Digital Snapshot

by Katja Theodorakis


Digital Snapshot #2/21


Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.

“President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke today with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia to highlight the strength of the U.S.-Australia alliance, which remains an anchor of stability in the Indo-Pacific and the world.

They discussed how we can work together to address global and regional challenges,

including dealing with China, beating the COVID-19 pandemic, and combating climate change.

They also agreed to work together, alongside other allies and partners, to hold to account those responsible for the coup in Burma.

The leaders affirmed their commitment to working together to advance our shared values, global security and prosperity.

Readout of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Call with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, February 3 2021

Australia’s relationship with the US is stable, underpinned by the pillars of the historic ANZUS security treaty, and has endured remarkably unharmed under the Trump administration. In the words of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, commenting on his first phone conversations with President/Elect and President Biden:

“I’ve just spoken to President-elect Joe Biden to congratulate him on his election. There are no greater friends and no greater allies than Australia and the US.  I look forward to strengthening even further our deep and enduring alliance, and to working with him closely as we face the world’s many challenges together. We look forward to celebrating the 70th anniversary of ANZUS next year.” November 2020

“In terms of our relations between Australia and the United States, there’s nothing to fix there, only things to build on…. Mr Biden absolutely respects Australia’s commitment to doing our share of the heavy lifting in this relationship. ((We) spoke of the fact that Australia looks to the United States, but we never leave it to the United States February 3 2021

From Alliance management to a Revived Partnership? What Can we Expect from US-Australia Ties under the new Administration?

Within the parameters of continuing stability in the US-Australia alliance, two key interrelated concerns have emerged in regards to the possible effects of the Biden administration for Australia; they center around the question of relative decline of US power and what this means for Canberra. Given the common criticism that

Will Australia be able to carve out a more independent foreign policy path with the Biden administration? One analyst issued “a call to make Australian diplomacy and statecraft less tethered to alliance management and mobilised much more smartly to prosecute the nation’s distinctive interests in this part of the world”

For some observers the core question is how much President Biden’s foreign policy will resemble the course taken by the Obama administration. Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ was seen as an enthusiastic yet in the end overly cautious, compromised  approach that did not deliver on its commitments to enhancing security, prosperity and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, thereby failing to fully serve Australian strategic interests and security needs. As one analyst commented, “Australians have heard successive US administrations talk up Asia’s importance even as their initiatives have been under-resourced in funds, focus, or people.”

A key priority for Australia is working with the US to build a regional consensus that can hold a balance of power in line with Australian interests. Given Australia’s preference for a pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves-type foreign policy, there are expectation on the Biden administration to prioritise the Indo-Pacific in its security and defence policy – not only in words but deeds. Beyond the rhetorical commitments of value-focused strategy documents or policy frameworks, the current government in Canberra is reported to hold hopes for a US Indo-Pacific strategy firmly backed by concrete actions.   

Australian officials look forward to a more nunanced, principle-driven China strategy under Biden. An equally assertive yet less inflammatory US stance that stays clear of framing the US-China tensions as a ‘new cold war’ would help Australia navigate its strained relations with China, possibly easing some pressures exacerbated by the Trump administration’s confrontational course.  Moving away from Trumpian incendiary rhetoric and transactional foreign policy impetus, a more constructively approach that relies on constructive engagement and greater coordination with allies on how to counter China’s power would be greatly welcomed in Canberra.

Yet, in conjunction with the overarching issue of America’s waning global leadership and loss of power/legitimacy, there are question marks around how much engagement can be expected of an administration that has been thrown into the mammoth challenge of having to urgently devise a national COVID-19 recovery plan to reverse the expansive damage wrought by the Trump administration’s failed pandemic response.

There was reportedly some concern in Canberra that the US could prioritize a grand climate change agreement at the expense of a firmer stance and robust measures to reign in China. It was quickly noted in Australia however that – while this may have been a realistic worry under the Obama administration – Biden’s appointed national security adviser had previously ruled out the prospect of any kind of “grand bargain” with China, even affirming US’ commitment to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Australia in response to Chinese influence efforts to discredit Australia in December 2020.

