29 July 2020
Australia’s official advice to all would-be travellers abroad is blunt: “Do not go overseas.” But Australian foreign minister Marise Payne and defence minister Linda Reynolds decided not to heed their own government’s warning, which is posted on the Smartraveller website. Instead, the pair travelled to Washington this week for the annual Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), to meet with their American counterparts, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper. They will enter quarantine for fourteen days when they return home.
The Americans reportedly asked for a face-to-face meeting and Payne and Reynolds agreed. The pair have presented their decision to attend the summit in person as a response to increasing international instability, but it is also a sign that the US–Australia alliance is currently in a state of flux.
Tensions between China and the United States are rising and have worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The outbreak has damaged Donald Trump’s re-election prospects, which has made him more determined to blame China and to place a Washington–Beijing confrontation at the centre of his presidential campaign. Xi Jinping, who is also facing internal criticism and is trying to assuage concerns about China’s worst economic downturn since the 1960s, is keen to appear unyielding, rather than conciliatory.
As the University of Melbourne’s Michael Wesley argues in the new AFA Podcast (to be released on Monday), these increased tensions, combined with China’s strengthening military, are upending the traditional terms of the alliance. Australia is becoming more important to US military planning in the Asia-Pacific region than at any point since the alliance was formed between the two countries almost seventy years ago.
China’s ability to threaten American aircraft-carrier battle groups, for instance, is forcing the United States to rely on military bases spread across the Pacific, including in Australia. This development, says Wesley, was behind Scott Morrison’s announcement in February of a A$1.6 billion upgrade to the Tindal air-force base in the Northern Territory, which will support US air-combat operations.
Canberra is now in an unusual position – it can make demands of Washington and try to set the terms of the alliance. “Australia has got quite a lot of bargaining leverage with the United States, which we’re not using at the moment,” Wesley says. “The United States needs us as it hasn’t needed us for a long time, possibly since the Second World War, and that should be giving us the ability to help shape US strategic thinking in the region.”
This is the real reason that Payne and Reynolds should risk flying to Washington. Rather than seeking another cloying gesture of solidarity and “mateship”, they ought to be trying to talk meaningfully about the future of the US–Australia alliance and the United States’ role in Asia.
The United States is currently pursuing a path of direct confrontation with the Chinese Communist Party. On Friday, Pompeo pledged to form a coalition of democracies to combat Beijing. “The free world must triumph over this new tyranny,” he said. Washington’s conduct is vindicating the inflammatory rhetoric emerging from Beijing, and vice versa.
The US–Australia alliance, as Wesley says, is not merely a vehicle for launching collective military action – it is a tool for pursuing joint diplomacy and preventing war. Australia’s interests in Asia are different to those of the United States. Australia has more to lose, economically, from a deterioration in ties between China and the West, and it does not share the White House’s determination to reinforce America’s status as a global superpower. Australia should support US responses to Chinese aggression that are shrewd and proportionate, but maintain distance from the White House’s unpredictable and scattergun approach. The AUSMIN meetings are an opportunity to assert Australia’s stakes in Asia at a time when the United States is compelled to listen.