Two capitals, one focus

By Professor Gordon Flake

Over the past two weeks I had the good fortune of visiting both Washington DC and Tokyo and found a remarkably similar focus in both capitals.

I was honoured to be in Washington, DC for the official state visit for our Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hosted by US President Joe Biden last week. While no one does pomp and circumstance quite as well as the British, the Americans are not far behind. Prime Minister Albanese was only the fourth national leader to be given the honour of a State Visit by President Biden, following the leaders of France, India, and South Korea. In addition to a city bedecked with US and Australian flags, the official welcome ceremony on the South lawn of the White House, and a glittering state dinner, there were substantive meetings, a joint press conference, a luncheon hosted at the State Department by Vice President Harris and an intense focus on an uncertain world. Despite concerns that the ongoing crises in the Middle East and Ukraine would distract from the week’s bilateral focus, the shared approach between Australia and the United States only seemed to strengthen the central message of the week. Not surprisingly, much the media reporting out of Washington, DC focused on important issues such as international cooperation, progress in the AUKUS trilateral defence agreement, and a significant commitment to investment in Australia by Microsoft.

It is worth noting, however, there was a particular and sustained focus on Australia-US cooperation on energy transition, climate change, and critical minerals. The only cabinet member to accompany Prime Minister Albanese on his visit to Washington, DC was our friend and former colleague the Honourable Madeleine King, member for Brand and minister for resources. Her participation says a lot about what is increasingly becoming known as the third pillar of the Australia-US Alliance, alongside our defence and economic cooperation.

To understand this past week in Washington, DC one first needs to understand the landmark US Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. This Act represents the largest investment in addressing climate change in US history and has committed more than US$783 billion to that end. The initial reaction from countries allied with the United States, such as Australia, was to regard this as a tremendous opportunity for Australians to be part of the critical minerals supply chains that are so important for the global transition to clean energy. However, closer examination of the Act made it apparent that there were risks that the understandable intent of the Act to build and strengthen industry in the United States might perversely undermine Australia’s desired progression in becoming more than just a miner of natural resources and in moving up the supply chain in the processing of those resources.

Evidence of the close relationship between Australia and the United States can be found in the fact that both countries have worked together to ensure that there is ever closer cooperation in this field. In May of 2023, on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, our two leaders announced an “Australia-United States Climate, Critical Minerals, and Clean Energy Transformation Compact,” which is rightly and specifically seen as rectifying some of the challenges posed by the Inflation Reduction Act. This past week in Washington, DC, the United States and Australia jointly convened a senior-level Critical Minerals Task Force designed to move the agenda agreed upon in Hiroshima forward. Not only did Minister Madeleine King chair that task force but also a broad engagement with industry and other stakeholders in the form of a Critical Minerals and Industry roundtable.

Following those two meetings, it was both an honour and a pleasure to sit down together with Minister King in the stunning new Australian Embassy in Washington, DC to host a fireside chat and appraise the broader policymaking committee community on the progress that has been made to date.

This week I was able to join West Australian Premier Roger Cook and Deputy Premier Rita Saffioti to fly to Japan on the inaugural direct flight of ANA (All Nippon Airways) between Perth in Tokyo. In addition to celebrating that important people-to-people and business-to-business bridge between Western Australia and Japan, Premier Cook also officially opened a new office for the growing and dynamic Invest and Trade WA team in Tokyo, hosted what is likely the largest audience of the Western Australia-focused Japanese and business and policy community ever assembled in Tokyo, and lead a discussion with senior diplomatic and industry leaders at an “Energy and Resources Seminar” hosted by the Australian Embassy in Japan.

Not surprisingly the conversation in Tokyo also centred on the importance of critical minerals to energy transition, to future batteries, and to supply chain security. Premier Cook’s visit to Tokyo comes almost exactly a year after Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio visited Perth. That visit and the visit this week serve to highlight a shared recognition between Japan and Australia that the road to future energy transition, the road to rare earths, the road to new battery technology, and the road to supply chain security, all run squarely through WA. It also highlighted the foundational role that Japan has played in the development of the Western Australian economy in the past and the essential role the Japan will play in the development of future oriented industry going forward.

These two visits back to back make it clear to me that the fundamental questions surrounding energy transition and critical minerals are not ones that will be solved unilaterally by any country nor were they sought be solved bilaterally by any two countries, including Australia and United States or Australia in Japan, the combined effort and industry of Japan Australia in the United States together with other like-minded partners in the region and around the globe however are cause for genuine optimism. This optimism can only be fuelled by the connectivity I have been fortunate to witness personally over the past week.

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