On Saturday 29 July, Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong travelled to Brisbane to meet with their American counterparts, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Australia-US Ministerial Consultations – commonly known as AUSMIN – are the most significant, regular forum to make progress on alliance issues, with a particular focus on the defence and foreign policy portfolios.
Re-convening only eight months after their last meeting in December, “operationalising” previously agreed-upon efforts was the order of the day for AUSMIN 2023. This year’s AUSMIN consultations in Brisbane were an opportunity to elevate diplomatic and economic statecraft efforts across the Pacific region and build on bilateral climate cooperation ahead of Prime Minister Albanese’s state visit to the United States later this year. The consultations produced a number of new developments, outlined in considerable detail, with a particular focus on advancing important regional partnerships in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, as well as bilateral defence cooperation along three vectors: force posture cooperation, capability development and defence industrial base cooperation, and regional security integration.
|Force posture initiatives
|Capability development and defence industrial base cooperation
|Regional security integration
|Diplomatic and economic statecraft
|The Pacific Islands
AUSMIN 2023 demonstrated that aligned strategic outlooks are propelling Australia and the United States to pursue closer and more ambitious cooperation across priority lines of effort. Critically, the AUSMIN forum allowed Australia to shape the alliance agenda with the United States and put down clear markers for its sovereign intent. This is evident in the first-ever characterisation at AUSMIN of the Force Posture Initiatives and US military presence in Australia as only on “a rotational basis, as mutually determined, and at the invitation of Australia, with full respect and observance of both Australian and U.S. sovereignty.” Australia’s voice also rings particularly clearly in references to inclusion and respect for First Nations people and indigenous businesses, something that is a key priority for the Albanese government and to which the Biden administration is clearly receptive.
AUSMIN 2023 demonstrated that aligned strategic outlooks are propelling Australia and the United States to pursue closer and more ambitious cooperation across priority lines of effort.
Overall, AUSMIN 2023 marked a concerted effort to operationalise the US-Australia alliance across the broad remit of bilateral cooperation. It should also be seen as a springboard for Prime Minister Albanese’s upcoming state visit, the first by an Australian leader since Scott Morrison’s state visit during the Trump administration in 2019. With these ministerial consultations largely focused on propelling progress in force posture and defence industrial collaboration, demonstrating that Australian-US military cooperation does not outpace the ambition of the other pillars of the alliance should be a key consideration ahead of the next leaders’ meeting. Putting further runs on the board in the realm of climate cooperation and economic security will be of particular interest to both countries’ domestic constituents and regional partners.
Force posture initiatives
AUSMIN 2023 highlighted ongoing efforts to implement the Enhanced Force Posture Initiatives announced at AUSMIN 2021, spotlighting progress on existing projects while also flagging a number of new activities. True to recent years, the Enhanced Air Cooperation (EAC) initiatives received the greatest level of attention. Alongside progress on the development of RAAF Bases Tindal and Darwin to support more frequent rotations of US air force assets “of all types,” the joint statement flagged potential upgrades to RAAF Bases Scherger and Curtin that, if completed, would double the total number of jointly developed air bases in Australia’s north.
Importantly, the statement also previewed future rotations of US Navy Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft to Australia “to enhance regional maritime domain awareness,” most likely involving the P-8A Poseidon, which Australia also operates. Such deployments would significantly boost peacetime deterrence cooperation, facilitate greater numbers of joint operations between Australian and US naval air surveillance and patrol assets, and, in time, those of third countries in the near region, over waterways of special strategic significance to Australia.
Enhanced Land Cooperation and Enhanced Maritime Cooperation also received notable boosts, though in less detail. Following on from last week’s Talisman Sabre exercise, the US Army will begin regular rotations of watercraft through Australian facilities, as well as demonstrate a “proof of principle” for the alliance’s new Combined Logistics, Sustainment and Maintenance Enterprise by prepositioning stores and materiel at an interim location at Albury-Wodonga (Bandiana). This will serve as a precursor to the development of an enduring Logistics Support Area in Queensland which, consistent with the objectives set at AUSMIN 2021, will “support high‑end warfighting and combined military operations in the region.”
Meanwhile, the US Navy will facilitate “more regular and longer expeditionary visits” by US nuclear-powered submarines to Australian facilities as a means of laying the groundwork for the official launch of Submarine Rotational Force-West in 2027. Though this will focus largely on HMAS Stirling in Perth, the wording of the statement leaves open the possibility that US submarines may conduct visits or replenishments at other Australian facilities. The inclusion of the first phase of the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine pathway in the AUSMIN joint statement reinforces the reality that this is as much a devoted alliance force posture initiative as it is a component of AUKUS Pillar I.
