AUSMIN Returns to Washington: Time to Focus on National Interests

It is important to have good friends with serious intentions, especially in trying times. This is the case for the United States and Australia, two nations that are extremely close and bound by a foundational alliance. Their perspectives on regional and global issues tend to be complementary and mutually reinforcing. So it is fortuitous that the annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial (AUSMIN) talks, a 2+2 format featuring foreign and defense ministers, will return to Washington on November 19 and 20. The consultations are being held just in time to help both countries focus on their national interests.

AUSMIN was established in 1985 and is usually held annually, with the host rotating between Australia and the United States. Its raison d'être is to strengthen and steer the bilateral alliance, which increasingly includes a focus on shared interests throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
A new cast of characters will take part in this year’s AUSMIN. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will welcome their Australian counterparts Julie Bishop and David Johnston, who will represent the new government of Liberal Party prime minister Tony Abbott.

Bishop and Johnston will bring a strong dose of continuity from their Labor Party predecessors. They both hail from Western Australia, the site of last year’s AUSMIN meeting, and both recognize the importance of the alliance with the United States. Western Australia and neighboring Northern Territory have been the sites of increased bilateral defense cooperation in recent years, including joint electronic monitoring, increased submarine visits, and the deployment of a small U.S. Marine Corps force, now preparing for a third rotation, in Darwin.

Australia is in an important geopolitical position as 2014 approaches. It will host the next G20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane on November 15–16, 2014, and it now holds a rotational seat on the United Nations Security Council. Bishop’s and Johnston’s visit will underpin the Abbott government’s strong commitment to the alliance with the United States and determination to enhance Australia’s capabilities to contribute to regional security. It will also set an agenda for a likely visit to Washington by Prime Minister Abbott to meet President Barack Obama in early 2014.

For Kerry and Hagel, AUSMIN is an important opportunity to refocus on U.S. national interests in the Indo-Pacific, underlining what should be an obvious message, but one that has been muffled by partisan rancor in Washington. The future security and economic health of the United States is dependent on effective and comprehensive engagement in the region.

Since President Obama had to cancel his trip to Asia in November, the discourse on U.S. national interests has wandered into a hinterland of crisis response, from spying scandals to healthcare Web sites. A return to discussions about trade, investment, military cooperation, and regional security is timely and most welcome.

Australia and the United States are two of a dozen countries working overtime to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations. Additionally, the United States and Australia are helping to drive ASEAN-based security, political, and economic architecture aimed at accommodating a peaceful and constructive rise of China. Much more ambition and focus needs to be put into this agenda, and that is not possible unless both countries succeed in convincing their citizens of the existential importance of this shared mission: to engage more deeply in the Indo-Pacific in order to promote economic growth and regional peace and stability.

Leaders of both nations need to use AUSMIN to make the case for expanded engagement and focus on clear goals that can be easily articulated. Foremost among these should be concluding the TPP and spending necessary resources to promote regional stability. The logical conclusion of an effective AUSMIN would be the announcement of an Obama invitation for Abbott to visit Washington so the two can jointly press this case to their respective constituents and partners across Asia.

Abbott should also encourage Obama to make an out-of-cycle visit to Asia to answer those worried about sustained U.S. commitment and focus in the region. The United States is serious about the Indo-Pacific, but high-level engagement is crucial to signal that intent. In fact, Obama and Abbott could assign their cabinets to combine forces and break new ground by, for example, announcing a jointly led CEO mission to promote the TPP in key negotiating countries.

The imperative to wrap up the TPP should be a prime focus of the meetings. Australia wants to opt out of the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, favored by the United States, and it objects to high barriers to entry into the U.S. sugar market. These are barriers, but they are not insurmountable. If Australia and the United States are really committed to a year-end conclusion of the TPP negotiations, they should settle their own, relatively minor disagreements now.

AUSMIN officials will have to discuss the latest spying scandals in both countries, especially the leaked STATEROOM program by which Australia has allegedly used its embassies abroad to collect data and passed it along to other members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing group: Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Partners that are not members of Five Eyes, especially important NATO allies such as France and Germany, are demanding greater access to the arrangement. AUSMIN is an opportunity to discuss those proposals, but they cannot be allowed to dominate talks of defense cooperation.

While the United States and Australia are making progress in enhancing regional military capabilities and coordination, Australia needs to convince its citizens that defense is a smart investment. Prime Minister Abbott’s team is predisposed to this view but is handicapped by election campaign promises to balance the country’s budget, even at the expense of its own security. Like many U.S. allies, Australia allowed its defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product to steadily decline in recent years. The most recent national budget saw a modest increase in defense spending, but it still does not approach the 3 percent mark that both countries agree is reasonable.

Canberra should commit to boosting defense spending not only for its own security, but also because its national interests are best served as a partner, not a dependent, in the U.S. security umbrella. Indeed, given budget constraints and the ongoing sequester cuts to the Pentagon, the United States needs partners to help maintain that umbrella more than ever.

Australian and U.S. leaders should also make renewed trilateral cooperation with New Zealand a priority. The ANZUS alliance, despite its formal name, has been missing a member for 30 years. As long as Wellington maintains its ban on nuclear-powered and –armed vessels, a renewed security alliance with Washington is not in the cards. But the October 28 announcement by Hagel and New Zealand defense minister Jonathan Coleman that their two countries would reinvigorate military–to-military ties, including allowing a New Zealand naval vessel to dock in Pearl Harbor, opens up new possibilities for cooperation.

The Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia is suffering from political gridlock at home and perceived distraction abroad. Abbott’s government is new and busy turning domestic campaign promises into policy. And both governments have been bruised by the latest Snowden leaks. AUSMIN presents an opportunity to set aside the short-term politics and focus on long-term interests: the allies’ joint commitment to security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

Ernest Bower is senior adviser and codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Gregory Poling is research associate with the Pacific Partners Initiative.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Ernest Z. Bower