On July 27-28, the regular AUSMIN forum for consultations bringing together the Australian Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defense with the US Secretaries of State and Defense was held in Washington. On the face of it, the event seems to have become more or less of a routine, as it has been held annually for the past 30 years. Especially considering this event is part of a wider system of relations between countries that remain committed to their allied obligations under the ANZUS Treaty (the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty). The pact was signed in 1951, but New Zealand formally withdrew from it in 1987.
However, this event now deserves to be highlighted due to two interrelated developments. First of all, the choice of this particular format for these talks, often referred to as the 2+2 format of interaction, is almost a sure sign, although not always, that there is a high level of trust in relations between these two specific countries. In this example, one source that attests to this level of trust is the US Department of State’s latest assessment of relations with Australia, published in January 2020. For instance, the Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet states: “Australia is a vital ally, partner, and friend of the United States.”
Secondly, this event is particularly important considering the wider context and just how strained political relations in the Indo-Pacific have recently become. Yet the United States and Australia are two of the key players in events which are currently unfolding, events that mainly equate to (Washington’s) attempts to block a new global power on the scene, China, from growing its influence in the region and throughout the wider world.
In this context, the very fact that these latest consultations took place is something that should be considered, not to mention the results of this meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on the American side, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defense Minister Linda Reynolds from Australia.
It should be noted that both American ministers had to reckon with two female counterparts again at this extremely important event. It is worth stressing the word “again”, because at similar talks with India two years ago which were no less important, the same Mike Pompeo and James Mattis (Mark Esper’s predecessor as US Secretary of Defense) also came up against two powerful women. The American hosts do not look to be performing well on gender equality when placed next to their counterparts, although they are supposed to represent a country that stands for progressive community and social values.
As far as the results of the latest 2+2 Australia-US Ministerial Consultations are concerned, they can be found in the Joint Statement on Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) 2020. These kinds of documents never contain any unnecessary phrases or even any superfluous words. That is why anyone who wants to learn more about the situation in bilateral relations between the United States and Australia, as well as in the region as a whole should read this document carefully.
This article will only focus on the most significant takeaways from this document from the author’s point of view. The Joint Statement begins by practically quoting the same formula the US Department of State uses to describe the situation in US-Australian relations in their aforementioned Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet. President Donald Trump is quoted, who essentially rephrases the same statement in his description of a “long, cherished, and unwavering friendship between the United States and Australia,” which he gave during Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s historic visit to the United States in September 2019.
The first section of the document titled “Indo-Pacific Recovery” begins with a statement about the “devastating impact” of the COVID-19 pandemic, then states how the Secretaries and Ministers have resolved to strengthen cooperation to support the collective recovery of “sovereign States”. The point is made that the overall regional situation in the Indo-Pacific “is the focus” of the United States and Australia, who intend to further cooperation “with ASEAN, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Five Eyes partners.” It is worth recalling that the Five Eyes is the intelligence alliance that determines the format for cooperation between intelligence agencies (mainly intelligence assessment) in the five main English-speaking countries.
The “Indo-Pacific Security” section of the Joint Statement primarily targets China, against which a whole range of grievances that Washington has fleshed out over recent years are expounded, and America has received a certain amount of support from its key allies. A particularly negative picture is painted of the situation in Hong Kong (with a special mention of Beijing’s newly imposed “national security” legislation), and of the situation in Xinjiang and Taiwan. It also mentions the fact that on July 12, 2016, the Hague Arbitral Tribunal ruled that China’s maritime claims to waters and islands in the South China Sea were invalid under international law.
The Joint Statement has not left out one of Washington’s major concerns in relations with Beijing, which has to do with the presence of leading Chinese IT companies in today’s international telecommunication markets. A particular note is made of the “unacceptable risks to national security” that countries expose themselves to in choosing to work with these vendors to develop their 5G networks or build telecommunications cables. A transparent reference is being made to Australia’s banning of Chinese companies from its 5G network infrastructure in 2018. The very same pretext was used at the time.
The next section, “Regional Coordination”, begins with a reaffirmation of both parties’ commitment to “Trilateral dialogues with Japan and Quad consultations with Japan and India.” The section continues by expressing support for the various international platforms based on ASEAN-led regional architecture, i.e. the association that unites 10 Southeast Asian countries.
The section titled “Indo-Pacific Prosperity” also has a rather express anti-Chinese tone, but without any direct mention of the PRC and its key project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Several passages in this section attest to the fact that the intention is to counteract the BRI. Take the following passage as an example: “The United States and Australia plan to continue to mobilize private sector investment throughout the Indo-Pacific to deliver high-quality, resilient infrastructure and natural resource projects in partner countries that adhere to international standards and best practices on the rule of law, sovereignty, and free-market principles. […] The United States and Australia also committed to uphold robust standards for development and infrastructure assistance and to avoid burdening recipients with unsustainable debt.”
This lengthy quote implicitly contains all of the objections to the BRI that Washington and a number of its allies including Australia have recently put forward.
The Joint Statement concludes with the section “Bilateral Defense Cooperation”, which states the need to strengthen it, and also acknowledges that “the presence of US forces in the Indo-Pacific has been vital to preserving the region’s security and prosperity for 75 years.” According to the authors of the document, this military presence is not only key to regional security, but it is also what has been underpinning its “prosperity for 75 years.”
Once again, there is no denying that this final document released following the latest 2+2 Australia-US Ministerial Consultations has a distinctly anti-Chinese tone. This may prove a serious obstacle that could prevent the situation in the region from moving in a positive direction, due to at least two developments. The first one is the worsening situation in regional politics, which is already tense. The second development is the world’s biggest lenders are disengaging, which creates an opportunity to play them against each other instead of funding much needed economic development in underdeveloped countries and across entire continents. After all, these parts of the world are where much of the mass migration to so-called developed countries originates from, which leads to various problems down the line.
As expected, the reaction in the PRC to the ministerial discussions being held, not to mention its conclusions has been negative in all aspects. For instance, an article in the Global Times has provided a very accurate illustration of the situation (as always), which mainly deals with the military and political consequences of these consultations, specifically highlighting the consequences it will have for the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The topic discussed here could leave the reader with a sense of grief, similar to a scene in the film Nostradamus, where a lady, who is no spring chicken, decides to come on to the protagonist at the wrong time.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.