AUSMIN 2010: On Gates and Clinton in Australia

After many months of preparation, the Obama administration is starting to enjoy some gains from its ambitious attempt to reengage with the Asia-Pacific while simultaneously redefining the scope, objectives and means of that engagement, and in such a way as to cover the broad range of U.S. interests in economic, security and diplomatic affairs rather than proceeding from a military-heavy perspective, for instance.

While most of the media has been focusing mainly on President Obama’s trip to Asia (which is understandable), Hillary Clinton met up with Robert Gates in Australia for the 2010 edition of the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultation (AUSMIN 2010). AUSMIN 2010 took place on November 8 in Melbourne, after a weekend of wide-ranging but apparently in-depth discussions between Secretaries Gates and Clinton on the one hand and Australian leaders on the other (the Australian ministers of defense and of foreign affairs, but also, in Hillary Clinton’s case, the new Australian Prime Minister). The last time both the Secretary of State and of Defense went to Australia for a Ministerial Consultation was in 2001. The presence of the two top envoys together immediately suggests an attempt to convey a dramatic reassessment of the importance of the US-Australia relationship. Its elevated status did not come about in a vacuum; upon closer examination, it would appear that this summit was designed to convey and reflect the new role Australia will play in the newly reconfigured policy for engagement with the Asia-Pacific region that the Obama administration has been working toward for for over 18 months.

Without going back quite that far here, I believe it is fair to consider the stop in Australia as the culminating point of Secretary Clinton’s two-week trip to Asia – a trip that began with an important and excellent speech in Hawaii laying out or reminding people of the Obama administration’s policy for engaging with the Asia-Pacific nations. (Cf. accompanying summary of the speech.) It sends a clear signal that the U.S. is moving away from a posture overly reliant on its traditional military alliances in East Asia (Japan and South Korea) to establish a broader network of partnerships.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd, right, entertains Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Melbourne. Source: The Australian

The U.S.-Japan alliance has traditionally been described by US officials as “the cornerstone of American engagement in the Asia-Pacific,” and Hillary Clinton continues to refer to it as such. The new approach being implemented by this administration seeks to reengage with the Asia-Pacific in a broader region. Doing so implies diversifying American partners in the region beyond its allies in North-East Asia. However, in redefining how America engages with partners and the region, US officials have no intention of lessening their commitment to maintaining strong alliances with Tokyo and Seoul; nor do they view this expanded presence as being thrust upon the region irrespective of the will of local actors. Hillary Clinton noted in her speech in Hawaii that “[t]he most common thing that Asian leaders have said to me in my travels over this last 20 months is thank you, we’re so glad you’re playing an active role in Asia again’.”

During AUSMIN 2010, Australia was described as “the strategic anchor of U.S. engagement with Asia-Pacific.” Indeed, an alliance with Australia that is not only revitalized but enhanced both in scope and in visibility serves multiple purposes in the new framework.

First of all, from a purely military perspective related to defense posture issues (the distribution of US troops deployed abroad), the recent tensions surrounding US basing in Japan have required the Defense Department find other housing solutions for a number of troops. US officials, both within DoD and the State Department, have repeatedly conveyed their rejection of any reduction in America’s military posture in the region. Australia’s willingness to consider hosting a larger US military presence as long as the politically sensitive issue of building new bases for the Americans is avoided, does more than just provide defense officials with a critical outlay that prevents the perspective of Guam becoming over-saturated. Expediency seems to coincide on this matter with strategic objectives in a rather fortunate manner for U.S. officials, who have the opportunity to convey what a more balanced projection of US power is supposed to look like and how it plays out it the expanded Asia-Pacific zone. For all practical purposes, Australia (with New Zealand) now delineates the south-eastern limit of this expanded region. By virtue of their geographical location, these countries should help US policy escape the trap of China-centrism and some of the inevitable entanglements that arise from tensions in East Asia, given the less than ideal state of both Japan’s and South Korea’s relationships with China, as well as with North Korea.

However, adopting a broader and more equitably distributed posture means the US will have more freedom to define their engagement with a region that includes China but doesn’t revolve as much around it. This doesn’t mean that China will no longer play a role in US strategic deliberations, simply that the United States will be able to pursue various avenues of cooperation and have a greater freedom to expand them over time without the same structural constraints generated  by the way it projects its power into the region. In short, China will neither be central nor totally removed from U.S. considerations. AUSMIN 2010 again provides an example of how this can play out.

