WA Launch of ‘The Alliance at 70’

By Professor Stephen Smith

The following article has been adapted from speech notes presented by Professor Stephen Smith at the WA launch of ‘The Alliance at 70’ at Government House on 7 December 2021.

In my capacity as a member of the Board of the Perth USAsia Centre, and Chair of the UWA Defence and Security Institute, I was very pleased to join with the Governor of Western Australia, The Honourable Kim Beazley AC, for the WA launch of the United States Studies Centre’s publication, The Alliance at 70, to mark the 70th Anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in San Francisco on 1 September 1951.

A Commemorative Launch

The USSC launch itself took place in Sydney on 7 December 2021. It was originally set down for 1 September but was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

It is entirely fitting then, that as a consequence of that delay, we marked the publication of the book and the 70th Anniversary of the Alliance on the 80th Anniversary of Pearl Harbour Day on 7 December 1941.

In his remarks at the launch, the Governor referred to his oration Facing Existential Threats: Curtin to now, which he delivered earlier that week as the John Curtin Anniversary Lecture at the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library at Curtin University.

Indeed, if you are a student of the Australia-US Alliance, you now need look no further than the Governor’s lecture and the USSC’s publication as your resource materials for a detailed understanding of all things ‘Alliance’.

In his lecture, the Governor detailed what he regarded as the key phases of the Alliance, starting as most historians do with the period 1942-1951, the first phase or the beginning that I refer to as the ‘de facto Alliance’ pending signature of the Treaty and therefore the ‘de jure Alliance’ in 1951.

Indeed, the Governor and I were chatting before the evening’s formalities, and we made the point that given Pearl Harbour was 1941, and Prime Minister Curtin’s famous ‘The Task Ahead’ letter to the Melbourne Herald was published 27 December 1941 (“Without any inhibition of any kind I make it clear that Australia looks to America…), perhaps we should technically start from 1941!

The Governor, both in his lecture and again at the launch, included AUKUS in his analysis of Alliance phases, that AUKUS can perhaps be regarded as the starting of a new phase in the Alliance.

Different historians have different favourite or key phases of the Alliance, none of which are necessarily exclusively right or wrong.

UWA Defence and Security Institute Director Professor Peter Dean, who will publish on the Alliance again in 2022, for example, includes in his analysis the 1942-1951 period, the 1960’s as a period of consolidation or entrenchment of the Alliance, the mid to late 1970’s post- Vietnam period, the 1989 post-Cold War period, the War on Terror era, the 2011 US Pivot, and the 2021 Integrated Defence and Deterrence era.

AUSMIN: Then and Now

Here, I want to focus on the modern era of the Alliance, and its modern operational instrument AUSMIN, which commenced in 1985.

AUSMIN is of course the Australia-US 2+2 Ministerial Meeting between Australia’s Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence and their US counterparts, the US Secretaries of State and Defence.

AUSMIN has often been questioned or criticised by commentators for not driving the Alliance agenda and operational engagement purposefully enough. On the other hand, I am of the view that it has been a very effective forum, certainly from an Australian perspective.

The year 1985 of course marked the New Zealand withdrawal from the Alliance, and the challenge of what would replace what had been, until then, the traditional Annual Trilateral Australia-New Zealand-US meeting.

AUSMIN first met in 1985, and the Governor was among its Ministerial attendees. In the 36 years since, AUSMIN has met 30 times.

The six lost meetings are generally explicable by the holding of an election in that particular year, more so on the Australian side than the US side, given neither a fixed term nor date in our national election cycle.

The AUSMIN communiques themselves are a treasure trove of Alliance issues, challenges, outcomes, achievements and history. Unfortunately, they are in very many respects much underappreciated documents. There is a PhD in the offing just in the chronological examination of the communiques!

From 1985 until now, we see the emergence of the strategic notion of the Indo-Pacific, the rise of China, the rise of India, the emergence of Indonesia as a potential global influence not just an ASEAN influence, a dramatically changed China, and the notion of strategic competition, integrated defence and integrated deterrence.

