Our collective attention has recently been focused on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the US, and our invoking of the ANZUS Treaty. It has also been absorbed by assessment of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, which arose from the events of September 11, and which so recently came to a painful, if not tragic, end. Such reflection is natural and necessary. But it is important to recognise that the Australia-US relationship has seen incredible change and endured.
The recent 70th anniversary of ANZUS provided an opportunity to look at how the Australia-US alliance will serve our futures in an increasingly challenging world. And with AUSMIN – our regular foreign affairs and defence ministerial talks with the US – on the horizon this week, it is time for ambitious action.
Without our US allies, our efforts and the efforts of many other countries to evacuate thousands of citizens, permanent residents and visa-holders from Kabul in past weeks would have been wishful thinking. US leadership came at great cost – 13 service men and women lost as they sought to help others. We mourn alongside our US friends, and offer our condolences for the many Afghans who were killed and wounded.
But, rather than alliances fraying, what is emerging is a new phase of US-led global collective action on Afghanistan and a shift to looking at how institutions such as the ANZUS relationship can be put to work in our neighbourhood. The geopolitical imperatives that drove the signing of the ANZUS Treaty have changed, but geopolitical imperatives have not gone away. Labor has long recognised the central importance of building and evolving the relationship in the face of changing conditions.
Prime minister Bob Hawke’s 1984 Parliamentary Statement entrenched the “full knowledge and concurrence principle”, since reaffirmed by successive governments. The principle set the foundation for a program of reform directly aimed at new and emerging 21st-century security challenges from space, satellite and defence communications infrastructure to cyber.
Labor governments also upgraded and modernised facilities, including deployment of a new jointly operated US C-Band Radar at the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station and the relocation of an advanced US Space Surveillance Telescope to Australia.
Prime minister Julia Gillard secured the rotation of US Marines through Darwin, greater use of Australian airfields in our north and west, and the promise of increased US Navy use of our Indian Ocean naval base at HMAS Stirling. The Gillard government also initiated its own Force Posture Review, Australia’s first since the 1980s. Its report in 2012 underpinned the rollout of the new level of alliance defence co-operation we have seen since then.
It was also Labor that adopted Australia’s first National Security Strategy in 2013, a move the Coalition government has failed to repeat, despite calls for this from a wide range of respected national security leaders. The 2020 Strategic Update warned of the rapidly changing circumstances in our region and stressed a 10-year warning time was no longer an appropriate basis for defence planning. This means we can no longer assume Australia will have time to adjust military capability and preparedness gradually in response to emerging challenges.
This, alongside the US’s current Global Force Posture Review, means it is time for Australia, too, to have a closer look at our posture to ensure it is fit for the times. Labor has therefore committed to a new Defence Force Posture Review, something the Morrison government has also failed to do, despite more than nine years passing since the last Labor-led review.
A further manifestation of how our alliance relationship needs to keep evolving is climate change. We know the risk climate bears on our security. We have vividly seen its impact on ADF operations already, whether responding to the 2019-20 bushfire crisis or disaster assistance missions such as Operation Fiji Assist. We also know it will have major impacts in our region, destroying hard-won development gains and increasing fragility.
Australia’s action on climate change will shape whether our interests prosper in partnership with our neighbours and our US ally. On coming to office, I will make comprehensive US-Australia co-operation on climate change a hallmark of our alliance.
Finally, the US as our biggest investor remains central to our economic prosperity and is our key partner in maintaining and building the global rules-based order. Labor welcomes the return of US leadership in that order under President Joe Biden.
The US and Australia have worked closely to build and strengthen this order. But the challenges we face demand we be even more ambitious about what we do together and with our mutual friends across the region.
Vice-President Kamala Harris and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent Southeast Asia visits were welcome first moves. We hope to see this engagement grow rapidly. Australia has an opportunity and the responsibility to work closely with the new administration as it develops its Indo-Pacific strategy. We should never forget it is Australia’s partnerships and leadership in the Indo-Pacific that are the principal value-add we bring to the alliance.