Finally, the statement underscored plans to deepen cooperation on intelligence gathering and signals analysis. The United States and Australia announced plans to incorporate space cooperation as a formal, standalone component of the alliance’s Enhanced Force Posture Initiatives, in order to “enable increased space integration and cooperation” through these initiatives as well as existing operations and exercises. This is a natural step given the natural advantages that Australia’s geography provides in terms of space launches and space surveillance, and considering the alliance’s pre-existing cooperation on signals intelligence and other space activities through the Pine Gap facilities. This will further dovetail neatly with plans to establish a Combined Intelligence Centre – Australia within Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation by 2024 to facilitate greater cooperation with the US Defense Intelligence Agency on assessing “issues of shared strategic concern in the Indo-Pacific.”
Capability development and defence industrial base cooperation
After years of slow progress on defence industrial cooperation, the AUSMIN joint statement offered encouraging signs that Australia and the United States are finally moving to maximise “the combined industrial power of the Alliance.” Most notably, Canberra and Washington agreed to deepen their collaboration through Australia’s Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordinance Enterprise (GWEO), including the establishment of a “flexible guided weapons production capability” in Australia by 2025. As a proof of concept, these efforts will focus on producing rockets for Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (or HIMARS), 20 of which the Australian Government has recently purchased.
The United States also committed to accelerating Australian access to other priority munitions through what US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin referred to as “a streamlined acquisition process.” The United States also committed to sharing technology and technical data to enable the local manufacture of 155mm artillery rounds in Australia, and the in-country maintenance, repair, overhaul, and upgrade of critical munitions including the MK-48 torpedo – the product of one of the alliance’s most successful capability co-development initiatives. All of these lines of effort share distinct synergies with the alliance’s force posture initiatives and will help to improve the resilience and credibility of US and Australian regional military operations once implemented.
All of these lines of effort share distinct synergies with the alliance’s force posture initiatives and will help to improve the resilience and credibility of US and Australian regional military operations once implemented.
Compared with industrial base cooperation, however, the statement offered fewer specifics on future plans for defence technology cooperation. The principals agreed to “explore opportunities for regional co-development, co-production, and co-sustainment aligned to agreed capability priorities,” as well as the potential for close collaboration between Australia's Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA) and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Strategic Capabilities Office. These statements track with the allies’ ongoing engagement with the United Kingdom through the AUKUS partnership and with Japan through the Trilateral Defense Ministers’ Meetings, respectively, on the development of advanced asymmetric defence capabilities including unmanned systems and hypersonic strike weapons.
However, the inclusion of a line in the statement on the allies’ “joint commitment to security standards to safeguard sensitive technology and information” reflects lingering anxieties in the United States over the capacity of even its closest allies to protect US military secrets, defence technology and related sensitive information. These concerns have been aired most recently in the US Congress in relation to proposals to reform US defence export controls – namely, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR – by giving Australia and the United Kingdom a blanket exemption from certain compliance requirements. These proposals suggest that the United States and Australia should explore a joint approach to the development of regulations and defence technology protections to complement the development of advanced capabilities themselves.
Regional security integration
AUSMIN 2023 reaffirmed the role of the Australia-US alliance as a vehicle for advancing a strategy of collective defence in the Indo-Pacific with like-minded partners, Japan foremost among them. Building on AUSMIN 2022 priorities, this year’s meeting reaffirmed Japan’s “integration” into the US-Australia force posture initiatives, including for joint F-35 fighter jet training and exercises in Australia, and added trilateral integrated air and missile defence drills as a future second line of effort.
Going forward, inviting Japanese maritime patrol aircraft to access Australian facilities for routine maintenance and refuelling would complement plans for US aircraft to conduct similar activities, as well as recent visits by Indian P-8 aircraft to Australian bases in Darwin and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Such cooperation is an area ripe for opportunity between the Quad countries to build out a maritime security agenda between the four navies. However, while the joint statement floated the potential for enhanced maritime domain awareness ventures and co-development and co-production opportunities with regional partners, these proposals remained comparatively underdeveloped.
