National Security

Team of nations to tackle region's historic challenges

October 19, 2022

Rowan Callick
The Australian
Wednesday 19 October 2022

At its latest meeting the Australian American Leadership Dialogue has pursued a fresh path – helping build a team of countries to tackle today’s existential challenges, including those posed by China. We have not faced such a time of contestation in our region since the Pacific War 80 years ago.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the threat to Taiwan and the slide towards global recession all cast shadows over the Dialogue, held in Honolulu last week, which also grappled with other challenges including climate change, cyber warfare and the new space race.

The Dialogue is the peak independent platform for the two nations. It has tracked and intensified their relationship in the 30 years since it was founded by Phil Scanlan and Julie Singer Scanlan. Now it is highlighting the need for both to work more closely with Indo-Pacific partners to meet new trials. Politicians, business leaders, senior military officers, academics and others from both countries agreed through discussions, including with Pacific Islanders, that defending our mutual values and interests required building regional, not just national, resilience.

Both countries are being pressed to demonstrate our enduring commitment to the Indo-Pacific by intensifying our engagement, including our economic involvement. This needs to be proven not by words but by deeds, including substantial public and corporate reinvestment, after too many false or inadequate starts in the past couple of decades, such as the US pivot and Australia’s Pacific step-up.

Australian Labor and Liberal parliamentarians took prominent roles at the meeting – Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security chairman Peter Khalil and opposition cyber security and countering foreign interference spokesman James Paterson.

Other participants included US Indo-Pacific Command commander John Aquilino; Space Industry Association of Australia chief executive James Brown; Scale Facilitation chief executive David Collard; Royal Australian Navy fleet commander Jonathan Earley; Royal Australian Air Force Air Commander Australia Darren Goldie; University of Hawaii associate professor Tarcisius Kabutaulaka; Deakin University law school dean Jenni Lightowlers; Australian Signals Directorate director-general Rachel Noble; Australian Army Forces Command commander Matthew Pearse; former US National Security Agency director Mike Rogers; and East-West Centre president Suzanne Vares-Lum.

American participants learned that while the tone of the top-level Australia-China relationship has changed with our change of government – thankfully, ministerial conversations have resumed – the core facts on the ground haven’t. Material change remains elusive, despite Beijing offering to meet Canberra halfway, as if we might concede that half its commercial coercion is justified.

The meeting coincided with the visit to Honolulu of the Defence Strategic Review team led by Stephen Smith – recently appointed high commissioner to Britain – and Sir Angus Houston, enabling joint conversations.

Former Australian House of Representatives Speaker Tony Smith, the AALD’s new chief executive, led the administration of the complex event, which was co-chaired by Singer Scanlan and former governor-general Sir Peter Cosgrove.

The AALD’s closed-door policy shields details of discussions to encourage frankness. The aim is to work out a way to learn to live with China so all our sovereignties are fully respected, not to press unrealistically for countries with myriad China connections to cut their ties completely.

Most of the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, is seeking to hedge its relations with both China and the US. Australia and the US are working ever harder, increasingly with our Quad and AUKUS partners and other groupings, to encourage countries to hedge closer to us.

To become partners of choice, we need to be viewed as offering trusted, enduring collaboration, not just transactional deals that may or may not wind up getting implemented. That may prove challenging given the uncertain character of current US – as well as British – politics, but it’s a crucial challenge to pursue, as laid out clearly during this Dialogue. We need to ensure our story about how best to become peaceful and prosperous wins. That requires enlisting all constituents of our societies, all the cultures in our multicultural nations, in communicating with international peers. It also means rediscovering our roles as rule-makers and standard-setters.

We need to extend to new friends, including our Pacific family, the Australia-US base of habits of working together. It’s pressing that we succeed, but it can’t happen overnight. You can’t surge into interoperability.

White House National Security Council Indo-Pacific co-ordinator Kurt Campbell – a frequent AALD participant, though not this time, when he was represented by US State Department deputy assistant secretary Mark Lambert – has said: “The hope here is that the region does not descend into a kind of zero-sum competi­tion but rather embraces a deep engagement around things that all these nations care about and are critical for their longer-term survival and success.”

After 30 successful years of the AALD, it’s all still to play for.

Rowan Callick is an industry fellow at Griffith University’s Asia Institute. He was a speaker at the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Honolulu last week.

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