It is a relationship forged throughout the major conflagrations of the 20th century, where American and Australian service personnel stood proudly in defence of freedom, democracy and liberty in the face of tyranny. Today the challenges that face the US-Australia relationship will serve to further strengthen the bond, explains US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse.
When the White House first reached out to me to consider the job of US ambassador to Australia, I travelled out to Canberra for a quiet visit in August of 2018, because I needed to be confident I would be a good match for this critical post. While I saw and heard much that deeply impressed me during that trip, the real clincher came with a visit to the Australian War Memorial.
There I laid a wreath in honour of Flight Sergeant Francis Smith Forsyth, who is one of almost 600 heroes from the legendary 460 Squadron listed on the War Memorial’s Roll of Honour. The tribute to Flight Sergeant Forsyth that day said that he “gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world”.
This was a fitting tribute to all who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of freedom against tyranny.
As I knelt beside the Pool of Reflection and heard the bugler sound the Last Post, it came home to me that I was not merely being offered a diplomatic assignment, but receiving a sacred trust.
My country was entrusting me with safeguarding and advancing this, the crown jewel of America’s network of alliances and partnerships. It is a charge to honour our storied past, but also to demonstrate how the defence of freedom and the hope of a better world must also be the cornerstones of our Unbreakable Alliance into the future.
Shortly after I arrived last year, I was privileged to stand side-by-side with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the hangar of a great ship named after a great US president, the first whom I was honoured to serve.
There, from the hangar deck of the mighty USS Ronald Reagan, the Prime Minister eloquently underscored the chief reason our alliance remains unbreakable: “Australia and the United States see the world through the same eyes. Or, as President Reagan put it, ‘We both recognise the responsibility of freedom and are prepared to shoulder it squarely.’”
That event took place in the midst of last year’s Exercise Talisman Sabre, in which 34,000 of today’s US and Australian heroes operated brilliantly together across the air, sea and land domains at the very highest levels of training, demonstrating why the future of our alliance is even more promising than its glorious past.
America’s allies and partners constitute its most important asymmetric advantage over our potential adversaries, and Australia’s commitment to common values and its leading-edge technological proficiency, together with our increasingly seamless interoperability, put it squarely at the forefront of that network.
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Extending and expanding that advantage is a foundational reason why the recent announcement that we now have a solid plan to safely return our Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) to train with the Australian Defence Force up at the Top End this year is so welcome.
Since the MRF-D program’s 2012 start, our Marines have become increasingly appreciative of the Australian Army’s impressive capabilities through these annual deployments. In fact, a senior US Marine Corps leader expressed to me that Australia is the only place in the world where he deploys Marines who come back better trained than when they left.
This program has been so successful that other regional partners are now seeking out new opportunities to train with the US and Australia in the Northern Territory. Our 21st century alliance is making Australia the region’s destination of choice for high-quality training, enabling us to jointly engage with like-minded nations to make the Indo-Pacific more secure.
In the same way, our program of embarking US Marines aboard Royal Australian Navy ships has provided exciting new opportunities to make that joint engagement more expeditionary, and to support Australia’s visionary Pacific Step-up.
Our ongoing Enhanced Air Cooperation program also continues to demonstrate that the US and Australia are reaching levels of integration unprecedented in world history. This cutting-edge synergy is on display each time our F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters operate with Australia’s peerless E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft, and will only expand as the Royal Australian Air Force continues to modernise to become the world’s first fully fifth-generation service.
It was evident as well when our US Pacific Air Forces deployed two cargo load teams last January during Operation Bushfire Assist. It was there at RAAF Base East Sale that our decades of co-operative activities proved their worth, as our teams were able to get straight to work loading RAAF aircraft to stand by Australia through its historic crisis, just as Australia has so often stood by America.
This is the Unbreakable Alliance we have built, and it is the one the Indo-Pacific needs for the emerging challenges ahead. Even as I write this, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has aggressively deployed its navy, coast guard and maritime militia across the South China Sea, seeking to advance a spurious claim of sole proprietorship over this massive international waterway.
Having only recently sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat and locked naval weapon systems on a Philippine ship, it is even now in the midst of another outrageous confrontation over oil and gas rights within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.
What Foreign Minister Marise Payne rightly referred to as destabilising activities are hardly new tactics from the CCP playbook, but they are being pursued with shocking new vigour as the rest of the world is focused on combating the COVID-19 pandemic, one which the CCP – through gross negligence, obsessive secrecy, and brazen dishonesty – first covered up while exporting it to the world. Sadly, in this playbook creating a global pandemic is treated as one more opportunity to advance geostrategic objectives.
Even so, I firmly agree with Defence Minister Linda Reynolds that “the pandemic has only served to reinforce the importance of the alliance between our two nations”. She highlighted how last month, three US Navy warships were joined by Australia’s HMAS Parramatta for a series of important bilateral exercises in the South China Sea.
These exercises exhibited our bilateral resolve and commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region, which has been key to the region’s economic prosperity long before the pandemic began, and will be central to its recovery.
This activity was an important demonstration that the US and Australia will continue to stand strong together for our timeless values and mutually beneficial interests.
Not only that, but we encourage others to join us in defending the universal principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific, by publicly pushing back against Beijing’s heavy-handed attempts to unlawfully impose its territorial claims on the rest of the region.
Standing up for these values and interests is why the US continues to conduct freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, such as those carried out by the USS Barry and USS Bunker Hill in the South China Sea last month.
While the CCP absurdly claims that we are being provocative, the undeniable truth is that we are doing what we have done universally and consistently for four decades – standing up for international law by asserting the right of free navigation of the global commons according to long-established rules and norms.
It is not US activity, but rather China’s aggressive intimidation and militarisation that has literally changed the maritime landscape in the South China Sea.
China’s extraordinary, unlawful claims in this region have only underscored the importance of our FONOPS for the entire Indo-Pacific community. Beijing demonstrates this every time it unilaterally draws new invisible lines in the water and demands all others succumb to its capricious rules.
Were we to acquiesce to China’s baseless claims to over 3 million square kilometres of the world’s most important maritime commons – their so-called nine-dashed line – we would be setting a dangerous precedent that would only encourage more aggressive behaviour.
That is why, with our like-minded friends and allies standing firmly alongside us, the US will continue to speak clearly and act deliberately to uphold the universal principles that have brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to this region. For the sake of all who value open commerce and the rule of law, we shall not go gentle into that good night.
This is the enduring value of partnerships, and especially of our Unbreakable Alliance. It is our unique and asymmetric advantage – rooted in our shared history and shared values; strengthened by decades of building mutually reinforcing systems and capabilities; sealed by our firm resolve.
These are the tools that deter bullies and revisionist powers from reordering our free and open international system to serve their own nationalist interests. It is in using them smartly, consistently and in concert with all who share our values that we hope to persuade the CCP that its best future is one in which it chooses cooperation over exploitation, openness over authoritarianism.
This is why I believe we will ultimately prevail, because bullies don’t have partners, and they certainly don’t have friends who come close to matching the durable, comprehensive, and integrated quality of the Unbreakable Alliance between the United States and Australia.
President Donald Trump nominated Ambassador Arthur B. Culvahouse jnr to be the United States ambassador to Australia on 6 November 2018. Confirmed by the US Senate on 2 January 2019 by unanimous consent, he was formally sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence on 19 February 2019 and presented his credentials to the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove on 13 March 2019.
Ambassador Culvahouse serves as the President’s personal representative to the government and people of Australia. He leads the US Mission to Australia, which is comprised of the embassy in Canberra and three consulates in Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth.