The Australia-US alliances needs to mature beyond a celebration of "mateship" to effectively counter an aggressive China, with a new report warning looming challenges in the Indo-Pacific demand a diplomatic rethink.
After more than 70 years of close co-operation, an assessment by Sydney University's United States Studies Centre says Australia and the US risk complacency in the bilateral relationship without a stocktake of differences, including how to best navigate an increasingly complex geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific region.
The report – by John Lee, an advisor to former foreign minister Julie Bishop, and Charles Edel, an advisor to former US secretary of state John Kerry – says China's efforts to ease the US out of the western Pacific is coinciding with new measures to build international influence, requiring a collective determination on the terms by which Beijing is engaged.
Set to be launched on Thursday night by Australia's next envoy to Washington DC, outgoing Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos, the report says co-operation on areas other than defence and security could become more challenging as interests of the two countries are less well-aligned, irrespective of how long Donald Trump stays in the White House or who succeeds him.
It says Australia has shown a greater diversity of opinions on the appropriate response to a rising China, noting the response to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, the introduction of anti-foreign interference legislation, banning Huawei from building Australia’s 5G infrastructure and curbs on foreign investment.
"Disagreement between close allies is normal, but without bilateral responses based on honest discussion, alliance management can easily devolve into papering over differences and a seeking of the lowest common denominator – which is simply insufficient in an era of great power competition.
"The two allies need to have an honest appraisal of areas of convergence, and more importantly, areas of divergence. Greater attention to, and debate about, these areas of potential divergence should not be avoided, but rather embraced when determining independent and joint courses of action for Washington and Canberra."
The report recommends a "realistic road map" for looming challenges, including careful analysis of Chinese objectives in the region by the Morrison government.
In an acknowledgment of the unusual foreign policy challenges of the Trump era, it notes Australia would like the US to avoid counter-productive actions, including "picking fights with allies over issues that could be resolved quietly and behind closed doors".
It says Australia wants the US to state its objectives, strategy and resources in greater detail and to be clearer about what it would like Australia to do, while in response the US would like Australia to engage more consistently in the Indo-Pacific, to be less cautious about calling out China’s destabilising activities, and to lessen its commercial dependence on China.
The analysis comes days after a near-miss for Australia on a plan by Mr Trump to kill off a coveted tariff exemption for aluminium exporters.
Mr Trump declared the alliance to be "very strong" after he was talked out of ending the exemption, coinciding with mounting concern over his decision last month to declassify millions of documents related to the Russia probe, including materials provided by Australia under the "Five Eyes" intelligence sharing arrangement.
Mr Lee and Mr Edel recommend both countries commit more resources for initiatives promoting education, innovation, infrastructure and overseas development assistance, while promoting agreements on security and trade across the region.
More public discussion is needed about the challenges associated with China's rise, along with better co-ordination on strategic and tactically consequential decisions, acknowledgement of differences and market diversification.