In a speech proposing his vision for the Australia-US alliance if Labor won the next federal election Opposition leader Anthony Albanese called on Joe Biden on the eve of his inauguration to give the Asia-Pacific region due focus by setting out a detailed regional strategy . Stating that “Australia’s interests call[ed] for greater, more strategic effort from the US in Southeast Asia, he specifically asked for the US to rejoin the TTP. Criticizing the Morrison government for failing the region through its lack of climate change action and diplomatic engagement. Albanese concluded that “Australia should be doing all it can to help show the way for the US to support Indo-Pacific regional pandemic recovery, reinforce ASEAN centrality and strengthen regional architecture.”

The Opposition Leader, alongside other key Labor politicians, had previously criticized Morrison’s ‘inappropriate’ closeness to Donald Trump and used his foreign policy speech to accuse the PM of damaging the US-Australia alliance by refusing to speak out against Trump’s attempts to undermine US democracy. [1]

For the Labor opposition, whose loss at the last federal election was reportedly in part due to a lack of a convincing, coherent climate change agenda that assured the majority of Australians that the nation’s resource-driven surplus would not be in danger, Biden’s climate change agenda is naturally of great interest.

Key Topics in the US-Australia Relationship

*  Climate policy: How the Biden administration’s activist, principled

stance will affect the Morrison government’s climate change policies has been a much-debated question.  In light of the Morrison government’s unwillingness to make a firm commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 – as Biden has done – critical observers warn of the risk ofAustralia isolating itself internationally, with possibly significant trade and investment implications. While the Australian trade minister has denied allegations Australia was on a collision course with the new administration in regards to climate change, PM Morrison has been foreshadowing concessions and highlighted the shared commitment to technology between the US and Australia as an avenue towards common ground.

*Trade and Multilateral Engagement: Advancing a collective regional strategy, revive regional partnerships and work together to reform the WTO?

While a return to the TTP is seen by many Australian analysts as unlikely in the near future, the question of whether the US will join the TTP’s upgraded version, the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership has been a point of interest in Australia. President Biden’s pledge to revitalise America’s engagement in multilateral forums, a reversal from Trump’s hostility to international cooperation and regional partnerships, has been met with great relief by Australian officials. It is seen as a very promising step to counteract waning US influence in key multilateral decision-making bodies and restore US legitimacy and faith in its security guarantees.

PM Morrison commented on this key aspect of the relationship after his February 3 phone call with Biden: “we talked a lot about working together in forums that bring together like-minded, market-based democracies, …the president-elect understands this part of the world extremely well”.

And instead of a revived TTP membership, Biden’s focus is expected to be on smaller “sectoral deals around 5G, artificial intelligence and digital trade – where Australia, Japan and Korea will be key.” Such targeted cooperation would be much-welcomed by Canberra which prefers pragmatic engagement. A potential Australian role in supporting Biden’s proposed Summit of Democracies is for instance seen as less straightforward, with concern amongst Canberra’s senior bureaucrats that Australian involvement would be perceived as “lecturing Asians on democracy”.

Constructing a regional consensus and balance of power that serves Australian interests will be easier if the US approach is not predominantly values-framed; Canberra’s preferred approach is more topic-focused, “based on interests, informed by, but not focused on values.” This is because an overtly normative foreign policy based on ‘liberal values’ is seen as antagonizing many governments in the region, counterproductive to building much-needed coalitions with nations who share strategic interests with the US and Australia but may not be (fully) committed to liberal values and democratic practices.

