Can the Australia-US Alliance Overcome Fraught Politics in Washington?

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Can the Australia-US Alliance Overcome Fraught Politics in Washington?

Biden and Albanese might be in lockstep, but actualizing AUKUS requires U.S. congressional support that cannot be guaranteed, even at this high point of Australia-U.S. relations.

Can the Australia-US Alliance Overcome Fraught Politics in Washington?

U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia hold a joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Oct. 25, 2023.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Oliver Contreras

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s state visit to the United States celebrated the alliance between the United States and Australia, which arguably has never been closer. Washington D.C. was bathed in beautiful autumnal weather for the four-day visit that commenced on October 25, yet all the pageantry, honors, and displays of personal warmth involved in such an event could not mask the ominous circumstances of these times. The expanding Israel-Gaza war, the unclear direction of the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, and China’s increasingly frequent acts of aggression on sea and in the air over international waters of the South China Sea all loomed over the proceedings. 

So too did Albanese’s upcoming and highly anticipated visit to Beijing on November 4, the first visit by an Australian prime minister since 2016. Given the tensions that have marred Australia-China relations since late 2020, great care was taken during the U.S. state visit to keep Australia’s China relations on their improving, though still tenuous, course.  

Albanese’s Washington visit was also shadowed by U.S. political turbulence playing out on Capitol Hill as the House of Representatives elected a new speaker on Wednesday from the Donald Trump-supporting faction within the Republican Party. This new leadership promises headaches for the Biden White House and its reshaped agenda for the Australian alliance, which centers on economics, climate and clean energy cooperation, and most importantly, defense via the 2021 AUKUS agreement according to the state visit releases. 

Even at the state dinner, where it was expected A-list Australian actors might grace proceedings, the tone was business-like. With the exception of Australian Indigenous rapper, the Kid Laroi, and his mother Sloane Howard, who hail from South Sydney like Albanese, the guest list was heavy on government officials from the left side of politics. The 1980s-era party band, the B-52s, were slated to perform but when the event began being described as the “love shack” state dinner, thanks to the band’s iconic hit song, more restrained music provided by the U.S. military bands was hastily arranged. Ensuring the right optics and tone for the visit was just one of many difficult diplomatic dances both leaders had to perform in a politically charged week at home and abroad.  

Although buttoned-down, the state visit showcased the political and ideological alignment of Biden and Albanese. Both champion progressive political causes on their respective domestic and foreign policy fronts. Given the rise of ardent Trump supporter Michael Johnson to the speaker of the House position, much of Biden’s agenda is now at risk. The protracted search for a new speaker cast an unwelcome shadow over Albanese’s visit on two fronts. First, he was unable to address a joint session of Congress to drum up the necessary support needed for legislation vital to the realization of AUKUS. Longer term, Johnson and his faction’s support for Australia and the AUKUS agenda is also unreliable and will be driven by the mercurial political outlook of Donald Trump. 

Even before Johnson’s ascension to the third highest political office in the United States, 25 Republicans pushed back in July on Biden’s request that legislation be enacted to reclassify Australia as a “domestic source” within the U.S. Defense Production Act. This significant alteration to Australia’s status is needed to facilitate delivery of the two essential elements of AUKUS: U.S.-made nuclear-powered submarines (pillar one of AUKUS) and the critical minerals required for the “emerging technologies and advanced military capabilities” intended to harden Australia as a military target (pillar two of AUKUS, along with extensive military cooperation).

At the end of Albanese’s state visit, the Congressional Budget Office threw cold water on Biden’s AUKUS plans for Australia’s nuclear submarine acquisition, arguing it would be “difficult and expensive for the U.S. submarine industry” to meet both U.S. and Australia’s defense force needs.

Albanese made Australia’s case in multiple meetings with members of Congress, including a meeting with new Speaker Michael Johnson on his first full day on the job. Yet Albanese left Washington without assurances of the necessary level of congressional support for the AUKUS defense gambit.

What is Australia’s Plan B if the U.S. Congress does not authorize the essential elements of AUKUS?  This is a sobering question that will require some hard conversations in the wake of Albanese’s visit. Australia is asking whether AUKUS submarines will be a “white elephant” after a former foreign minister raised that prospect following Albanese’s U.S. trip. Biden and Albanese might be in lockstep, but actualizing AUKUS requires U.S. congressional support that cannot be guaranteed, even at the high point of Australia-U.S. relations showcased in the state visit.

