In September 2021, Australians were surprised by the sight of a rare three-way press conference featuring Prime Minister Scott Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The leaders had convened virtually, each in his own capital, to announce an ambitious trilateral security partnership known as AUKUS, which promised closer military and scientific ties between the three countries. The pact’s centerpiece was the joint development of a nuclear-powered Australian submarine fleet. Such a program required a commitment from Washington to share nuclear propulsion systems—one of the crown jewels of U.S. military technology.
This head-snapping development provoked fury in France. As a consequence of the new arrangement, Paris lost a prized contract to build conventionally powered submarines for Australia, and President Emmanuel Macron accused Canberra of subterfuge and Washington of double-dealing. The fact that AUKUS came on the heels of the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, moreover, led some European analysts to claim that the United States was an unreliable ally.
But in Australia and in most allied capitals in Asia, observers drew the opposite conclusion. Despite former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” approach to global politics, AUKUS demonstrated that the United States’ commitment to its allies—and its allies’ faith in Washington—endures.
THROUGH THICK AND THIN
Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-Australian alliance. As the only country to fight alongside the United States in every major conflict of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including the Vietnam War, Australia has a good claim to being Washington’s most reliable ally. Strong public support for the alliance is among the most consistent results in the Lowy Institute’s polling on Australian foreign policy.
The past few years, however, were difficult ones for the U.S.-Australian relationship. Canberra’s interests are best served when the United States is well governed, cohesive, attractive to the world, and strong enough to deter its adversaries. Under Trump, the United States was poorly governed, divided, unappealing, and weak—all of which invited bad behavior by actors such as China, North Korea, and Russia.
Although Canberra was spared the worst of Trump’s actions, the former president’s worldview also ran counter to Australians’ instincts. Australians believe in alliances; Trump thought allies were scroungers. Australians are inclined toward internationalism; Trump was partial to isolationism. Australia is a trading nation; Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and attacked the World Trade Organization. Australia is an old democracy and a free society; Trump enjoyed the company of autocrats and strongmen.
These differences—and Australians’ general distaste for Trump—were evident in the Lowy Institute’s polling. In 2020, only three in ten Australians had confidence that the U.S. president would do the right thing in world affairs, and nearly three-quarters of Australians wanted Joe Biden to win the presidential election. After Biden’s victory, public opinion turned. In 2021, nearly seven in ten Australians had confidence that Biden would do the right thing—an increase of 39 points compared with polling results for his predecessor a year before. Faith in the United States also rebounded. Six in ten Australians said that they trusted the United States to act responsibly in the world—a ten-point increase from 2020.
Biden is far from a perfect leader, but his style reflects a distinct shift in U.S policy—one that Australians seem to appreciate. His Asian diplomacy is reminiscent of former President George W. Bush’s “allies first” strategy, which prioritized relations with Washington’s friends in the region. Former President Barack Obama and Trump, by contrast, adopted variants of a “China first” approach. Obama seemed to think that Beijing was interested in working collaboratively with the United States to solve global challenges such as climate change, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Trump, for his part, surrounded himself with China hawks but behaved erratically: sometimes aggressive and insulting, other times thirsty to cut a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Biden’s advisers are more realistic about what they can get out of the Chinese government and more eager to work with Washington’s allies and partners. Before engaging directly with Beijing, for instance, top Biden officials met with U.S. allies to make sure they felt comfortable and assured after the 2020 election. Only then did U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan parley with Chinese representatives at a March 2021 summit in Anchorage, Alaska.
For Australians, the benefits of this “allies first” approach were visible in the very first days of the new administration. Trump began his term in office by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the economic centerpiece of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia) and holding a hostile phone call with then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Biden, by contrast, started his tenure by convening the first virtual leaders meeting of the Quad nations—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—and informing Beijing that improvements in the U.S.-Chinese relationship required an end to China’s economic targeting of Australia.
MIXED UP TOGETHER
Chinese coercive economic measures have played a crucial role in encouraging Canberra to assume a more ambitious role in the Indo-Pacific. Since 2020, Beijing has imposed punitive restrictions on many Australian exports, including barley, wine, seafood, cotton, timber, beef, copper, and coal—apparently in response to Australia’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. China is also giving Canberra the silent treatment—suspending dialogues and refusing requests for official meetings.
Although there is an ongoing debate over who bears responsibility for this rupture, the main reason Australia’s relationship with China has changed is that China itself has changed. In the decade since Xi’s accession, the country’s foreign policy has hardened, its constraints on people within its borders have tightened, and its willingness to tolerate international criticism has disappeared. Australia, in turn, has taken a series of steps to protect its sovereignty, including banning telecommunications giant Huawei and other high-risk Chinese vendors from participating in its 5G rollout and introducing new foreign interference laws. Canberra has also increased defense spending and strengthened ties with like-minded partners in the region, including fellow Quad members India and Japan, as well as South Korea.
Above all, this downward spiral in Australian-Chinese relations spurred Canberra’s quest for a nuclear-powered submarine. Australia used the AUKUS agreement to signal its intention to shape its external environment and influence the regional balance of power. Nuclear-powered submarines—with their lethality, speed, range, and stealth—will give Australia significant deterrent power. In this sense, AUKUS was made in China.
AUKUS is not just a submarine deal, however. The agreement is also about technology sharing, new cyber- and quantum capabilities, and artificial intelligence. As then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted in 1940 when the United States provided the United Kingdom with 50 destroyers in exchange for access to naval bases, the two countries “will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage.” AUKUS is, therefore, a new example of an old phenomenon. In the face of emerging challenges, like-minded countries are once again getting “mixed up together.”
SOLIDARITY, NOT EXTORTION
Although the U.S.-Australian alliance has grown stronger over the past year, differences remain. Washington would like Canberra to do more to address global climate change, and Canberra would like to see Washington compete with the magnetic effect of the Chinese economy—still most Indo-Pacific countries’ largest trading partner. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership seriously undermined U.S. credibility in Asia. Biden will have to work hard to make amends, but Washington’s current hostility to new free trade agreements makes this difficult.
Domestic politics are also important to the alliance’s future, and Australia is due to hold a federal election in the first half of 2022. The opposition Labor Party’s alliance credentials are strong, but Paul Keating, who served as prime minister in the 1990s, has criticized his party’s tough stance toward China and compared the acquisition of nuclear submarines with “throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain.”
Ongoing instability in U.S. politics will also affect the alliance. Since Biden’s election, some normalcy has returned to Washington, but U.S. allies and partners were undeniably shaken by the Trump presidency. For policymakers in Canberra, the prospect of the former president’s return to power in 2024 is ghastly. For the moment, however, Australians are relieved to see a president in the White House who understands that alliances are about solidarity, not extortion.