This has seen a much greater strategic focus now than previously on the Indian Ocean, and the ‘Indo’ side of the Indo-Pacific. It has also seen a sharpened focus on Force Posture, in particular US Global Force Posture, but also our own, including our Two Ocean Policy in the 1980’s and more recently our northern and western approaches.

Most clearly in the Australian public’s eyes, this has been seen through the annual rotation of US Marines through Darwin, announced during President Obama’s November 2011 visit to Australia, having been worked up formally through AUSMIN at and following the 2011 60th Anniversary meeting in San Francisco.

It also included greater US utilisation of Australia’s northern Air Force bases, and the promise of greater utilisation of HMAS Stirling south of Perth for greater US Naval visits.

All these were effectively reprised at the 2021 AUSMIN meeting, which was of course headlined by the AUKUS announcement.

These developments have been of particular interest to Western Australia and Western Australians, including those Western Australians who have been attendees at AUSMIN.

As this is a WA launch, hosted by the Governor, but primarily done via the auspices of the Perth USAsia Centre, the sister Centre to the USSC, I thought it worthy of an analysis from a Western Australian perspective, not to be parochial, but to see the significance of a Western Australian contribution through an ongoing period where our location or geography was and is strategically important.

Of the 30 AUSMIN meetings since 1985, Western Australians have attended 17 meetings at Ministerial level (Ministers Beazley, Bishop, Johnston, Reynolds and Smith), with 19 separate Western Australian attendances if you include the two AUSMIN meetings where the Australian delegation comprised Julie Bishop and David Johnston, both of whom were present at the launch on 7 December.

I think this has been a particularly important contribution given the strategic relevance of our geography and force posture, and perhaps reflects the anecdotal analysis that Western Australians do seem to take a heightened interest in matters international, defence and security.

This attendance check caused me to look further into national attendance records. I took as my guide a minimum of four attendances, reflecting the fixed Presidential term. The results were to me surprising: only two US Secretaries of State or Defence have attended AUSMIN on four occasions.

On the Australian side, seven Australian Ministers of Defence or Foreign Affairs have attended AUSMIN on four or more occasions (three of whom are West Australians). Such continuity in this important Ministerial meeting is a considerable benefit to pursuing national interest issues over the longer haul.

Interestingly, venues for AUSMIN meetings are also revealing.

I suspect that as a general proposition, most people would expect that the meetings in the main would be held in Washington DC, and some in Canberra. Not far from the facts, but with some nuances.

Of the 30 AUSMIN meetings, 12 have been held in Washington DC, and four in Canberra, but with seven in Sydney, and one in Melbourne, so 12 as well for Australia’s eastern seaboard political and population centres. Three have been held in San Francisco or surrounds, the first in 1985, including one for 60th Anniversary purposes in 2011. The final three have been ‘home town visits’ (Adelaide, Perth and Boston). All up, 16 in the USA and 14 in Australia, consistent with the rotational nature of the meeting.

Developing Modern Approaches to the Alliance

Over this period, AUSMIN has also seen the joint development of modern technological approaches to our Alliance, in addition to the original joint facilities.

We have referred to these in AUSMIN communiques as Alliance practical cooperation measures on 21st Century security challenges, all of which operate under the Full Knowledge and Concurrence Principle, as do the practical cooperation measures under the force posture initiatives.

These range from space, to satellite and defence communications, to cyber, and include the establishment and deployment of the Jointly Operated US C Band Radar at H. E. Holt Communications Station, and the relocation of the advanced US Space Surveillance Telescope to Australia.

AUKUS adds to the list of modern technological challenges, and once you move beyond nuclear powered submarines, includes quantum technology, AI, data theft, disinformation and propaganda, attacks on critical infrastructure, supply chain disruption, and space.

Indeed, more than enough content for 30 more AUSMIN meetings, let alone AUKUS deliberations.

It was my pleasure and honour to share these remarks on the occasion of the 80th Anniversary of Pearl Harbour Day, and to join with the Governor to mark the 70th Anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty with the Western Australian launch of the United States Studies Centre publication The Alliance at 70.

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