Security and Defence Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

Key points

  • Security top of the agenda in Morrison/Biden phone call,
  • China seen as the primary challenge for the ANZUS alliance.
  • Focus on building relations with QUAD nations

The Morrison government is reportedly working behind the scenes with Quad partners to arrange a leaders’ meeting, following a request from US President Joe Biden. The main purpose would be for Australia, the US, Japan and India to work together to counter growing

Chinese assertiveness in the region. The reported push for a Quad leaders’ meeting, alongside other signs like the National Security advisor’s call for a ‘chorus of voices’ to respond to Beijing, is interpreted in Australia as indicating “that Washington intends to muscle up to Beijing.”

Australia’s precarious position in Beijing’s crosshairs over its unwillingness to kowtow to China means it needs reliable security partners. This strategically aligns with the US position based on the fundamental tenets of the ANZUS security alliance and regardless of the specific course a particular administration takes; this was highlighted by Australia’s commitment to enhanced US-Australia security and defence cooperation at the 2020 AUSMIN meetings. Foreign Minister Payne and Defence Minister Reynolds specifically traveled to the US in July 2020, amidst surging COVID-19 cases in the US, to signal Australia’s renewed commitment to the historical security relationship. Demonstrating continued alignment, they signed on to a package of measures intended to push back China’s influence in the region.

Here, they declared Australia’s commitment to security dialogues with Japan and India and potentially other countries willing to help balance China’s rising military power and agreed to more joint freedom-of-navigation patrols, and- alongside a US-funded strategic military fuel reserve in the Northern Territory – an expansion of the US marine rotational force in Darwin. This has immediate relevance for joint action over Taiwan as a likely flashpoint of future conflict, possibly triggering armed intervention.

Moreover, Australian responses to the recent public release of the US’  Indo-Pacific Security Framework from 2018, revealing the priorities of US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, highlight Australia’s closeness with the US on security matters.  Experts in Australia have commented that the timing of the declassification may have been strategically chosen to signal policy continuity, especially in light of concerns that a Biden administration may not be fully committed to challenging China’s bid for dominance. The document is interpreted as serving as “a rallying cry for regional solidarity against coercive Chinese power.”

According to US experts on China, the Australian experience of having to stand up to China’s regional and domestic influence strongly influenced the drafting of the US’ 2018 Indo-Pacific strategy:

“In many ways they were ahead of the curve in understanding influence operations and interference in domestic systems,” one senior U.S. official is quoted saying: They were pioneers and we have to give a lot of credit to Australia.”

The US official singled out former Australian senior intelligence advisor John Garnaut for praise, and said a 2017 report on Chinese influence operations by New Zealand-based scholar Anne-Marie Brady had also influenced the U.S. strategy.

Referring to the US’ 2018 Indo-Pacific frameworkAustralian security expert Rory Metcalf: noted howthis confirms that US strategic policy in the Indo-Pacific was in substantial part informed and driven by allies and partners, especially Japan, Australia and India.

Moreover, speaking after the release of the framework, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Australian Government had aclear-eyed, realistic view of the tensions in the region at the time, including the need to maintain and bolster alliances and stand up against coercion. We took a number of measures, banning Chinese vendors and the 5G network, we did that in advance of the United States”

The Good News

However, while ‘hard power’ projections like a demonstrative military presence in the Indo-Pacific are not expected from the EU or Germany in the same way as from traditional security allies like the US, they can go a long way in strengthening transatlantic as well as bilateral relations with Australia. German Defence Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer’s offer of increased German commitment to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific for instance was most warmly welcomed, with the potential

of serving as a solid foundation for increased bilateral ties. Accordingly, any concrete gesture from Germany that signals increased

commitment to supporting a regional security architecture and balance of power based on will help towards gaining leverage as an important contributor to furthering the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. The joint action between Australia and the EU in calling for a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the gains made towards completing the Australia – EU FTA point to opportunities for the EU or Germany to play a more active role in enhancing cooperation

amongst like-minded and strategic partners in the area of trade and developing a united multilateral front against China.

