Scott Morrison Donald Trump AUSMIN
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

China’s rambunctious party tabloid Global Times has long branded Australia a “loyal US attack dog” barking away at China.

And yet the curious thing about the peak US-Australia strategic meeting of the year, that concluded in Washington last week, is how little news came out of it. Barely a yap.

There were statements aplenty. Ahead of the annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne issued a formal statement to the UN outlining Australia’s position on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Mainstream media leaped on the statement as signalling a reversal of Australia’s long-standing policy of not taking sides over competing sovereignty claims in the region. The ABC said the move was ‘likely to infuriate Beijing.’

Hardly. As UNSW professor Greg Austin pointed out, the statement did little more than place Australia’s existing position on file in the UN archives. Nothing new.

Then on conclusion of the AUSMIN meeting, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds basically reaffirmed Australia’s long-standing position limiting naval patrols to areas outside China’s contested 12 nautical mile territorial limit. Again, no bark.

These moves appear to have been designed less to infuriate Beijing than to placate it, without at the same time alienating the Trump administration in Washington.

That’s the challenge. Australia is partly dependent on China for its prosperity, largely dependent on the United States for its military security, but more dependent than either of them on the norms and institutions of the postwar order for managing its international relations and regional diplomacy.

Neither China under Xi Jinping nor the US under Donald Trump is committed to upholding that old order.

To deal with Trump in particular, the Australian government has developed a bespoke diplomacy suited to his personal style, tailored to avoid an open clash with a petulant president while not giving too much away. This is the new diplomacy, as Paul Kelly put it, that nobody really wants to talk about.

It involves pulling all available levers to secure the support of the Trump administration, as an alliance partner, while distancing Canberra from Washington on important issues over which the two sides disagree.

The Australian embassy in Washington has basically rewritten the diplomatic playbook to match Trump’s transactional approach to international relations. In an interview on his retirement, ambassador Joe Hockey offered a few insights into how this new diplomacy works.

First, he said, government-to-government relations needed to be personalised. It no longer made sense for the embassy to work through the State Department in Washington or appeal to due process, or to shared commitments to principles and values, as with earlier American administrations. Instead the embassy mobilised personal networks and appealed to the particular tastes of Trump himself. It was only with the aid of celebrity golfer Greg Norman that the Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull got through to the American president for that initial and now-infamous telephone conversation.

A second feature of the new diplomacy has been a focus on the particularity of bilateral relations, primarily on the two countries’ long-standing military ties.

The embassy devised a public relations campaign around the theme “100 years of mateship” which underscored Australia’s record in military combat alongside US forces in every major war since the Battle of Hamel in the Great War a century earlier. “The more we spoke with the president and the White House,” Hockey told his interviewer, “the more they realised that Australia was different.”

This new diplomacy carries the risk of focussing relations exclusively on alliance politics. This carries obligations.

Some of these obligations were laid bare at last year’s AUSMIN consultations in Sydney, when Defense Secretary Mark Esper lighted on “mateship” as a useful hook for securing further Australian defence cooperation.

Then, as now, the Australian delegation was cautious about joint naval exercises on China’s periphery and ruled out venturing inside the 12 nautical mile zone. The Straits of Hormuz were less of a problem. Esper referred to “our second century of mateship” before suggesting that allies would be welcome aboard a new joint mission in the Straits of Hurmuz to promote freedom of navigation and commence. 

A fortnight after the meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced deployment of an Australian Navy frigate, surveillance aircraft, and ground-support personnel in support of the US mission in the Persian Gulf. 

Mateship carries ongoing obligations. Last year’s AUSMIN meeting foreshadowed a more prominent role for Australia as a “potential sanctuary, marshalling area, support base and force multiplier for US forces in the Indo-Pacific,” Alan Dupont remarked at the time. This year, Australia’s supporting role was confirmed with an announcement that the US would build a strategic fuel reserve in Darwin.

And looking forward, the 2020 AUSMIN meeting foreshadowed future obligations that cannot even be discussed in pubic. The joint statement issued at the close of the meeting referred to “a classified statement of principles on alliance defence cooperation and force posture priorities in the Indo-Pacific.” No-one is talking about that either.

This seems to be shape of things to come in the second century of mateship – less bark, more bite.

John Fitzgerald is an Emeritus Professor at Swinburne University of Technology who specialises in China and Chinese affairs.

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