Dominic Dwyer | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow
Two weeks ago, Australia’s foreign and defence ministers met with their US counterparts in Washington DC for this year’s AUSMIN—the annual Australia-US ministerial consultations on defence and foreign affairs. The joint statement they endorsed set out an ambitious agenda for cooperation on global health, the economic recovery, and regional security.
For those familiar with the uncontroversial fluff that usually comes out of similar communiqués, the 2020 statement stands out as an unusually frank diagnosis of the region’s challenges.
Certainly, there were no holds barred in naming and shaming China’s authoritarian consolidation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Nor were mysterious ‘major state actors’ blamed for subverting international sea law—fingers were pointed squarely at China for its expansion in the South China Sea.
That said, there was a marked difference between the Australian and US tones on China. In a press conference, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dialled up the China-versus-the-free-world rhetoric, and seemed to frame our alliance as the head of the spear in US efforts to resist China’s increasingly coercive statecraft.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, however, avoided framing Australia as a foot-soldier in a US-China contest. She reiterated Australia’s independence as a partner animated by aligned interests more so than an all-weather sense of obligation. And she rejected the idea that we’re a one-issue, China-focused ally, instead affirming our commitment to work across the Indo-Pacific as a fellow liberal order-builder.
But even as Payne steered away from the excesses of Pompeo’s tough-talk, it’s clear that Australia agrees in substance with the US’ diagnosis of China’s trajectory. Australia’s recent plans to bolster its armed forces—commended by US Defence Secretary Mark Esper—are doubtless motivated by a fear of China’s increasing willingness to coerce and bully. They’re also informed by the sense that, as China steadily expands its capability in this regard, there’s a closing window of opportunity to influence China in the other direction.
The AUSMIN communiqué only reiterated this fear. Its theme of a rules-based order under threat seemed to abandon any lingering hope that China’s arc under President Xi Jinping might slowly bend towards liberalisation, or that China will be seduced as a stakeholder in a Western-led architecture of international institutions. In more measured language, Australia seems to agree with the US assessment that the rules-based order must be defended to be preserved.
And so, it’s no surprise that AUSMIN’s unusually frank diagnosis of the China challenge came with an unusually active alliance agenda in response.
First were attempts to plug old holes in our alliance force posture, front-rank being Australia’s meagre fuel reserves. On this count, Australia and the US have agreed to set up a US-funded, commercially operated strategic fuel reserve near Darwin. This will come as a welcome development for the strategists who’ve long decried our fuel insecurity.
Australia and the US also agreed to accelerate cooperation on defence technologies such as hypersonics and autonomous systems. This appears to be an admission that the 2030-40 delivery date for some of our earlier big spends, such as the future submarines, will come as too little too late if we’re to have any hope of shaping the region in the meantime.
Indeed, if there’s one key takeaway from AUSMIN, it’s that Australia and the US have come to recognise the importance of military power as a prerequisite to diplomatic influence.
In one sense, this new mindset carries obvious risks, especially in terms of inviting a new arms race.
Yet, it’s also become clear that by bridging the gap in key capabilities—like long-range strike weapons—China has undermined the US and allies’ ability to force it to the negotiating table. In other words, Australia and the US’ desire to restore their military edge—or at least re-establish deterrence—might actually be about strengthening the incentives for jaw-jaw, not war-war.
Forcing China to the negotiating table may have also been behind the communiqué’s elevation of the Quad, a so-called ‘minilateral’ grouping of Australia, the US, Japan, and India. That may sound counter-intuitive, given China’s not a part of it. But again, it makes sense in light of the US and Australia’s growing view that the rules-based order must be defended to be preserved.
Indeed, Australia and the US are convinced that China won’t willingly accept a constraining, rules-based system at the international level. The idea is that China might just have to, though, if Australia and the US exert enough pressure through small groupings of regional heavyweights.
So as much as the Quad ruffles feathers in Beijing, that’s the point: the US and Australia are leveraging China’s fear of containment as a way of pressuring it into accepting the operating principles of the liberal international system.
In this sense, the US and Australia’s ‘minilateral’ turn isn’t a shift away from multilateralism. Far from it: a strong Quad could provide a better foundation for the wider rules-based order, by increasing the pressure on China to engage constructively within it.
Whether China responds as intended, however, remains to be seen. It’s entirely plausible that under Xi’s leadership, China will interpret the US and Australia’s closing-ranks as a looming threat. The resulting spiral in tensions could create a more dangerous world than the one AUSMIN braces for.
Dominic Dwyer is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs