21 Sep 2022
Top End holds the key to enhanced AUSMIN strategy
By John Coyne and Justin Bassi
With the final quarter of the year approaching, neither Canberra nor Washington has hinted where and when the 2022 Australia-US Ministerial Consultations will be held. For almost four decades AUSMIN has been the pre-eminent forum for foreign affairs and defence engagement between Australia and the US, and it has played a key role in developing Australia’s security policies on the issues and malign influences facing the nation and the region.
It is not just another talkfest. When it has come to public visibility, however, AUSMIN joint statements and media coverage have been big on ideas but light on detail. This was partly because of the disparity between US power projection, resourcing and capability compared with Australia’s, particularly from the post-9/11 era to the rise of Islamic State in 2014.
Australia played a significant counter-terrorism role but was not equal to that of the US. A document that fully captured the depth of the discussions might have looked too much like a one-sided US statement, reflecting the strategic direction being set overwhelmingly from Washington.
However, with China’s rise and renewed understanding of the importance of technological competition pre and during conflict, the tone of AUSMIN meetings, the topics and associated statements have revealed a partnership far more equal despite resourcing differences. With the shift in geo-strategic power towards Asia, Australia’s advantages at the southern centre of the Indo-Pacific – and the way we are making use of that strength – also have increased our influence.
The Albanese government will look to ensure this balance continues. It is well-placed because it wisely has shown careful calibration of its language and continuity on substantive policy, but it will continue to be tested as new challenges assert themselves, including increased tensions over Taiwan, the focus on China’s actions in the Pacific, the war in Ukraine and Beijing’s “no limits” partnership with Russia.
By 2019, AUSMIN meetings had made the forward-leaning move to shift from countering terrorism to countering foreign interference as the partnership’s priority security concern.
Canberra’s lead role in countering Beijing’s malicious activities and the focus on areas such as 5G, critical technologies and the Indo-Pacific have evened to some extent the balance in AUSMIN between the US as the major power and the importance of a proactive Australia in the region.
The bureaucratic communiques that took a long time to say little turned into statements of substance that revealed core threats and opportunities facing both nations. Last year’s statement, for instance, contained the most robust language about Taiwan, with both sides stating their intent to strengthen ties with “a leading democracy and a critical partner for both countries”.
It is Australia’s turn to host AUSMIN – the first in Australia since 2019 because of Covid-19 – though a third in a row in the US remains possible. To emphasise the importance and immediacy of our geo-strategic interests, the government, should it host AUSMIN, should use its home-ground advantage to ensure the meeting conveys our perspectives on the Pacific and Southeast Asia to the US, and guides where the US puts its focus amid intensifying and competing demands.
In that spirit Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles should consider hosting AUSMIN, or part of it, in Darwin. Australia’s north is key economic, geographic and cultural terrain in the Indo-Pacific. Our sovereign control over our north increases Australia’s role and influence in AUSMIN and the region like never before.
The 2020 Defence Strategic Update made it clear that northern Australia remained critical to national security. Last year’s AUSMIN joint statement prioritised enhanced force posture co-operation – such as the rotation of US marines – for continued expansion. A Darwin-based AUSMIN would reinforce the decision made 10 years ago by Julia Gillard as prime minister for Australia to host a rotational US military presence in northern Australia focused on enhancing the alliance.
Long before the arrival of Europeans, northern Australia was a place of connection for Australia’s Indigenous people with the region and that’s even more so today. The world’s largest Papuan expatriate population resides in Cairns. Large East Timorese and Indonesian diasporas live and work in Darwin. Pacific Islanders visit Australia’s northern cities and towns for medical treatment, education, work and training.
Australia’s north is a food bowl for the Indo-Pacific, with a range of exports, including beef to Indonesia. It’s a source of energy for the wider Indo-Pacific. The regular departure of liquefied natural gas tankers from Darwin to Japan demonstrates Australia’s deep connections to the Indo-Pacific.
The development of Sun Cable, the world’s largest solar energy infrastructure, is equally symbolic of our private sector’s commitment to renewable energy and the region. The US government also is investing in northern Australia’s infrastructure, including liquid fuel storage, which would help boost Australia’s self-reliance.
Our government’s AUSMIN focus will be on representing Australia’s economic and national security interests. This would emphasise Australian sovereignty within the alliance context and send messages to the US and the region about the strategic context, along with our national priorities and intentions. Indonesia, among others, will appreciate transparency even if the focus is on how to manage a deteriorating security environment. Such clarity from Australia would reflect continuity of focus from the Republican-led 2020 AUSMIN through the 2021 Democrat-led event.
Australia must pursue national resilience and sovereignty. The US remains our most important security partner, with our relationship continuing to help ensure our independence, not undermine it.