We can contribute more to US debate on our region

©abc.net.au

Elsina Wainwright

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull presented a forward-looking conception of the Australia-US alliance on his recent visit to Washington DC.

In his two major addresses he honoured battles fought side by side, explained his optimism about the future and described new opportunities, from embracing disruption to crafting a cyber security framework.

Combating Islamic State topped the agenda for his visit. By stressing the importance of local troops in securing victory, Mr Turnbull provided context for his decision to decline the US request to increase Australia’s military contribution in Iraq and Syria.

The Prime Minister found his Washington hosts, including President Obama, grateful for Australia’s reliability as an ally. The Obama administration expects allies and partners to contribute more to regional and global security, and has valued Australia’s military contributions and diplomatic support in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. ANZUS’s agenda has broadened to include a suite of regional and global challenges, including countering violent extremism.

Geography has also made Australia increasingly important to the US, as the recent report on US Asia policy by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies indicates. In response to a transforming regional strategic environment, the US has strengthened alliances, forged new partnerships, and expanded its geographical focus beyond North Asia into Southeast and South Asia. The US views Australia as its “southern anchor”, as well as its only Indian Ocean ally, and values its marine presence in Darwin and Australia’s regional knowledge.

But ANZUS has a few emerging faultlines, the most significant of which is the risk of diverging strategic objectives. If China’s rise continues (which, while likely, is not certain, as its economic slowdown reminds us), US relative power in the region will decline, though its absolute global power will remain unmatched.

China’s rise and the region’s response are transforming the regional power structure. There is a risk that events unfold in such a way that the US and Australia might reach different conclusions about the kind of Asian strategic order each is willing to accept.

Australian and US regional interests and outlooks are not identical, as their differing final positions on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank indicate. For Australia, the divergence of economic and security interests — with China being Australia’s largest trading partner and an important economic partner while the US is its primary security partner — was on full display in the Darwin port lease decision.

The economic dimension of the Australia-China relationship looms large in Australia, whereas in the US, the security dimension of the US-China relationship is increasingly dominant, particularly as the US economy has regained its footing and the Chinese economy is in transition. China’s South China Sea land reclamation and alleged cyber theft of more than 20 million US government personnel records have hardened the security calculus in Washington.

The US has other alliance commitments in Asia, whereas the Australian public can tend to view ANZUS as a stand-alone, separate from the US alliance network and regional dynamics.

As a consequence, there is little support for joining the US in a regional confrontation such as a South China Sea contingency.

The Australian government can address such faultlines and continue crafting a forward-looking framework for ANZUS. So beyond combating Islamic State, and as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop prepares for her own Washington visit, there should be three next steps for the alliance.

The first step is to build on the Prime Minister’s security speech statements that Australia shares responsibility for ensuring Asia Pacific stability. This involves framing ANZUS as part of a broader structure of regional relationships and institutions that help reinforce regional security. ANZUS is a vital tool to protect Australia’s interests — ever more so as regional military modernisation continues and Australia’s capability advantage decreases — and address regional challenges. It is not an end in itself.

Strengthening Australia’s regional relationships as well as ANZUS streamlines Australian policy and resources and enables Australia to strike its own posture in the region.

The US also benefits, as this enhances Australia’s “southern anchor” role as a well-positioned, agile ally with improved regional connections and expertise.

The second step is to push the bounds of current Washington debates on how to stabilise the Indo-Asia-Pacific order. As a trusted ally, Australia can extend the Prime Minister’s theme of working with the US to reinforce the rules-based order, and discuss with the US the incremental integration of China into this order. This will include less US rigidity on architectural issues such as the AIIB and eventually opening up the Trans Pacific Partnership to China.

In Washington, Mr Turnbull rightly stressed that the US presence has underwritten Asia Pacific stability and prosperity for decades, and the importance of holding firm to regional norms. How the US calibrates these issues will determine whether the Asia-Pacific remains stable, and Australia can provide its counsel.

The third objective is to increase the focus on the economic dimension of the Australia-US relationship, building on the Prime Minister’s address to the US Chamber of Commerce and the Foreign Minister’s speech in New York last Friday.

As China’s economy slows and commodities prices slump, the Australian economy needs to diversify towards more innovation and services-oriented markets, including the US.

While the US is Australia’s biggest economic partner when two-way trade and investment are combined, there is significant scope for trade and investment to grow.

Greater economic engagement can help decrease the gap between Australia’s economic and security imperatives.

Australia could also propose expanding the annual Australia-US Defence and Foreign Ministers meeting, adding the Australian treasurer and US treasury secretary.

AUSMIN has proved an excellent vehicle for high-level security discussions, but the bilateral security relationship has become so close and institutionalised that there is now less need for AUSMIN to be entirely devoted to it.

A growing number of issues facing Australia are at the intersection of economics and security, and a comprehensive dialogue with the US would be useful.

Pushing forward on these three fronts is in Australia’s interests and will continue to strengthen ANZUS.

This article was originally published by The Australian on January 25, 2016