When Vice President Mike Pence lands in Australia, the last stop on his Asia-Pacific tour, he'll witness a country debating its close ties with the United States. Worries about China's rise and US engagement, coupled with reverberations from the 2016 presidential election, have left many Australians wondering how tightly to embrace their American ally.
In this there is peril but also opportunity. Pence's visit to Australia – the first by a senior Trump administration official since inauguration – should help renew an alliance that has paid great dividends for both sides. But renewal won't happen automatically. As Secretary of Defence James Mattis recently said, "No relationship stays the same. It gets better or it diminishes." It's now up to American and Australian leaders to see that their critical relationship gets better.
There's work to do. Today, though support for the alliance remains strong in the abstract, there are worrying signs of dissension. In a poll taken last year, nearly 40 per cent of those who support the alliance nevertheless believed that Australia should distance itself from a Trump administration. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating has said that the alliance should be scrapped, and several prominent politicians have joined the call. Behind such sentiments are a recognition of Australia's important economic relationship with China and worries that, when it comes to Asia, the United States will be ambivalent, absent, or simply apathetic.
There is encouraging news as well. A third of capital flowing into Australia is from America and Australia is one of just a handful of countries with which America maintains a net trade surplus, at a time when trade deficits are at the top of Washington minds. Our two militaries are highly interoperable. While both fiercely independent, the two countries share an array of interests and democratic values.
Vision for Asia
Yet Secretary Mattis' words serve as a useful admonishment, and Australian and American leaders should not fall prey to complacency. In that spirit, we offer five areas that should garner bilateral focus.
First, the Vice President should use his visit to articulate the administration's vision for Asia, and how the administration sees Australia fitting into it. There remains considerable confusion in Canberra about the Trump team's intentions, and Australia is developing its own new ideas as part of its foreign policy white paper process. Achieving a shared strategic concept for the Indo-Pacific region, and about the role of China and other key powers in it, is an urgent priority.
Second, the two sides need to talk about trade. Australia invested heavily in the Trans Pacific Partnership, and encouraged its Asian neighbours to do the same. With the TPP's demise goes much of the incentive to smooth cross-border supply chains, and to underwrite enforceable and transparent standards for commerce across the region. The two countries should discuss a common plan for what will fill the TPP vacuum, and what positive steps would regain the momentum on regional trade.
Third, our two countries should enhance contingency planning for the various flashpoints in Asia, particularly North Korea. Australia remains part of the United Nations Command for the Korean peninsula, with specific responsibilities for UN contingency bases in Japan. Australian generals embedded at US Pacific Command lead major annual military exercises in South Korea. Given the threat Pyongyang poses to the United States, Australia and the wider region, Washington and Canberra should discuss scenarios and coordinate efforts to direct sanctions and diplomatic pressure at North Korea's levers of power.
Build on success
Fourth, Australia and America should build on the success of their intensified military cooperation. Now that cost negotiations have been completed, there are few remaining obstacles to consolidating joint plans for Northern Australia and fully implementing the Marine Rotational Force agreement. As Washington moves to expand its naval presence and restore the strength of its Navy, it should examine options for a joint naval posture on Australia's Indian Ocean shores.
Finally, Australian and American leaders need to spend more time on the relationship itself. It's no longer particularly useful to speak of the alliance in theological terms, or elicit support mainly through incantations of past successes and shared sacrifices. It's time for a comprehensive, full-spectrum approach to US-Australian ties that accounts for all of its current importance and complexity. This means broadening beyond regular leader-level meetings and technical cooperation among working-level officials, to the development of shared strategic objectives. It requires Australians to build closer ties with the US Congress, which is of particular importance in today's political arena.
Mindful of the distinction between relationships diminishing or getting better, we side with the latter when it comes to the ties between Australia and the United States. They are two important to lay fallow. The Vice President's visit offers an opportunity to ensure they do not.