AUSMIN Takes the Long View of U.S.-Australia Security Cooperation

Top U.S. and Australian officials on August 12 signed a 25-year legally binding Force Posture Agreement to cement the new era of bilateral security cooperation, and U.S. rotational deployments to northern Australia in particular. At first glance, the document Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and their Australian counterparts Julie Bishop and David Johnston signed at the Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations appears little different than the two force posture initiatives announced by President Barack Obama and then prime minister Julia Gillard in 2011. But it actually signals the maturing and institutionalizing of a more robust U.S.-Australia security relationship.

When President Obama announced the initial deployment of 250 U.S. marines to Darwin two years ago as the most visible measure of his new “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia Pacific, the initiative elicited praise and discomfort in almost equal measure. Cynics in Australia and the United States saw the rotational deployment, which now stands at 1,500 marines and will eventually max out at 2,500, as an empty gesture. Those more concerned about the development of a U.S. policy of military containment vis-à-vis China fretted that the marines were just the first step to Washington using its allies to establish a more heavy-handed presence in the region. And among Australia’s neighbors, especially Indonesia, conspiracy theories were thick on the ground, including that the marines were there to help with any military contingency in the archipelago.

What the Marine Corps presence in Darwin has actually done, alongside the increased rotation of U.S. Air Force craft and personnel through northern Australia, is boost interoperability and opportunities for collaboration between the two allies. It has allowed greater and more consistent opportunities for joint training and exercises, and presented U.S. marines with access to the Australian military’s vast training grounds. It has also boosted the effectiveness of regular bilateral exercises such as Exercise Talisman Saber, and those open to multilateral partners such as Exercise Pitch Black, by making planning much easier and allowing the prepositioning of U.S. matériel.

The fact that Washington and Canberra both feel comfortable about committing to a 25-year framework underscores how far they have come in dispelling those fears in only two years. Discussions in Australia have increasingly turned from discomfort with a stronger U.S. presence to discussions about how and on what time frame that presence could be further bolstered, potentially including U.S. Navy access to the HMAS Stirling naval base in the state of Western Australia. Australia’s neighbors have also grown more accepting of the U.S. presence in Australia, even as the United States prepares to deploy troop rotations to the Philippines, and more cognizant of its potential benefits.

The one area in which the new U.S. rotational deployments offer the most benefit remains untested—the opportunity for more rapid response to regional disasters, in particular for search and rescue missions and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) emergencies. The aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013 underscored the indispensable role that U.S. forces play in HADR response in the region. The hoped-for centrality of HADR work in the new era of U.S.-Australia security cooperation was highlighted in both the original announcement of the force posture initiatives and statements surrounding the new agreement.

This year’s AUSMIN and the Force Posture Agreement also highlighted a goal increasingly obvious in the inclusion of other nations in U.S.-Australia joint exercises—the transformation of the U.S.-Australia alliance from a bilateral relationship to one that forms the cornerstone of wider regional cooperation. The officials at AUSMIN made clear that this hoped-for cooperation includes HADR and search and rescue, but also areas like maritime security, counterterrorism, missile defense, and, if necessary, convincing a rising China to play by the international rules of the road. Secretary Hagel summed up this goal of the U.S.-Australia relationship as “a new, committed resolve to work together to build a security system across this Indo-Pacific region…recognizing the common interests that we all have for a stable, peaceful, secure world.”

The discussions at this year’s AUSMIN, and the signing of the Force Posture Agreement in particular, highlight the institutionalizing of the U.S.-Australia leg of Washington’s rebalance to the Asia Pacific. Both nations are signaling not only that their bilateral relationship will help support a more stable security environment throughout the region, but also that they are committed to its doing so for decades to come.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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