Earlier this week, both the U.S. and Australian governments beamed out images via both traditional and social media of the Sydney soirée that marked the latest installment of the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), an annual forum for bilateral relations between the two nations. Key pictures included scenes of the arriving dignitaries, such as Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Bishop jointly striding down the stairs from a USAF jet at Sydney airport after traveling together from the ASEAN Regional Forum, as well as iconic images of Sydney Harbor playing host to official festivities.
Despite the many cruises, hugs, and smiles, media promotion of the event was not just a public relations stunt. Genuine warmth infuses both the personal—especially between Bishop and Kerry—and the diplomatic relations between the two countries. And behind the carnival atmosphere, AUSMIN 2014 was about further cementing this critical strategic partnership. Initially, the 2014 AUSMIN consultations might appear to be a fairly regular “check-up” on the status of the U.S.-Australian alliance. In recent years, however, and with each successive annual meeting, that relationship has moved up another gear.
Beginning with the 2010 meeting in Melbourne, AUSMIN consultations have produced significant expansions in both the breadth and depth of cooperation between the two nations. Since then, the U.S.-Australian alliance has emerged from AUSMIN with enhanced modifications, including an unscheduled and major pivot toward the Asia-Pacific announced by U.S. President Barack Obama in Canberra in November of 2011. Both parties have regularly added new dimensions to the bilateral partnership, little by little making the relationship even more critical to the strategic posture of both countries.
It is important to note, however, that these changes were not wholly unprecedented. The acceleration of the alliance after 2010 was built on a platform of enhanced cooperation dating back to the end of the Cold War, when the relationship broke out of its exclusive focus on Asia and went global. The post-Cold War period saw long-term Australian support for U.S. policy in the Middle East, including the commitment of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But what AUSMIN 2010 established, and President Obama’s 2011 Canberra speech cemented, was the beginning of a new era in the ANZUS Alliance, the 1951 treaty that orients the United States, Australia, and New Zealand toward shared security goals. The central importance of ANZUS—which in Australia is referred to simply as the “Alliance”—to the country’s strategic thinking cannot be overstated. For Australia, support for the Alliance is a natural extension of the nation’s support for U.S. hegemony in the Asia-Pacific and for a rules-based global order buttressed by U.S. power. These have been the primary factors driving the longevity of the partnership, and have ensured that the relationship has undergone almost seamlessly changes in its character at critical points in the evolution of geopolitics. Now, after two decades spent focused on the Middle East, the Alliance has returned to its roots in the Asia-Pacific. As the global strategic center of gravity moves eastward, the depth of the partnership has taken on a renewed emphasis. The future of an enhanced ANZUS lies in the Asia-Pacific.
While the depth of the ANZUS strategic partnership may be little-known to the U.S. public or even to some policy elites, the importance of Australia to U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific is well-recognized. This is evidenced both by recent think tank reports, such as the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ 2013 “Gateway to the Indo-Pacific,” and by U.S. strategic documents such as the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. As Coral Bell, one of Australia’s most astute strategic thinkers, once observed, the depth of U.S. interests in Australia is always “a by-product of [its] interests in Asia.” President Obama’s decision to announce the Asia-Pacific pivot in Canberra was, after all, no coincidence.
The acceleration of U.S.-Australia relations along with ANZUS has included the first-ever introduction of U.S. Marines to northern Australia and the expansion of the Alliance to include space and cyber-security cooperation. Capability development and interoperability have increased due to an agreement under which Australia will purchase the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft (the only ally of the United States to receive this capability) and the Australian government’s decision to proceed with the acquisition of the F-35. Beyond technical equipment, military-to-military interoperability has also shifted markedly. Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships have joined the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, Australian Major-General Rick Burr has been appointed a deputy commander of U.S. Army Pacific forces, and Australian forces and senior officers have received expanded roles in PACOM’s signature RIMPAC naval exercise.
These moves lend both context and a sense of continuity to many of the actions undertaken during AUSMIN 2014. Of particular note were the big-headline signing of the Force Posture Agreement, the announcement of expanded exercises between the Royal Australian Navy and the U.S. Navy, and the commitment to maintain close cooperation between Special Forces units after the withdrawal of U.S. and Australian troops from Afghanistan. AUSMIN 2014 also continued both nations’ commitment to enhanced defense space cooperation, which began in 2012, as well as the announcement of increased cooperation though joint military exercises such as Talisman Sabre. Also of significance was the announcement of a bilateral working group on ballistic missile defense (BMD). Although this initiative had been previously flagged in the 2013 consultations, its elevated significance this year raises the possibility of deploying RAN vessels to northern Asia as part of a regional U.S. BMD network.
In many respects, AUSMIN 2014 continued the annual servicing of the ANZUS Alliance that has now become the new normal in the relationship between the United States and its Australian ally. However, this year’s consultations also strengthened the precedent for yet another unscheduled major upgrade in the near future. The most significant area for potential expansion is in the area of U.S. force posture in Australia. Calls for an increase in the number of U.S. forces in Australia were made in the recently released, Congressionally mandated, and bipartisan National Defense Panel (NDP) review of the QDR. Likewise, recommendations for an enlarged U.S. naval presence in the Indian Ocean via the Australian naval base HMAS Stirling, located on the Garden Island in the state of Western Australia, have been issued by the civilian Center for Strategic and International Studies and the RAND Corporation. Western Australia has also been pegged as an ideal location for the deployment of an additional U.S. Navy Amphibious Readiness Group to the Asia-Pacific region, which could support the U.S. Marine Corps troops currently rotating through Darwin.
Any such moves to increase U.S. presence in Australia would most likely be welcomed by the current Australian government, which is led by Liberal Party Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Since his election to office, Abbott has made clear his firm support for the United States, particularly its Asia-Pacific operations. This has included opposition to China’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone and his backing of U.S. moves at the ASEAN Regional Forum last week to reduce tensions in the South China Sea. Abbott’s commitment to strengthening the Alliance was further demonstrated during his first official visit to Washington, D.C., where he reportedly gave President Obama a blank check for Australian support for U.S. actions in Iraq. While both Abbott and Julie Bishop, the Australian Foreign Minister, have since qualified that commitment, Abbott’s pledge to the Oval Office is indicative of his hawkish approach to developing relations with Washington. The Australian prime minister is also confident in broad-based support for his tactics toward the United States; while there has been some discussion and even criticism of the expansion of ANZUS in Australia, the treaty has maintained exceptionally strong support from the majority of the Australian population. Some polls have even supported the suggestion that the basing of U.S. troops in Australia is becoming increasingly popular amongst the people.
Given this context, plans by the U.S. government for another major upgrade during subsequent AUSMIN consultations would most likely find a highly receptive audience in the Abbott government. Any such changes might well be put on hold, however, until after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, when new executive leadership will take office. Mindful of potential regional controversy over major force posture announcements, such as the decision to rotation the UMSC through Australian bases, the current Obama administration seems more committed to steady incrementalism in its alliance relationships in the Asia-Pacific, including with Australia. Nevertheless, at this most recent reckoning, AUSMIN continues to serve a viable and ever-expanding role in both U.S. and Australian security interests in the Asia-Pacific region.