Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, the latest round of the annual AUSMIN meetings in Washington have set a new tone for Australia-US relations in the Indo-Pacific and sent a clear message regarding regional security, the alliance and to China.
Australia’s earliest strategic relationship with the British Empire established a foundation of dependence that would characterise all of the nation’s future defence and national security relationships both in the Indo-Pacific and the wider world.
As British power slowly declined following the First World War and the US emerged as the pre-eminent economic, political and strategic power during the Second World War, Australia became dependent on 'Pax Americana' or the American Peace.
The growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – combined with the growing modernisation, capability enhancements and reorganisation of force structures in the armies of nations including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, all contribute to the changing balance of economic, political and strategic power in the Indo-Pacific.
This perfect storm of factors, swirling like a maelstrom across Australia’s northern borders, has until recently largely gone unnoticed by the Australian public, beyond the odd port visit by American or, as recently happened, Chinese naval vessels that seem to cause momentary flurries of concern.
Meanwhile, Australia’s strategic and political leaders appear to be caught in an increasingly dangerous paradigm of thinking, one of continuing US-led dominance and Australia maintaining its position as a supplementary power.
Australia's relationship with the US has been further boosted by the 2020 AUSMIN meetings currently underway in Washington, DC, between Australia's Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, and Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, and their American counterparts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
The joint statement sets the scene, stating: "During their discussions, the secretaries and ministers built on Prime Minister Morrison’s historic official visit to Washington in September 2019, which demonstrated what President Trump has called the 'long, cherished, and unwavering friendship between the United States and Australia'. More than a century since we first fought side-by-side, 80 years after the United States and Australia established diplomatic relations, and 68 years since the formation of our alliance, our shared commitment to freedom and democracy remains unbreakable."
While the impact of COVID-19 upon the global and regional economy has become a growing concern for many regional nations, Australia and the US have prioritised the economic recovery and prosperity as a key focus point for the 2020 AUSMIN meetings.
The joint statement highlights these focal points: "Secretaries and ministers noted the need to strengthen global efforts to prevent and mitigate future health crises and pandemics and reaffirmed their commitment to bilateral health security co-operation, with a focus on the Indo-Pacific, in line with the release of the AUSMIN Global Health Security Statement.
"They noted the World Health Assembly resolution on identifying the zoonotic origin of the virus and evaluating the World Health Organisation-coordinated international health response, and reaffirmed their commitment to facilitating timely and broad deployment of affordable, safe, and effective COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, including to support a response in the Indo-Pacific region.
"The secretaries and ministers reaffirmed that the Indo-Pacific is the focus of the alliance and that the United States and Australia are working side-by-side, including with ASEAN, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Five Eyes partners, to strengthen our networked structure of alliances and partnerships to maintain a region that is secure, prosperous, inclusive, and rules-based.
"They also reaffirmed that women’s security and meaningful economic and political participation in line with the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and women’s economic empowerment is key to achieving these goals.
"The United States and Australia recognised the important role of the Pacific Islands Forum and the Pacific Community (SPC) in helping mitigate the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region.
"They committed to supporting the Forum’s Pacific Humanitarian Pathway for COVID-19, including funding for the UN World Food Programme Pacific Humanitarian Air Service to operationalise the Pathway (Australia has contributed $3 million, and the United States has committed to contributing US$5 million). They underlined their support for the SPC’s regional work on health and economic impacts, which will be important for the region’s economic recovery.
"The secretaries and ministers also committed to working to support the Pacific's economic stability and recovery, including through advice and budget support for Pacific Island countries and high-quality infrastructure investment, such as under the Papua New Guinea Electrification Partnership and the proposed undersea cable for Palau that will connect to the US International Development Finance Corporation-supported trans-Pacific cable.
"Working with the United States, the government of Palau, and other partners including Japan, Australia has already invested in the marine survey and branching unit that will allow the Palau cable to come to fruition."
Indo-Pacific security in the face of mounting great power competition, China's growing ambitions in the region and the ensuing impact on regional and global security also figured strongly in the joint statement, as both the US and Australia adapt to the new, post-COVID paradigm.
"The United States and Australia expressed deep concern about the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government’s efforts to undermine the 'One Country, Two Systems' framework and to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms in violation of its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration," the joint statement said.
"In particular, the principals expressed deep concern at the imposition of sweeping and vague 'national security' legislation on Hong Kong that has imperiled the rule of law and undermined the rights to freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and to peaceful assembly.
"The United States and Australia expressed deep concern over the PRC's campaign of repression of Uyghurs and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, including mass detentions, forced labour, pervasive surveillance, restrictions on freedom of religion, and reports of forced abortions and involuntary birth control."
Additionally, both nations drew specific focus to the island nation of Taiwan, with both parties stating, "The secretaries and ministers re-affirmed Taiwan’s important role in the Indo-Pacific region as well as their intent to maintain strong unofficial ties with Taiwan and to support Taiwan’s membership in international organisations where statehood is not a prerequisite. Where statehood is a prerequisite for membership, both sides support Taiwan’s meaningful participation as an observer or guest.
"The United States and Australia highlighted that recent events only strengthened their resolve to support Taiwan. They reiterated that any resolution of cross-Strait differences should be peaceful and according to the will of the people on both sides, without resorting to threats or coercion. They also committed to enhancing donor coordination with Taiwan, with a focus on development assistance to Pacific island countries.
"The secretaries and ministers expressed serious concerns over recent coercive and destabilising actions across the Indo-Pacific. In line with the 2016 decision of the Arbitral Tribunal, they affirmed that Beijing’s maritime claims are not valid under international law.
"Specifically, they affirmed that the PRC cannot assert maritime claims in the South China Sea based on the 'nine-dash line', 'historic rights', or entire South China Sea island groups, which are incompatible with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). They noted that the 2016 Arbitral Award is final and binding on both parties and emphasised that all claims in the South China Sea must be made and resolved in accordance with international law.
"They also expressed their support for the rights of claimants to lawfully exploit offshore resources, including in relation to long-standing oil and gas projects as well as fisheries in the South China Sea, free from harassment and coercion.
"They welcomed the recent ASEAN Leaders statement that a South China Sea Code of Conduct should be consistent with UNCLOS, and emphasised that any code should not prejudice the rights or interests of States under international law or undermine existing regional architecture, and should strengthen the commitment of parties not to engage in actions that complicate or escalate disputes, notably militarisation of disputed features."