AUKUS has had serious problems since the surprise announcement of its existence in September 2021. The rollout of AUKUS was a diplomatic disaster. It rattled China because Beijing felt targeted and contained by the agreement; France was irritated because it lost a long-standing submarine deal it had with Australia; and many of the Pacific Island countries, which fear a resurgence of militarization in the region and a repeat of the horrors of World War II, were also unhappy. Both the United States and Australia continue to repair relations damaged by AUKUS.  

Another major flaw of AUKUS is that it was never discussed or approved by Australian voters, despite its immense geopolitical import and cost. The building of Australia’s AUKUS architecture has been a closed discussion among politicians, defense strategists, and public service mandarins. While AUKUS currently has bipartisan political support in Australia, this too might not last and it has not been future-proofed by the Australian people’s approval.  

The acquisition of nuclear submarines (SSNs) – pillar one of AUKUS – will not only be expensive but delivery is slated for a distant future (the late 2030s if the U.K. delivers SSNs, with Australian-built SSNs delivered in the early 2040s). Are these timelines appropriate given Australia’s security circumstances?  

Actualizing pillar two of AUKUS is less complicated, though the extent of knowledge and technology sharing may be hampered by U.S. politics, as already noted. Cooperation between the U.S. and Australia has been upscaled over the past two years. State visit readouts detailed the extent of AUKUS implementation to date and the plans going forward, though many on the U.S. side are contingent on congressional budget approval. Unlike in Australia, U.S. public literacy about AUKUS is very low, though recent headlines about the deaths of seven U.S. military personnel in two incidents in July and August 2023 in Northern Australia tragically focused public attention on the underlying reasons they were there.

AUKUS is all about protecting Australia and “deterring aggression” in the Indo-Pacific, a point Albanese and Biden, and others, have repeatedly made. Yet this has been a hard sell to the Pacific region, which is divided over AUKUS. President Surangel Whipps of Palau, for instance, welcomes AUKUS because his nation neighbors the Philippines. The Philippines is being so tested by China’s aggressive acts that the U.S. State Department released a statement on October 22, evoking its 1951 defense treaty obligations to the nation that “extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, and aircraft – including those of its Coast Guard – anywhere in the South China Sea.”  Whipps’ view is that “peace comes through strength” and AUKUS enhances this. 

For others in the Pacific, however, AUKUS entails escalated militarization and a foreboding return to World War II. Dame Meg Taylor, the former secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, recently said at a U.S. Institute of Peace symposium on regional security that AUKUS causes “tremendous unease” throughout the Pacific. AUKUS is fomenting regional discord in the Pacific region, and it is divorced from the security realities of many in the Pacific, where the top concerns are the climate crisis as well as economic and food security.

Biden and Albanese are aware of the need to temper the regional military focus of AUKUS with attention and action on Pacific Islands’ needs. A great deal of attention was paid to Pacific initiatives in Albanese’s state visit announcements. There is a plan to “co-finance critical maritime infrastructure projects” in Kiribati and an announcement that the United States and Australia “intend to provide $65 million to finance future submarine cable connectivity” for eight Pacific Island countries (and Timor-Leste). U.S. commitment to these projects is dependent on Congress, however.

In addition, there is a cyber resilience pilot project, which will be welcome in the region given the cyberattack that crippled Vanuatu in late 2022. Previously announced microfinancing and banking projects, the upscaled U.S. Coast Guard presence in the Pacific, and Australia’s new Pacific Engagement visa aimed at opening doors to Pacific migrations that have long been closed were also reiterated in the state visit announcements. There are no delusions in the Pacific about the flood of recent attention to their considerable needs; everyone is aware this outreach is underpinned by pragmatic policies to counter China.

As complicated as Albanese’s state visit to Washington was, given all the undercurrents of conflict and political disunity, the contradictions will no doubt pale in comparison with Albanese’s upcoming visit to Beijing. Albanese will need to deflate the alarming levels of brinksmanship in the region and he will do well to dispel the “us and them” posture that has marred Australia-China relations since late 2020. Australia indeed has a long and storied relationship with the United States that was celebrated in the state visit, but China and people of Chinese heritage are integral to Australia today in ways the U.S. and its people are not. 

Albanese has an immensely important task to perform when he meets Xi Jinping, not only for the benefit of Australia but also for the sake of the Pacific region caught in the escalating strategic competition. It will require a diplomatic dance far more nuanced and high stakes than even Washington D.C. could dish up.