In a highly coordinated annual event arranged by civil servants of large bureaucracies with pre-cooked outcomes it is difficult to find surprises in joint statements. They tend to reflect the nature, state of the relationship and hot topics of the day.
In the case of the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), the two-day bilateral meeting with leaders of defense and foreign affairs agencies is focused on strategic, diplomatic and to a lesser extent economic outcomes. While there is an increasing desire to focus on or highlight commercial ties and deliverables, commercial and treasury staff are not engaged at the meeting. (In this relationship, there are not enough problems to resolve, or trade barriers, in the bilateral trade and investment relationship to warrant a formal standalone commercial dialogue or include Commerce as part of AUSMIN. Also, tradition! New things are hard for big government.)
With academics and think tankers leading the charge, topics that continue to come up in Australian media and elsewhere are: the apparent withdrawal of the U.S. from the Pacific and so-called rules-based order and a lean toward Russia. So, naturally, the joint statement allayed fears that the governments’ haven’t been listening, and included language refuting those claims:
“The Secretaries and Ministers emphasized both nations’ strong and deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific. They made clear their commitment to work together – and with partners – to shape an Indo-Pacific that is open, inclusive, prosperous, and rules-based.”
“The United States and Australia highlighted the priority each places on supporting an international rules-based order, alongside allies and partners. In the Indo-Pacific, that order has underpinned decades of stability, democracy, and prosperity.”
“The two countries reaffirmed their determination to oppose actions that seek to undermine the international rules-based order. Noting the anniversary of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17, the principals…expressed full confidence in the findings of the Joint Investigation Team concerning Russia’s role..[and] called on Russia to cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability….”
What is more worrying or telling than what was said, was what was withheld. This included topics that plague the relationship and region.
– immigration. Both countries are working through restrictions to immigration and with increasingly louder anti-immigrant constituents. Yet a steady flow of skilled and unskilled workers are essential to both economies, particularly Australia with population ageing. The Trump Administration has praised Australia’s strict immigration standards including for skilled migrants. For irregular migration, in Australia, there is almost no political debate from the major parties on whether to close the offshore detention centre on Nauru and its ‘no advantage’ policy. While a few academics have acknowledged the conflict with “Australian values” it is certainly not discussed widely. And, the Obama refugee resettlement deal still haunts policymakers on both sides.
– Iran. We don’t have public access to the workplan that was developed, but surely Iran was discussed at AUSMIN. Prior to the bilateral meetings, Secretary Pompeo delivered a speech titled “Supporting Iranian Voices” in Simi Valley, CA that drew mixed reviews from the diaspora. Australia has room to gain from exports to Iran in agriculture, mining and energy. While there was no joint statement on the recent days’ spats, it is likely that Canberra would stand ready to support the U.S. even if it took any military action.
– climate change. What a sad reality. Resilience is the code word for climate change adaptation, but the very denial lessens credibility of both states among Pacific island countries. How can diplomats and commentators say with a straight face that either country is pursuing sustainable infrastructure development (combating China’s funding) without acknowledging the coastal erosion, rising sea levels, drought, increasing frequency and strength of typhoons, etc.? The Green Climate Fund, Global Environment Facility and World Bank and ADB funding mechanisms all understand the depth and complexity of “resilience.”
– fisheries or marine protection. Understanding that the Our Oceans conferences were a President Obama/ Secretary Kerry legacy (which Minister Julie Bishop attended), there have been a lot of resources directed toward marine protected areas, fisheries management and ocean acidification. Across the Indo-Pacific there are precious ocean resources that require high-level policy to protect fish stocks and ecosystems. Again, this is an area that Pacific island countries highly value, so joint understanding and action would have given both some Pacific leadership points. In the case of the U.S., the Commerce Department is reviewing its relevant policies and may allow fishing within maritime monuments!
Agile policymaking, including keeping bilateral meetings to minimum staffing, is becoming the norm due to budgeting, past mission creep and corporate influence on government. Then, those of us who analyse foreign policy advocate for more attention and resources for their region or issue. But we should consider that bureaucracies are limited and cannot have an ever-expanding mandate.
While I’ve highlighted issues that trouble the relationship and region, these are difficult for the U.S.-Australia alliance to work on because they are multi-faceted and have domestic political considerations. To supplement high-level diplomatic conversations, engagements can and do happen regularly at the public staff, civil society and private sector level. Just because they’re difficult, it doesn’t mean we can’t try. And to stay mates, we also don’t have to come to a consensus on every issue. Perhaps a public ‘to do’ list would be a start.