Commentary | 13 February 2018

Admiral Harris, you can see China at a different angle from down here

Originally published in The Australian.

Originally published in The Australian.

Dear Admiral Harry Harris,

Congratulations. News of your nomination for Washington’s next ambassador to Australia will be greeted with relief in Canberra. Seventeen months without a US ambassador is already too long. What Australia needs from you most is a direct line to the White House. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull knows from experience those calls don’t always go according to plan. I hope you will see him when he visits Washington this month.

This letter, like any unsolicited advice, is a little presumptuous. But as one foreign observer of Australia to another, it isn’t meant to condescend. You know Australia well from many visits here, and have senior Australians on your staff at Pacific Command (PACOM). In December 2016, you spoke at the Lowy Institute as the most senior US government representative to visit Australia during the Trump administration transition period. I hope you will pay us the compliment of returning as ambassador. You have all the required connections and expertise to foster a healthy public debate on the alliance in your new role.

Some of the new job will be like water off a duck’s back. PACOM is the most diplomatic among the US global commands. You know better than most that America’s Pacific allies can never have enough reassurance. Australia is no different. You will deliver on that with aplomb.

Australia and the US are about as close as two countries can hope to be. But neither can take the other’s support for granted. Alliances are by nature transactional. They involve hard bargaining on the basis of national interests, as well as being bonded by shared values.

Australia rightly regards itself as a loyal ally, proud of its martial traditions and history. But as ambassador, you will see less of Mars and more of Australia’s Venus, especially when it comes to China. However close the military relationship with the US, I believe you already have some idea that Australia is not always the loyal ally it would like to be. Canberra finds its courage easily in the Middle East and Afghanistan. But the closer it gets to home, and to China, the more cautious Australia becomes about strategic entanglements.

Joint freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea have been a hard sell, and Australia isn’t buying. Cost-sharing negotiations over the marine detachment in Darwin were drawn-out and painful. At least the US marines are now bedded in, as part of the Force Posture Initiative. Their rotational presence should serve as a good basis for local partnership with the ADF. US marines could in future serve under Australian command in the South Pacific, just as Australians have in countless US-led coalitions. That would be a smart way to demonstrate Australia’s ownership of the alliance.

Inevitably, there will be stresses and strains ahead in US–Australia ties, as the Sino-American strategic dynamic takes on a more adversarial hue. I guess that’s partly why you were chosen for the role. If not as an enforcer, then to ensure the US’s southern alliance anchor in the Pacific holds fast.

China is your most obvious challenge, and the one you are most prepared for. Beijing will try to bait you into taking public positions out in front, to exploit differences in threat perception. China sees Australia as fertile ground for wedge-driving — a potential weak link in the alliance chain. But it has recently over-reached, prompting the government to introduce sweeping foreign influence legislation.

China will be less problematic in your private conversations with Australian senior officials. But you may need to tread carefully with the opposition Labor Party, which is likely to be in government for some of your term as ambassador. Not because they are soft on China, necessarily, but because they are particularly sensitive not to be seen as doing America’s bidding.

The business community also needs careful handling, as many here are sceptical that China poses a strategic threat. You will be judged on your ability to persuade the Trump administration to demonstrate trans-Pacific economic leadership, which is now absent.

As a former navy pilot, tracking submarines, you know the value of active listening. Australians still overwhelmingly embrace the alliance, as the Lowy Institute’s polling annually reaffirms. But there is a growing undercurrent of unease, as Australians feel the strategic sands shifting underfoot. And, precisely because Australia has joined America in every conflict since World War II, there is an understandable desire to demonstrate “independence” in foreign policy. In some quarters, engaging China serves as a proxy for anti-Americanism. That needs careful management. Please bear in mind these complexities in the national psyche when reporting back to Washington.

Rest assured, there will be kangaroos and koalas aplenty. Some crocodiles and boomerangs to watch out for, too. You will be a good friend for Australia, Admiral Harris. We look forward to your confirmation.