MACK WILLIAMS. Australia and the United States more than joined at the hip?

Apr 15, 2019

The recent Morrison Budget and the subsequent public commentary had precious little new to add to policy debate about future foreign policy directions for Australia other than to cut again our overseas aid budget – to an accumulated 27% since this government has been in office. Sadly neither did the Shorten Budget Reply. But  tucked away in the DFAT Portfolio Budget was a reference to an Australia: United States “joint work plan” which represents a significant strengthening of our linkage with the US.  

The recent DFAT Portfolio Budget paper revealed the following :

 “Australia has committed to working closely with the United States towards this objective. Arising from AUSMIN 2018, an Australia–US joint work plan – which includes a range of diplomatic, security and economic initiatives – is advancing shared strategic interests in the region.”

The “objective” was described in the previous paragraph in the paper as:

“Ensuring the (Indo Pacific) region evolves peacefully, without an erosion of the fundamental principles on which the region’s cooperative relations are based, is one of the department’s central objectives. The department will promote an open, inclusive and prosperous region in which the rights of all states are respected.”

All of which tracks back to the Australia: United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) 2018 joint communique which stated that:

The Secretaries and Ministers emphasized both nations’ strong and deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific. They made clear their commitment to work together – and with partners – to shape an Indo-Pacific that is open, inclusive, prosperous, and rules-based. A key outcome of discussions in Palo Alto is a joint work plan that advances our shared strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, which has diplomatic, security, and economic dimensions.”

We have long had close ties with the US through the defence, security and intelligence communities sharing views and information but this takes the relationship a deal further with commitments to a “joint work plan”- whatever that might prove to be. This at a time when there has been the clear beginnings of a consensus in Australia that the dynamics of the region are changing so profoundly that we need to review the fundamentals of our own national policies towards (and in) the region. It is generally accepted that the key elements in this are the future roles of the United States and China – and the relations between the two.

So it is extremely important to know more about this joint work plan which has yet received barely any public explanation or comment by either country.  Among the initial questions are :

. How is it expected to operate and what resources will it require? Presumably it will include not only DFAT but also Defence (at least). If so, what will the structure be and how will it process decisions? Does it have any KPI’s ?

. Will it be aimed at developing “joint” US: Australian projects or programs or more at coordinating better the work of both sides in the region? Or will Australia end up becoming even more of a stalking horse for the US in the region?

  • How will it attempt to cover an impossibly ambitious menu of work across the whole of the Indo-Pacific- in areas or countries where Australia ought to be addressing our own national interests, which differ from the those of the US – e.g. TPP?  And in many regional countries who do not share our commitment – even partially – to the US Alliance?
  • Or, more importantly, will the US attempt to involve Australia in projects the US wants to develop to contain China or Russia (front and centre in formal US Strategic Plan approved by Trump)? Despite repeated claims by some in the US administration (not Trump or Bolton) and supporters in Australia there can be no doubt that “containment” still is central to its China policy.
  • Will it be exploited by the US to force us into projects like the Joint Expeditionary Force which senior generals in PACOM have hankered over for some time or into FONOPS in the South China Sea?

As it stands the joint work plan seems so incredibly open-ended. But more concerning than that there has been ample evidence of late that Trump is determined to run his own show. Just look at what he has done to the Homeland Security top structure in the past few weeks. There have also been abundant recent examples of him ignoring or misunderstanding advice from what he labels “the swamp”. We must always take good account of Trump’s fetishes – including his determination to be unpredictable – in any joint work we undertake with the US in the Indo-Pacific. We need to work on the basis that he is prone to change course at short (or more likely zero!) notice from what the rest of his Administration has signed up to or recommended. And in so doing leave us hanging out on a limb.

Obviously, we need also to consider very carefully how the Chinese (and Russians) interpret this joint work plan (which they are bound to have identified) and the implications this could have for our own bilateral relations with each of them. In fact, it would be surprising if this, alongside Huawei and the like, has not contributed already to the reported hardening of Chinese attitudes towards Australia in the past year.

But we also need to be cognisant of the impact the Australian involvement in the joint work plan will also certainly have on our relations with the rest of the regional countries – including some who have challenges in their own alliance relationships with the US. Any attempts by us to seek to persuade regional countries (and there are quite a few) of the merit of some US policies towards them (e.g. about ASEAN or the South China Sea) will be unwelcome and have direct implications for our own bilateral relations with them.

While on the Portfolio Budget paper, there is an interesting statement in the first sentence of the DFAT portfolio:

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (‘the department’) supports Australia’s foreign, trade and investment, development and international security policy priorities. In 2019-20, the department will lead efforts across Government to maximise Australia’s security and prosperity through implementation of the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper (‘White Paper’).”

In previous years DFAT stated that it “advanced” or “promoted” rather than “supported” such Government priorities. This may be a purely pedantic comment, but does it denote a reduction in DFAT’s role in these key areas?

Mack Williams – former Ambassador to the Philippines and the Republic of Korea

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