly, at his Centre for Independent Studies outing, Mike Pompeo was grilled about one topic: China – US-China relations, Australia-China relations, China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, intellectual property theft by China, foreign investment in the US and Australia by China, and Hugh White’s views on China.

So, the underlying direction of joint Australian-US work in the Indo-Pacific is obvious. And there’s a refreshing shift from the simple, false binary debate here in Australia – which characterises our US relationship as all about security, and our China relationship as all about economics.

The four US and Australian leaders set out a re-energised agenda for the alliance that is about both security and economics. It won’t include US missiles on Australian soil any time soon. Linda Reynolds confirmed she had asked Mark Espers directly whether Australia might expect a US request. The answer was a simple “No”. US missiles are more useful based closer to China. Missiles based in Australia would probably need to be Australian missiles.

This AUSMIN gathering planted some new seeds for co-operation. Australia and the US will “build resilience in sensitive areas of our respective economies, including critical technologies, infrastructure, systems and minerals”. There’ll be a Critical Minerals Dialogue, no doubt focused on rare earths. And we can expect co-operation to include 5G communications and other digital technologies that will power our smart cities and infrastructure.

Australia and the US will co-operate to “safeguard supply chains”...

Australia and the US will co-operate to “safeguard supply chains” to our militaries. These start with research in our universities, so this is a hopeful initiative for ensuing powerful new technologies find their way to our own defence forces, not to those of the People’s Liberation Army.

Meanwhile, Australia’s trade minister has continued his calls for an early end to the US-China trade dispute, and talked breathlessly about deepening technological co-operation with China – apparently by Australia using “historical comparative advantages to applying a new domain of technology spheres” (!). Simon Birmingham will need to start mentioning some boundaries to these new fields of dreams if he’s to have credibility in both Beijing and Washington.

It will be important to realise the economic promise of growing Australia-US two-way trade and two-way investment for Australian ministers across economic and security portfolios to get the story straight and avoid this kind of mixed message.

Doing so can unlock opportunities for Australian and US companies in areas such as infrastructure, cyber security, high technology and for our universities and research organisations. After agreeing on Gulf patrols, if AUSMIN is anything to go on, it will be these opportunities that will be the focus when Scott Morrison meets Donald Trump.

Originally published by: Australian Financial Review on 06 Aug 2019