Roundtable with Michael Schiffer

On Friday 3 June 2022, the Perth USAsia Centre hosted Michael Schiffer, Senior Advisor and Counselor to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for a private roundtable.

The Unites States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is a standing committee of the US Senate charged with leading foreign policy legislation and debate in the Senate.

As an advisor to the Committee, Mr Schifffer provides high level advice on US national security and foreign policy, and the impact this has on international relations including agreements with foreign powers, diplomatic nominations, treaties, military deployments and economic policy.

As the strategic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific continue to evolve and the US seeks to redefine its engagement in the region, Mr Schiffer provided insightful remarks on both domestic and international factors impacting US foreign policy.

Discussion began by reflecting on emerging regional challenges, noting first and foremost that strategic competition is no longer being characterised only by traditional geostrategic challenges.

Geoeconomic competition has become one of the most pressing challenges facing the region, with China’s increased use of economic statecraft posing a major threat to international trade.

Artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and 5G are all becoming as important to national security policy as contests in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, leading to a recognition that the US must re-evaluate its engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

The Biden Administration’s recently announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is an encouraging sign that the US is ready to re-engage on trade issues. While some countries, like Japan, are critical of the US reluctance to participate in the regional architecture through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans Pacific Partnership, this new framework is a meaningful step towards recognising the importance of US regional presence for upholding a rules-based economic order.

In order to deliver a successful Indo-Pacific strategy, it is critical that the US incorporate climate change in its regional agenda. This is the most important issue for many regional countries, particularly those in the Pacific Islands that are eager to see immediate action taken to address the existential threats that are impacting them in real-time.

However, internal politics over the issue remain fraught, and prevent any meaningful progress towards addressing the issue. The US government must urgently address its stance on climate change and overcome domestic political issues, lest its relationships throughout the Indo-Pacific take a hit.

Although the current conflict in Ukraine is one of the most pressing security issues threatening the international system, this has not diminished US understanding of importance of engaging in the Indo-Pacific.

While some may assume that US attention is diverted from the region while it seeks to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this conflict has actually sharpened the attention of US officials towards countries committed to international norms and values. As the US continues to be wary of revisionist and authoritarian regimes, countries’ positions on the conflict in Ukraine have highlighted those that are committed to democracy. 

The Australia-US alliance continues to strengthen and expand, as both countries participate in AUKUS and the Quad. However, it is important that the bilateral relationship does not become subsumed and defined within these groupings, as critical issues could go missing from the agenda.

For example, there are dangers that AUKUS will be seen as the entirety of the relationship – limiting public understanding of the Australia-US relationship as one nestled within a trilateral grouping focused only on defence issues.

There is a broad scope for Australia-US cooperation on both traditional and non-traditional security issues, and it is important that mechanisms for cooperation continue to develop with the evolving threats facing the Indo-Pacific region.

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