In Washington, Mr Albanese must be a contributor to collective defence, not a needy bystander
Prime Minister Albanese

The Albanese government has had a lacklustre, confused 2023 on foreign and defence policy. Bogged in reviews & mugged by events is not a path to success.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

Mr Albanese is visiting Washington at a time when US defence and foreign policy is focused on support to Ukraine resisting Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion and the new war between Israel and Hamas provoked by Hamas terrorists’ mass murders and hostage taking.

Superpowers have to be able to walk and chew gum, so it makes sense for the Australian prime minister to work with US President Biden and anyone in a relevant role in the paralysed US Congress to advance the AUKUS partnership.

More than ever America needs to see that Australia is an ally that contributes to collective security when global stability is under threat.

The risk is that this doesn’t happen. Instead, on defence and security issues, Mr Albanese seems likely to spend his time pressing the Biden Administration and the US Congress to open up its defence technologies and industrial base to meet Australian AUKUS demands, change its laws and regulations in ways we want this and speed up its own work to implement AUKUS. All while doing very little himself except waiting for US action.

Being a needy bystander on a state visit to Washington is not an outcome that any Australian prime minister can want.

As Mr Albanese does the rounds of the White House, Congress, Pentagon and briefings at intelligence agencies, he’ll be briefed on the strategic and operational situations in Ukraine and Israel.  He’s also likely to hear about the Administration’s urgent $106 billion bill to provide urgently needed military supplies to Ukraine, Israel and US border security, along with humanitarian assistance for both conflicts.

No doubt, Mr Albanese is hoping that no one in the Biden Administration or US Congress asks him what military supplies Australia has sent to Ukraine’s military recently, or what more it could do soon. 

There are two reasons for Australian embarrassment here. The first is that Australia last provided any military material to Ukraine back in June 2023, and that was in the form of items in the Australian military’s disposal bin: obsolete M-113 personnel carriers our Army Chief deemed unfit for our soldiers and old special forces vehicles.  Richard Marles failed to convince Treasury, Foreign Affairs or the Prime Minister that funding capable systems made by Australia – like Sypaq drones or EOS’s counter drone systems, or more Bushmasters or Hawkei vehicles made in Bendigo – was a priority.

Even worse: while the Australian Government hasn’t put priority on buying any of these Australian systems to support Ukraine, it turns out that the US Government is using US taxpayers’ money to buy one of them and send it to Ukraine. In August, EOS announced that its Slinger counter drone system, which uses precision targeting to fire 30mm cannon rounds, had been purchased by the US Government as part of a US support package for Ukraine.

Imagine the reaction of US members of Congress hearing that American taxpayers, not Australian taxpayers, are funding Australian systems going to Ukraine.  100 years of mateship only goes so far.

It’s reported that Mr Albanese will announce new clean energy and climate change efforts with Joe Biden. Good.  Part of the Australian ‘pitch’ will be about getting access to some of the more than $US1 trillion dollars in Inflation Reduction Act subsidies and incentives, which US officials may see as a pretty transparent effort. But it’s almost certain that much of this policy agenda will be in the ‘announceables’ bucket – meaning it’s all very future focused, with little actually happening in Mr Albanese’s term of government when he really has the power to spend on priorities and get things done.

These policy areas are important but not as urgent as supporting Ukraine in its current fight. It’s an old political manoeuvre to broaden the agenda to distract from failure to deliver on previous plans.

The Albanese government has, so far, failed to take big decisions on AUKUS   – notably on where the new East Coast submarine base will be and where the new high level radioactive waste repository to store used reactors and other contaminated items from AUKUS subs will be.

These are expensive and potentially politically risky decisions, but they need to be taken early, not least to show Biden that Australia is pulling its weight to deliver on AUKUS commitments.

The Australian Government position on AUKUS is to wave the headline $368 billion price tag for the AUKUS subs around, hoping that our American partners won’t notice that almost nothing of this is being spent now. That undermines our efforts to press the Americans for Congressional action to loosen technology controls and agree to hand over US submarines to Australia.  

Mr Albanese will also be on the defensive when it comes to joint Australian-US plans to make better defence use of Australia’s north.  While the US government continues to invest at scale there, including with a $270 million aircraft fuel storage facility in Darwin and growing Marine expeditionary ship and personnel presence, the prime minister’s department has quietly announced that the Chinese company Landbridge will remain in control of the best port facility in Darwin’s pretty constricted harbour, constraining the US and Australian military use of this strategic asset. 

To give some idea of whether this matters, Mr Albanese could ask the Pentagon if they would be comfortable locating the East Coast AUKUS submarine base in Newcastle – another key Australian port that is operated by a Chinese company, and which is one of three potential locations for this base.

At this point in his visit, it may be wise to not say too much about his desires for resumption of Australian wine and lobster sales to China as a result of the government’s ”stabilised” relationship with Xi Jinping, who Albanese hopes to see in early November. 

Time could be better spent sorting out practical plans for Australian, Philippines and US joint patrols in the parts of Philippines waters being actively expropriated by China’s military and Coast Guard that’s happening in front of our eyes with footage of Chinese Coast Guard vessels deliberately hitting Philippines’ vessels.

Congressional support for spending American dollars on even the most worthy partner is likely to just get harder in coming years, regardless of who the President is, so building political support in that divided institution by practical efforts on defence now and over the rest of the government’s term is essential.

There is still time for the Albanese Government to match its assessment of Australia’s dangerous strategic environment with actions that show it believes its own words, and to also show our partners and allies that we are a contributor to, not just a consumer of, collective defence and security. 

That’s the key outcome for Mr Albanese in Washington.