Diplomatic and economic statecraft
This year’s meeting devoted some attention to the diplomatic and economic measures necessary to deliver meaningful action on shared alliance challenges, including strengthening key partnerships in Southeast Asia and redoubling commitments to Pacific Islands countries. Both the joint statement and press briefings around AUSMIN reflect an unprecedented degree of alignment between Australian officials and their US counterparts on these shared objectives, For the Albanese government, which has shown a renewed commitment to “statecraft” in its Defence Strategic Review, action in this area is especially critical.
Foreign Minister Wong’s vision of an “open and inclusive region, based on agreed rules, where countries of all sizes can choose their own destiny” is echoed in the AUSMIN 2023 joint statement. The statement commits to engagement “underpinned by regional partner priorities such as economic and social development, climate change cooperation, security, connectivity, good governance, timely and effective humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, health security, and resilience initiatives,” consistent with the priorities identified by regional partners.
In contrast to the series of new defence cooperation initiatives, the section of the joint statement addressing climate action was brief and notably scant on new announcements. The only specific commitment made was to further support preparations to launch the Pacific Resilience Facility. Climate cooperation is crucial for both countries not only in terms of accelerating the clean energy transition and securing supply chains, but also more broadly in living up to the United States and Australia’s promise, made in the joint statement, to “place Pacific interests first.”
AUSMIN presents a useful opportunity to thread the needle on the potential for the two countries to work more closely on climate initiatives. However, this year’s AUSMIN came only two months after the May 2023 Climate, Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Transformation Compact where the much-needed environmental third pillar to the alliance was announced. As such, the compact’s implementation and joint climate action will almost certainly feature prominently in Prime Minister Albanese’s state visit to the United States later this year.
The Pacific Islands
Most initiatives considered in the joint statement demonstrated attention to the needs of Pacific Island countries. The officials pledged to “consult and be guided by Pacific priorities” and pursue engagement that “places Pacific interests first.” Key areas of focus this year included the financing for US infrastructure projects in the region, the deployment of a US Coast Guard Cutter to the Pacific Islands from 2024, and a memorandum of understanding regarding joint pre-positioning of humanitarian supplies in Australia and Papua New Guinea.
The two countries’ emphasis on implementation and turning up for partners will play well off the back of visits last week by Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin to Pacific partners, as well as top-level Australian officials’ extensive travels throughout the region, and the conclusion of bilateral security agreements with Papua New Guinea by both allies within the last year.
In light of the robust agenda outlined for coordinated efforts in the Pacific Islands, the next AUSMIN could feature a separate section on the Pacific that spotlights and unifies the military, diplomatic and economic lines of effort currently in progress. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s cooperation with USAID on “joint pre-positioning of humanitarian supplies in Australia and PNG” can then be understood alongside joint infrastructure financing in the Pacific Islands and defence engagement such as the US Department of Defense’s deployment of a USCG Cutter. This would demonstrate how these efforts fit into the US 2022 Pacific Partnership Strategy as well as DFAT’s overall Pacific strategy.
In light of the robust agenda outlined for coordinated efforts in the Pacific Islands, the next AUSMIN could feature a separate section on the Pacific that spotlights and unifies the military, diplomatic and economic lines of effort currently in progress.
Compared with the Pacific Islands region, Southeast Asia received less attention in this year’s joint statement despite Australia’s strong diplomatic engagement with ASEAN. The region is only mentioned four times, in reference to “ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led regional architecture,” and support for “Southeast Asia’s economic, development and security priorities.” Unlike previous years, however, the partners offered direct commitments to coordinate to strengthen the capacity of Southeast Asian partners in the maritime domain (which a 2022 USSC report recently examined) and pledged a consistent presence of Australian and US aircraft and vessels in the region. Indonesia and the Philippines are mentioned by name among partners with whom the alliance hopes to deepen cooperation defence and security cooperation.
In the press conference following AUSMIN, Defense Secretary Austin summarised that the United States does “not ask countries to choose between us and other countries” and made assurances that partnership with the United States “doesn’t prohibit you from having relationships with other countries.” Such statements reflect a step-change from previous years' impassioned defences of democratic values in the region.
With the economic pillar being the oft-remarked missing piece of US strategy in Asia, and with cooperation on climate and the economy largely falling outside the portfolio of the defence and foreign ministers, it is worth considering whether a format larger than a 2+2 may be best suited to overcome the bureaucratic divisions between the US State and Commerce departments, as well as the Office of the US Trade Representative, who oversee much of the practical cooperation needed to enable the United States to advance a comprehensive agenda in the region in harmony with Australia.