For instance, the two countries issued a “Joint Statement on Space Security” and Secretary Gates and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith signed a (deep breath) “Space Situational Awareness Partnership Statement of Principles.” It lays out a path for expanded space cooperation between the two militaries, through the deployment of surveillance technology to follow all "orbital objects" passing above the Asia-Pacific region. At first glance, this may appear to be a rather insignificant development – tracking the increasing amount of space debris to ensure it doesn’t damage something. Yet three remarks come to mind that suggest a China-related motivation for at least three reasons. First of all, deploying ISR capabilities to cover the whole Asia-Pacific region makes it impossible to exclude China from the scope of this cooperation and the enhanced ISR (Intelligence, Reconnaissance, Surveillance) capabilities it entails. Furthermore, the Statement of Principles actually included an explicit reference to China to justify the legitimate security concerns this cooperation would address. The document states that “Debris can also result from deliberate actions such as the 2007 Chinese Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test.” In doing so, American and Australian leaders are able to allude to a common concern regarding China without defining it outright as a threat. The text nevertheless manages perhaps to convey an ominous hint behind the development of Chinese capabilities with regards to space technology on the one hand, and legitimate security concerns for other nations on the other. Finally, as an Australian journalist pointed out during a press briefing with Secretary Gates in Australia, the cooperation and enhanced ISR capabilities it generates could very well be used to gather intelligence on China’s ballistic missile program, despite never mentioning such a use in the Statement of Principles. The phrase “orbital object” could very well be used to describe a ballistic missile.

In short, the 2010 Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations provide a perfect glimpse into the main thrusts of the new strategy being put into place:

Move away from the original emphasis on engagement with China as the core of an Asian policy, move away from an over-reliance on allies traditionally linked to security issues with China and the possible “containment” of China (even though such an option has longed stopped being feasible).Revitalize pre-existing alliances with other nations, without shying away from cooperation on security and military-related issues, but without letting this dimension dominate the relationship and supersede all other concerns. Economic cooperation, efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, greater cooperation in science and technology are thus just as important to a strong and sustainable U.S.-Australia alliance.Develop and reinforce networks of partnerships throughout the region, and push for greater action to take place within the regional multilateral organizations that exist – namely the Association for South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), the newly established East Asia Forum; as well as a host of smaller, more geographically confined organizations.

Despite all of this, I’m inclined at this point to exercise a degree of prudence rather than rushing to proclaim outright the remarkable success of US diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific. Despite the large transformations brought about, many challenges and uncertainties continue to abound. The series of high-level trips across Asia are meant to mark the beginning of a new approach.

By the way, the largely favorable reception it has received from the countries in the region is in large part due to the overly assertive stance adopted by China since approximately 2008. The US is currently benefiting from China’s mistakes, some would suggest its impatience, and seems to have moreover put a lot of thought and effort into redefining and expanding its commitment to the Asia-Pacific. But South-East Asian countries, like in so many other regions around the world, are generally very adept at maximizing the returns from a closer relationship with the US (or someone else) without forsaking their ability to move back a little toward China (or the U.S.). They avoid choosing sides and create a situation where both powers seek to intensify their outreach efforts to “win over” the country in question…

The autonomy retained by regional actors, and I’ll end my comments on this note for now, is, in my opinion, all too often overlooked by US policymakers. This is true of South-East Asia but holds true as well in Afghanistan, where for instance any report of Iranian involvement automatically assumes that Iran’s number one motivation is to thwart the US. This is no doubt the case for the support it now provides to the Sunni Taleban it opposed in the 1990s; however, let’s not forget Iran also has a real regional perspective on Afghanistan by virtue of their shared border, and has therefore long developed a policy that does not revolve around the U.S.

At least here, in the case of the Asia-Pacific, the Obama administration appears to have gone to some length to take into account certain differences of perspectives. I may be reading too much into this, but when I read statements like this one (“Now, we know we cannot impose our values on other countries, but we do believe that certain values are universal—that they are cherished by people in every nation in the world, including in Asia—and that they are intrinsic to stable, peaceful, and prosperous countries. In short, human rights are in everyone’s interest. This is a message that the United States delivers every day, in every region”) toward the end of Secretary Clinton’s speech, I can’t help but remember the movement in certain South-East Asian nations (most notably Singapore and its then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) in the 1990s proclaiming a set of “Asian values” proper to the region and distinct from Western ideals. It basically sought to marry capitalism and a degree of authoritarianism in a manner very different from the Western understanding of democracy that implied a weaker control by the State over individuals and over economic development. The passage from Secretary Clinton’s speech seems to reflect a real effort to redefine the ideals promoted by the US along the lines of the values dear to that movement – economic growth, internal harmony, regional stability, to make them more palatable and more easily embraceable by the countries while avoiding somewhat the debate regarding alignment with the U.S. For instance, leaders could claim to be supporting their own values, not aligning themselves geopolitically with the United States.

Colin Geraghty, born in Boston (USA), lives in France, and follows international security issues, especially South Asian affairs. He received a Masters in International Relations from the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris (IRIS, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques,, holds dual US-French citizenship, and brings a combination of European and American perspectives to the table.