There may for instance be benefit in Australia joining the trade ministers of the US, the European Union and Japan as they’re working through some of the brass-tack issues of trade with China, including technology transfer, investment, industrial subsidies and WTO

reform. Former Labor MP Kevin Rudd, criticizing the Liberal government’s lack of relationship-building with Brussels and other individual EU capitals, for instance commented that “these

countries will be critical in terms of the success or failure of any multilateral pushback against China over trade.” Initiating a permanent

transatlantic consultative forum on such sensitive issues  – as some experts have suggested,  could hence enhance the EU’s credibility as an

international actor carrying its fair share of the responsibilities – and there could be a role for Germany or the EU to include Australia.

Moreover, as the climate policy commitments of the von- der-Leyen-Commission converge with the Biden administration’s pledge to renew US leadership in global climate diplomacy, the EU could use its normative power to support US efforts to directly engage the

leaders of the major greenhouse-gas-emitting countries in a global summit. Bringing Australia to the table, as a climate-change-reluctant actor, could help towards overcoming some of the core sticking points in the US-Australia relationship and signal German alignment with US interests in a crucial policy area; this could go a long way in highlighting the cooperation potential of the transatlantic alliance.

And How Does Europe Figure Into This?

In the difficult dilemma faced by many Western governments, whether their overall stance and policy choices should be driven more bynational security objectives or economic interest when it comes to engagement with China, Australia has taken a firm stance against passivity, compromise or complacency in countering the CCP’s coercive expansion agenda. Yet Australia’s natural alignment with the US

in this regard should not be taken as a sign of Australia simply following

Washington’s line as a militarily weaker ally in need of protection. Instead – and this has been brought to light by the commentary on Australia’s influence on the US Indo-Pacific security framework – Australia has independently developed a suite of policy measures that have been described as

pioneering in opening America’s eyes to the threat posed by China”,  with Australia now “leading the push-back against China “

This shows how Australia seeks to develop a sensible China policy that

can overcome the ‘trade-versus security’ dilemma and stay clear of a ‘trade war’- approach to China. As one analysis paper put it,

 “Australians back a competitiveapproach to Beijing, but they want it to be smart, strategic, and multilateral”

And to achieve such a balanced, multilateral and strategically smart

approach, Australia needs reliable partners alongside the US with a clear-eyed, principled yet nuanced stance towards China.

It is hard to imagine the EU and Germany would play any significant role in influencing or shaping Australia’s relationship with the Biden administration on developing a cohesive, multilateral approach to China in the Indo-Pacific. For this end, Australia would need the EU and its most influential member states like Germany to take a firm, clearly aligned position on the threat posed by China. The lack of strategic clarity and cohesion evident in the European Commission’s  “flexible and pragmatic” China policy – officially labeling China  “a cooperation  partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival” in 2019-  does not put the EU in a position of influence in this regard.

Moreover, Germany’s enthusiasm in driving forward the EU-China investment deal signals to allies like the US and value-partners like Australia alike that it cannot be seen as a fully dependable partner when it tries to stay ‘neutral’ towards China – a power actively trying to shape and even take leadership of a revamped  international order suited to its own power and interests. This disjuncture is even more painfully driven home by political leaders’ statements that make clear a  German/ European reluctance, or even outright refusal, to ‘take sides’ in what they narrowly define as a US-China great power rivalry; trying to steer a neutral course does not bode well for the renewal of the transatlantic relationship.  As one analyst poignantly put it, a  Europe  unconvinced  of  the  value  of  transatlantic  bonds  is  a  plum  ripe  for China’s picking” .

As long as Germany is not seen as firmly on the side of its long-standing ally and other aligned value partners when it comes to calling out/standing up to Chinese attempts to undermine the rules-based international order and manipulate the rules of economic engagement, it has no real leverage to constructively shape Australian–US relations. Moreover, as the EU and individual member states struggle to put skin on its vision of ‘strategic autonomy’ and translate greater burden-sharing in defence and security matters into tangible actions, its leverage on influencing multilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific –  an area of not only great strategic interest but necessity for Australia -is expectedly low.