Haunting AUSMIN
29 Nov 2013|

Hovering close to the table at the annual Australia–US ministerial were ghosts, spirits and spectres. New Zealand still qualifies as a ghost at this son-of-ANZUS feast, but in recent years the Kiwis have been edging back from the ethereal realm towards a more corporeal presence—now virtually resurrected and in good standing as a de facto US ally.

This year Japan and China were both spirits and spectres at AUSMIN. And as always at such a moment of top-level engagement with the great and powerful ally, the Australian Foreign and Defence Ministers had with them the spirit of Oz. Beyond any particular government, the spirit of Oz expresses Australia’s ardent commitment to the alliance. As with any enduring passion, the spirit of Oz has dark as well as light elements. Mark this as the divide between the pessimists and the optimists. The political class proclaim their love for the alliance, but where they sit on the pessimism/optimism scale is defined by how fears and ambitions for the future are refracted through the strategic prism.

Naturally, Australian governments are optimistic in public. But it’s a notable element of Australian politics that many of our leaders switch to pessimism when no longer shackled by the demands of office. The post-politics rethink of the alliance’s worth is a phenomenon of both sides of Oz politics, with Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating leading examples.

Bob Carr is the latest to unleash his inner pessimist now he’s a free man again. At the 80th anniversary conference of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Canberra last week, Carr mused on what ails the US Republicans, what he sees as the strongest isolationist sentiments in America since the 1940s, and what all this might mean for the Asia rebalance. And the coolness that marked Carr’s attendance as Foreign Minister at last year’s AUSMIN was given explicit expression.

Carr sees the potential for the US to militarise the Australian Indian Ocean territory, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, as a ‘nasty strategic issue’. The only question for Carr was who would be more offended by US drones flying off Cocos: Indonesia, because of a new outbreak of spying right on its doorstep, or China as it contemplated its Indian Ocean sea lanes of communication.

The Carr caution reflects a tendency surfacing in the Labor Party to question what might come next from America, following on the heels of the US Marines. Out of power, Labor can give vent to some pessimism as it contemplates the point of the pivot that, in office, it barracked for loudly. This mood informs Peter Jennings’ observation: ‘the reality is that Canberra and Washington each harbour doubts about the other’s strength of commitment to alliance cooperation’. That question about commitment is amplified by the conflicting spirits that loom as spectres: Japan and China.

China has escalated its islands dispute with Japan and the US has warned China against a ‘destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region’. Canberra has already signed up to that status quo language in the communiqué from last month’s Trilateral Strategic Dialogue between Australian, Japan and the US:

Ministers opposed any coercive or unilateral actions that could change the status quo in the East China Sea. They underlined the importance of efforts to reduce tensions and to avoid miscalculations or accidents in the East China Sea, including by improving marine communications.

The AUSMIN communiqué went to the same place with a whole section devoted to ‘Global and regional maritime security’, in which the US and Australia ‘reaffirmed their commitment to oppose any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea.’

The Japanese analysis of the AUSMIN words would be as intense as that of China; Beijing will shout its response, Tokyo will meditate on meanings. As Brad Glosserman notes, Japan has reframed its nightmare, shifting from agonizing about the US leaving (decoupling) to focus on the worry that the US will stay but might not be willing to act:

Fears of decoupling have receded—but haven’t vanished—and Tokyo now frets over ‘mutual vulnerability’ (sometimes called ‘strategic stability’), a world in which China’s nuclear arsenal makes Washington hesitant to respond to Chinese aggression.

Through AUSMIN and the Trilateral Dialogue, Australia is an intimate party to these constantly calibrated Japanese concerns and calculations. It’s illuminating to hear an account from Australia’s longest-serving Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, at the AIIA conference, of how Australia went about creating the Trilateral framework and the resulting Chinese blowback:

The Chinese objected right from the word go when we started the diplomacy of trying to set up the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. First of all, we suggested it to the Americans and they said they would go away and think about it and then they came back and said, “We think it might work, see what the Japanese think.” I took it up with the then Japanese Foreign Minister, very unsuccessfully initially. He said to me,“Minister, why would we bother to have a trilateral security dialogue with a country like Australia. You’re not a very significant country compared to the US.” I thought this was not terribly diplomatic. I remember when I am crossed. He passed as the Foreign Minister and others came. The Japanese Foreign Ministry was pretty supportive. As we were getting it going the Chinese objected. The Chinese, they are in your face, they tell you what they think, which for us Australians—such shy and subtle people—is most refreshing. They took it up with me, said they didn’t like it: Is this an attempt to contain China?

… I made it quite clear to the Chinese, look we’re friends with you, we have excellent relationship with you, we are friends; and we can be friends with other people and make friendly relationships with other people. But we as a country are totally opposed to the concept of containment of China. I don’t think the Chinese have ever thought of Australia—they have thought it of America, they have thought it of Japan, but I don’t think they have thought we have a policy of wanting to contain China.

And that, folks, is the Downer version of how the Trilateral—the Asian version of NATO—came into being. The NATO line demonstrates that what’s denied can be what defines a creation. When the then-US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in 2001, made a public reference to the trilateral idea at an AUSMIN press conference in Canberra, Downer leapt in to clarify 

As Colin says, this is something that we have discussed, we’ve also informally discussed with the Japanese as well. So as not to allow a hare to rush away here, we obviously—I think it must be obvious—wouldn’t want sort of new architecture in East Asia which would be an attempt to kind of replicate NATO or something like that.

This qualifies as a prime example of putting out a fire by grabbing the nearest can of petrol. China has been banging away at the NATO reference ever since.

The Downer joke last week about Australians as ‘shy and subtle people’ is a jest that’s so ironic it reaches towards the sardonic. But if Australia can take the US alliance to new levels, intertwine its strategic interests with Japan, yet manage to convince China that the concept of containment would trooly-rooly-never-ever enter our minds, then perhaps the spirit of Oz has unsuspected depths of subtlety.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of creepyhalloweenimages.