2 December 2022
Australia’s most senior diplomats will soon meet with their US counterparts in Washington DC for the annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN). AUSMIN is an opportunity to revisit progress made over the past year and sharpen alliance cooperation across priority areas. At the Albanese government’s first AUSMIN, Australia will be looking to take advantage of its close alignment with the Biden administration on issues like climate and regional engagement, and further its efforts to shift alliance defence cooperation from a focus on interoperability to integration.
Existing in its current form since 1985, AUSMIN is Australia’s premier bilateral diplomatic forum. It offers Australian Foreign and Defence Ministers and US Secretaries of State and Defense the chance to make progress on critical alliance issues. Other senior officials also attend; this year, it is expected that a large cohort of Australian Defence and Energy Department officials will attend AUSMIN for discussion of AUKUS submarine efforts.
The host of AUSMIN typically alternates year-to-year. Unusually, consultations will be held in Washington DC for the third year in a row (following two years of COVID disruptions). With this decision, Australia will likely enter its third year of not having received a visit from the US Secretary of Defense. In contrast, Australian senior officials are the United States’ most frequent visitors from the Indo-Pacific.
In recent years, the consultations have had a sharpened regional focus and ushered in increasingly advanced defence cooperation, accelerated by the deteriorating strategic environment and a more closely aligned outlook on China, evident in the joint statements in 2020 (by the Trump and Morrison governments) and 2021 (by the Biden and Morrison governments).
There are high expectations about how and where AUKUS might fit into this year’s AUSMIN communiqué. Theoretically, AUSMIN provides an opportunity to review the work that officials from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have undertaken over the past year to identify the “optimal pathway” for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and to put down markers for AUKUS Pillar II projects on advanced capabilities.
In reality, however, sensitivities around presenting AUKUS as a bilateral, rather than trilateral, endeavour and a desire to distinguish between alliance initiatives and other lines of effort will limit the extent to which AUKUS features in the joint statement. Both sides will also be wary of pre-empting the findings of the ongoing pathway review. Where AUKUS is most likely to permeate the communiqué is on any comments related to the US Force Posture Initiatives (USFPI) in Australia – including the 2,500 US marine rotation in Darwin and enhanced air cooperation. Originally announced in 2011, the scope and scale for these initiatives were greatly expanded at AUSMIN 2021. This included plans for upscaling cooperation across the air, maritime and land domains, as well as the establishment of a combined logistics, sustainment, and maintenance enterprise.
AUSMIN 2022 may preview potential next steps for USFPI on naval cooperation and posture. Naval force posture developments could include progress on AUKUS-adjacent efforts such as basing and/or sustainment and maintenance facilities on Australia’s northern or eastern coastlines, which could service Australian and US submarines alike. However, most significant new announcements are likely to be withheld until Australia’s Defence Strategic Review is complete.
AUSMIN is also a chance for Australia to press Washington to accelerate US export control reforms. Progress here is crucial to unlocking planned defence industrial integration through AUKUS and the US National Technology and Industrial Base (NTIB). At AUSMIN 2021, the principals committed to streamline export controls and to facilitate technology transfer, with a focus on an Australian Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordinance (GWEO) enterprise and Australia’s inclusion in the NTIB. Since taking office, Defence Minister Richard Marles has repeatedly identified industrial collaboration as a key vector for the alliance’s wider integration agenda, emphasising that developing Australia’s industrial capacity to manufacture and sustain alliance capabilities onshore will pay dividends for the United States. In light of the synergy between industrial integration and the combined force posture initiatives, we can expect progress on export control reform, and the guided weapons piece in particular.
A third area of potential focus would be aligning regional engagement strategies. AUSMIN meetings have recently focused on supporting Indo-Pacific partners’ pandemic response. The key challenge at this year’s meeting will be building a positive alliance agenda for cooperation in the Pacific Islands’ and Southeast Asia that satisfies partners’ needs and allies’ strategic prerogatives.
The Pacific Islands are likely to receive unprecedented attention given the April announcement of the Solomon Islands’ security partnership with China and President Biden’s hosting of the US-Pacific Islands Summit in late September. Australia may offer support for the Pacific Partnership Strategy or the Partners in the Blue Pacific Initiative. Following President Biden, Prime Minister Albanese and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s November 2022 announcement of further telecommunications financing in the Pacific at the G20 summits, the alliance partners will likely affirm commitments to regional infrastructure investments.
The launching of a US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership just last month may encourage further joint alliance initiatives with Southeast Asian partners beyond simply "confirming support" for ASEAN centrality and other regional institutions. This could include focussed collaboration on maritime capacity-building with regional partners like Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. Pursuing joint initiatives could allow Canberra and Washington to ‘force multiply’ their engagement.
Finally, with the change of government in Australia, AUSMIN presents an opportunity to advance bilateral climate cooperation. The recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States and the Climate Change Act in Australia reinforced that climate action is an imperative for both governments. President Biden and Prime Minister Albanese stressed in their November meeting that climate partnership was a “new pillar” of the alliance.
AUSMIN 2022 will likely build upon the commitments made in 2021 to enhanced actions to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, focused on low-emissions technology and climate financing for vulnerable regional partners. The principals may address the stated greatest impediments to Australian emissions reduction: labour shortages and supply chain constraints. Cooperation in this area is likely to be approached with support for Southeast Asian and Pacific partners front of mind. AUSMIN could also herald closer collaboration between the respective defence departments on approaching climate risks.
At AUSMIN, the Albanese government could deepen its diplomatic ties to the administration and deliver on key promises vis-à-vis climate and Pacific partnerships. In the face of competing concerns like the Ukraine crisis, the extent to which AUSMIN retains the regional focus it has shown in recent years will be of critical significance to the Indo-Pacific.