Sunday 22 May 2022 | 23:51 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 May 2022 | 23:51 | SYDNEY

AUSMIN puts icing on the alliance cake


Rory Medcalf


16 September 2011 14:30

The big annual AUSMIN meeting, where Australia's defence and foreign ministers get together with their US counterparts, has just concluded in San Francisco. This year's talks marked the 60th anniversary of the Australia-US alliance, and the communiqué is rich birthday fare.

The document rewards close reading. Tightened cooperation on cyber security is being sold by both governments as the big deliverable, since the anticipated breakthroughs on US access or basing are still being negotiated. But that is just the icing. As with last year's communique, this cake has many layers. Here's a quick taste. 

Reaffirmation of the alliance

Goes without saying, one might think. But the language this year is exceptionally strong: 'an anchor of stability', 'shared values', 'proud and deep relationship', a 'storied tradition' (nice turn of phrase), 'adapting and innovating to face the challenges of the 21st century'. Whatever the dire prognostications of one school of commentary, the alliance is stronger than ever – and this is at least as much what Australia wants as what America needs.


We all know that very much of this is about China. But the language on China is sensible and balanced. There is a renewal of messages about seeking partnership, emphasising common interests and the need for continuous communication between militaries to prevent misunderstanding and crisis – a widely-repeated refrain this year.

Connecting the spokes to include South Korea and India

The document is a resounding endorsement of the emerging web of security links between US allies and partners. The US-Australia-Japan trilateral dialogue is still touted as the most important of these. But there is newly-forthright support for what would seem to be four-way 'training and integration' among the US, Australia, Japan and South Korea to deal with dangers and provocations posed by North Korea. 

And note the tantalising language on relations among Australia, the US and India: 'Identify areas of potential cooperation between the United States, Australia and India, including maritime security, disaster risk management and regional architecture'. Could this be the first hint of new trilateral process among the three key democratic players in the Indian Ocean? My chapter in this year's just-released Strategic Asia volume has some thoughts on this score.

Missile defence

As with the 2010 communique, the odd and cautious language is code for: 'It's a bit frustrating — the Australian defence establishment is really interested in connecting with the missile defence architecture of the US and its allies, but resistance within parts of the Labor Party remains a problem'.

South China Sea

These are firm messages. The two countries not only declare their national interest in freedom of navigation in these contested waters, they also say that they 'oppose the use of coercion or force to advance the claims of any party or interfere with legitimate economic activity'. Not 'condemn', 'reject' or 'deplore', but 'oppose'. Opposing is an active posture. It means that one day words might need to be translated into action.

Photo by Flickr user Andy Ciordia.