AUSMIN death knell for diplomacy

Aug 8, 2023
Relations between two countries. USA and Australia flags.

The AUSMIN talks confirmed Australia’s status as a client state of the United States. Its shift has taken years but this is a significant change from the previous status of a friend, or ally, because it hands a significant slice of Australian sovereignty to a foreign power. The degree of military integration foreshadowed by Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and enthusiastically endorsed by Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles suggests that future decisions around conflicts in the region will be made by America and rubber stamped by Australia.

This surrender has a significant impact on Australia’s relationship with China and on the way Australia is able to influence and shape its relationship with Asia. Australia is important in the region, although perhaps not as important as it like to imagine. In many ways the AUSMIN talks further isolate Australia from the region and make Australia less relevant in the formulation of regional decisions.

China in particular will re-evaluate its relationship with what has now clearly become a client state of the United States. It now makes sense to treat Australia as a by-product of US policy rather than as a relatively independent entity. It can be assumed that Australian defence policy, and to a significant extent, Australian foreign policy, merely apes that of the United States.

A number of recent Force Posture Initiatives involving US bombers and submarines are widely seen as essentially relevant only to a future US war with China. The Initiatives include the pre-positioning of material and troops in Australia to enable the US to attack China. The establishment of a Squadron Operations Facility” in Darwin adds to the growing array of permanent military assets in the north, further locking Australia into any future military conflict between China and the US.

Why expend time and diplomatic effort on Australia when it has largely lost the ability to make its own decisions in these areas?

The degree of integration confirmed at AUSMIN means Australia becomes diplomatically irrelevant to the region. It means Australia shapes the region largely through the threat or use of force which in turn is projected at the behest of the United States. The high level of integration, including embedding US intelligence officials in Australian offices and US crew command members on AUKUS submarines, means Australia is inevitably and ultimately, held hostage to US decisions.

Despite denials and assertions that Australian policy remains a sovereign choice, this really is the Stockholm Syndrome in action at a national level. Australia has convinced itself that it is not a victim of foreign influence in its most consequential defence and foreign policy decisions.

Marles and Austin berate the Solomon islands for the ‘secretive’ defence arrangements with China, but these pale into insignificance when compared with the scale of secretive US operations in Australia well documented by journalist, Brian Toohey.

AUSMIN builds on the already secretive defence deals where Australia has no right of full access to the intelligence product or activities. This already applies to intelligence product from bases at Pine Gap, North West Cape and elsewhere. The drone assassinations that are coordinated using US base capabilities in Australia are not subject to Australian oversight. The public is not allowed to know how long the nuclear submarine, North Carolina, will stay Perth – that information is classified even from Australia’s defence minister.

Increasingly there has been a closer and closer alignment of US policy objectives and those of Australia. However, this was not always a lock step approach and there were times of divergence in foreign policy implementation. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser discussed these tensions in his book DANGEROUS ALLIES.

Marles has destroyed that slim gap by replacing the concept of cooperation with integration. This was no mistake. Integration essentially places Australia as part of US forces and effectively subject to their command structure and decisions.

It must have been uncomfortable for Foreign Minister Wong to participate in AUSMIN discussions because Australia’s progress in the diplomacy of the ASEAN region was destroyed by this new client state alignment. Australia can no longer speak as an independent voice. There will always be the suspicion that Australia is reading from a script written and approved by the Americans. This undermines Australia’s ability to act effectively in diplomacy in the region.

The 2023 AUSMIN talks went beyond the jovial backslapping that usually characterises these talks. As a result the ASEAN region, and China, will reevaluate the way they see Australia’s role in the regional architecture of agreements, treaties and discussions. Australia’s ability to influence RCEP, to constructively contribute to discussions around digital standardisation, cross border trade facilitation and other issues is severely compromised by AUSMIN.

Australia failed the first test, its voice absent from any protest against the US decision to supply cluster bombs to the Ukraine. The second test will be Australia’s reaction to the US-led exclusion of Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee from the upcoming APEC meeting.

AUSMIN announcements have reduced Australia’s room for diplomatic manoeuvre and influence. The announcements have also reduced the imperative for China and the region to engage with Australia as an independent entity in the formulation of policy responses in the region. They now know that Australia has little choice but to do the bidding of the US because that’s what client States do.

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