Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

That was in late April, when one of Australia’s top intelligence chiefs arrived in Washington for key talks with key officials in the relatively new Biden administration.

Andrew Shearer, a longtime foreign policy hawk and one of Scott Morrison’s most influential advisers on how Australia should position itself in a time of rising tensions with China, met with Joe Biden’s top Indo-Pacific adviser, Kurt Campbell, in the building next door. The White House on April 30th.

The head of Australia’s Office of National Intelligence was joined by Australian Ambassador to the United States Arthur Sinodinos for the discussion, which was held in Room 386 of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a 19th-century government building described as “one of America’s best examples of the architectural style of the French Second Empire ”.

They would have had plenty to talk about. Campbell – the architect of Barack Obama’s “tilt” to Asia, which among other things began to rotate US Marines through Darwin – had already publicly promised that the US would not “leave Australia alone on the field” in light of “economic coercion” from Beijing.

But it’s just that April was an important month for what would later become the Aukus Security Agreement with the United States and Britain, triggering a break with France. April is when it became clear to the Australian government that the idea of ​​getting help to acquire nuclear-powered submarines could advance in the US political system.

So was the well-connected Shearer’s previously unreported trip to the US an important plan in Australia’s efforts to advance the Aukus plans?

Neither party will say such is the sensitivity of the negotiations. The events have become very controversial among accusations from France that it was “stabbed in the back” and deliberately kept in the dark by its friends, prompting Paris to recall two ambassadors.

ONI, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Biden administration all declined to comment on the purpose of Shearer’s trip in late April, and whether the plan to share sensitive submarine technology was discussed.

“Dr. Campbell often meets with Australian officials to discuss all issues in the US-Australia relationship,” said a senior Biden administration official.

‘The Betrayal’

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from right) in Washington in September.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from right) in Washington in September. Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP

Sinodinos was back in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to see Campbell just two weeks later. This time, the ambassador – a former coalition minister – was joined by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Payne also met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan during her stop in Washington. There was momentum for closer security cooperation. “We have each other’s backs,” Blinken said, “so we can face threats and challenges from a position of collective strength.”

Just a month later, Scott Morrison met with Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G7 in Cornwall. At the meeting in June, it is understood that the trio has made progress with the large contours of what would later become Aukus.

Morrison told reporters at the time he and Biden and Johnson had discussed the “situation in the Indo-Pacific” code for China – arguing that it “only reinforces the need for us to work more deeply together”.

(LR) British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will meet at the G7 summit in Cornwall in June.
(LR) British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will meet at the G7 summit in Cornwall in June. Photo: Andrew Parsons / UPI / Rex / Shutterstock

But the partnership “forever” was not concluded and announced until mid-September. In fact, Morrison stopped in Paris after the G7 for negotiations with French President Emmanuel Macron, apparently leaving the impression that they were making progress on obstacles with the 90 billion deal. Dollars for French designed conventional submarines.

Angry at what it called a “betrayal”, the French government has not yet accepted Morrison’s request for a phone call with Macron. The White House has acknowledged that there should have been better communication with France. Malaysia and Indonesia last week renewed concerns that Australia’s plan to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines could lead to a regional arms race, while China’s foreign ministry said Aukus “could even lead to the collapse of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime”.

A ‘missed’ chance

Shearer, a longtime official who once worked at the Australian Embassy in Washington, had never been particularly keen on the French opportunity to replace the six aging Collins-class submarines.

Shearer’s career history includes serving as National Security Adviser to Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott.

Shearer was in Abbott’s office when the then prime minister weighed the submarine project. Abbott and Shearer are known to have been eager to acquire submarines from Japan, whose government had come to believe it was the leading challenger.

However, under political pressure from the South Australian Liberals, in 2015 Abbott announced a competitive process that would require focus on maximizing domestic shipbuilding jobs. That prompted Abbott’s successor, Malcolm Turnbull, to reveal the year after Australia collaborated with France on Japan and Germany.

In April 2016, Shearer described the decision as a “historically missed opportunity”. Shearer saw it as a “setback” in the pressure for closer defense ties with Japan in the midst of China’s “rising security in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.”

In 2018, as director of the Alliances and American Leadership Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Shearer warned that China is consolidating its military forces and investing more in nuclear-powered attack submarines.

Collins-class submarines in formation at Cockburn Sound, near Rockingham, Western Australia in 2015.
Collins-class submarines in formation at Cockburn Sound, near Rockingham, Western Australia in 2015. Photo: Cpois David Connolly / AFP / Getty Images

He argued that Australia should respond by allowing “a rotating presence of US surface combatants at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia (and considering the possibility of investing in the nuclear support infrastructure also needed to base attack submarines)”.

Shearer returned to government under Morrison’s Prime Minister, first in a deputy position at ONI. In 2019, Shearer was appointed Cabinet Secretary, a role that saw him as part of discussions on Australia’s tightening position on China. Under Turnbull, Australia had already enacted foreign interference laws and banned Chinese telco Huawei from the 5G network.

But by 2020, relations between Australia and its main trading partner took a turn for the worse, with Beijing opposing the Australian government’s early public calls for an independent international inquiry into the origins and early management of the coronavirus outbreak. As Canberra also expressed concern about the rights of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Beijing froze talks with Australian ministers and carried out a series of trade actions against export sectors, including barley, wine, coal and seafood.

An influential voice

Shearer is seen as extremely influential in any political debate related to the intensified strategic competition between China and the United States.

Shearer was a strong supporter of raising the Quad group among Australia, the United States, Japan and India, arguing earlier that “China’s authoritarian leaders have no respect for weakness” – language that has some resonance in Morrison’s statements that the world is in danger of “a great polarization” between the autocracies and the democracies.

As a sign of Morrison’s confidence in Shearer, the prime minister appointed him head of ONI last October, praising his “long and distinguished” career. This move triggered backlash from Labor, who argued that a “partisan operative” should not be appointed to such a crucial intelligence position.

While individual agencies such as the Asio and Australian Signals Directorate prepare reports for the government, it is ONI’s role to prepare “all-source intelligence assessments”.

In late September, after Aukus revealed, Ni reported that Shearer was back in Washington with other Australian intelligence chiefs to help institutionalize the new security partnership.

Kurt Campbell, White House Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific
Kurt Campbell (pictured), Indo-Pacific White House coordinator, met with Scott Morrison adviser Andrew Shearer in Washington DC in April. Photo: Saeed Khan / AFP / Getty Images

On Shearer’s previous travels, in addition to the April 30 meeting with Campbell, White House visitor logs show that ONI’s director general met on April 23 with Biden’s deputy national security adviser on cyber and new technology, Anne Neuberger.

Australia later joined the United States, Britain and other countries to publicly attribute malicious cyber activity to China.

The Aukus partnership extends beyond submarines: cyber is one of the other areas where Australia, the US and the UK have promised to deepen their cooperation.

About two months after the Shearer meeting, Campbell spoke at an Asia Society event and observed that China seemed to be trying to “cut Australia out of the crew”.

Campbell claimed that Beijing’s actions backfired: driving Canberra and Washington to “deepen” and “intensify” their relationship. Despite differing political beliefs, Campbell added on July 6 that the Biden administration and the Morrison government shared “an enormous sense of common purpose” about the challenges they faced.

This Campbell webinar was obviously pre-Aukus announcement. He did not let anything slip about the nuclear submarine deal that Biden administration officials later described as Australia’s biggest strategic move in generations.

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