November 20, 2013
Ausmin talks mark crucial test of US-Australia relationship
Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Journalist Nick O'Malley
The Foreign Minister Julie Bishop begins talks in Washington, DC, at what some see as the most critical time in the Australian-US relationship since World War II, with trade and military aspects of the American "pivot" to Asia in question.
The annual "Ausmin" sessions will be held in the shadow of the diplomatic crisis in Australia's relationship with Indonesia caused by a leak from America's largest intelligence organization, the National Security Agency.
Meanwhile the US needs to find broad consensus with Australia if the Obama administration is to complete negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership on schedule. The TPP — the economic pillar of the pivot, Mr Obama's key long-term foreign policy objective — would be the world's largest free trade agreement, designed to help bind the region into a stable economic zone.
After a State Department dinner on Tuesday night talks begin on Wednesday between Ms. Bishop and her American counterpart, Secretary of State, John Kerry, as well as the Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston and the US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. The meetings will include senior officials from both parties.
It is likely that Australian officials will ask their American counterparts if they should expect to see more damaging leaks from the NSA, says Ely Ratner, the author of a new report from the Center for a New American Security on how America might sustainably increase its military presence in Australia and the region.
A senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Randy Forbes, told Fairfax it would be fair for Australian officials to ask for reassurance and explanations over the leaks from Edward Snowden, the fugitive former NSA contractor.
But he said it was impossible for America to make absolute guarantees that security breaches would not happen in future.
Mr. Forbes, whose committee is holding hearings into the pivot praised the CNAS report, and echoed its call for a broad White House review of the strategy. Last week the Committee hosted a meeting of ambassadors from the region, including Australia's Kim Beazley.
Mr. Ratner, who wrote the report, Resident Power, Building a Politically Sustainable US Military Presence in Southeast Asia and Australia, said he expected the Ausmin talks to also cover a timetable for the planned increase of the US Marine contingent rotating through Darwin as well as the possibility of increasing US military training in Australia's north, formalising the rotation of US bombers through the Tindal RAAF base, the possibility of America supporting an expansion of Australia's amphibious military capability and better cooperation in unmanned surveillance of Australia's northwest.
The most senior Democratic Party member of the Armed Services Committee, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii, told Fairfax it was crucial that before the upcoming quadrennial review of US defence spending next year that Congress had a detailed plan for the pivot.
"The hearings are going to focus on the military component... how is that going to be defined in the [spending review]. Where? How? Much? What? What are we building? Where are we going to go? What's the end objective of it?"
She said she believed such details would be discussed in the Ausmin talks this week.
"The assumption that I make is... Australia would like to have this fleshed out, as well," she said.
Reflecting Mr Ratner's findings in the Resident Power report she said it was important that the pivot was based not only on strengthened ties between America and its friends in the region, but between various regional players, such as Australia and its neighbours.
"I think the interesting thing is the United States has always worked on a bilateral kind of situation. In other words, we believe we're the hub and everyone else is a spoke. We need to get over that.
"The reality is some people are going to like each other a lot better than they're going to like us. We can benefit from your relationship from people who may not like us. Australia can probably be better at certain relationships than we can and I think the problem is that we have for so long been the centre."
She said the long term impact of the Snowden leaks would depend on the strength of the relationships already developed in the region.
While the administration maintains that it wants TPP negotiations finished this year, Congress is already baulking, threatening to withhold authority to fast track the talks. Both progressives and conservatives are signalling concern at some elements revealed in leaked negotiating documents.
"If this agreement is brokered and the US can't get it through Congress it sends a terrible message through the region and the world about American leadership. I don't even like to think about it, it is a scary thought," said Mr Ratner.
Australia will be critical to that effort says Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a leading DC think tank. He says Australia "punches above its weight" in regional multilateral negotiations, and the US will need Australia's help to bring about a consensus over some sticking points.
"The relationship with Australia is one of the few certainties [for America] in a very uncertain world," he said.
The leaked documents suggest that Australia supports the controversial US position on extending intellectual property protections for drug companies and Hollywood, but is still opposed to a US-backed proposal to allow companies to sue governments.
The inclusion of such a provisions could have prevented Australia's plain packaging regulation or make it difficult in future for an Australian government to regulate fracking.
He said if the two foreign ministers failed to find common ground on the key issues on the table this week, it would be "considered a grave setback" to the TPP, and by extension, to the pivot.