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Australia a pawn in US ITAR considerations

Written by: (Contributed) on 3 March 2023


The outcome of a recent seminar at the University of Sydney has proved highly embarrassing for supporters of the so-called alliance, US and Australian diplomacy, and those involved with the present defence review. An official media release in mainstream Australian media has left little ambiguity surrounding the nature of US-Australia relations and the role of the former, with tutelage and control, over the latter.

A recent seminar at the University of Sydney's US Studies Centre (USSC) provided the basis for frank discussions between Australian defence industry representatives and senior figures from the elite think-tank. While the outcome has left many inside the corridors of power in Canberra feeling uncomfortable about the nature of US-Australia relations in contemporary times, they, nevertheless, remain silent over one of the most important and pressing issues of our time. (1)

The USSC was established during the Howard Coalition years in 2006, and has remained linked to the NSW State Government and corporate sector. While its official website has noted it is dedicated to 'the rigorous analysis of American foreign policy, economics, politics and culture', the centre is a mainstay of US involvement in Australian academia, and inevitably, a component part of elite patronage systems and general interference. Even the best made plans for 'US interests', however, can go astray.

The main bone of contention at the recent seminar was the all-encompassing nature of the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which provides Washington and the Pentagon with absolute control over their armaments and all military equipment. It runs counter to any semblance of joint diplomacy and respect for Australia, or any other sovereign country.

ITAR was established by the US in 1976, during the previous Cold War, and dramatically enforced in the late 1990s. With a carefully listed 21 categories of classification of defence articles, ITAR effectively has total control over arms sales, including those to their closest allies. (2) Reading between the lines about ITAR has inevitably raised questions about security vetting, and official procedures for safeguarding state secrets: the US, historically, has tended to conduct foreign policy along lines of having no friends, only allies and interests. They are not usually inclined to even consider sharing 'US interests'.  

All authorisation concerning ITAR, for example, is conducted through the US Department of State with strict control only passing into the hands of US citizens or direct control from the US. Evidence of the problem can be easily identified with the strategic employment of US citizens inside Australia's defence industries, particularly in South Australia.

Specific studies of ITAR have revealed how the US controls and monopolises defence matters such as satellite technology: its share declined from 83 per cent to 50 per cent in 2008. (3) To avoid unnecessary publicity and concern about their role, the US then removed satellite technology from ITAR listings in 2013.

While Australia has remained the closest ally for the US and a major hub for 'US interests' in the Indo-Pacific region, it was noted in the recent seminar that ITAR treated 'top-tier US allies such as Australia in the same way as lesser strategic partners'. (4) Those warning about the role of the US toward Australia were drawing attention to recent regional re-organisation of defence and security provision by the Pentagon. In recent years the US has implemented the Indo-Pacific Strategy, where the US-Japan alliance has been upgraded into a global alliance. (5) While the US, Japan, India and Australia have formed the four partners of the so-called 'Quad', it has been subsequently linked into US-Japan relations. Other countries including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and others are now categorised as lower-level partners. (6)

When military officials maintain that 'Australia must continue to work closely with our ally and principal strategic partner, the US … close co-operation with the US is central to achieving balance and stability in the Indo-Pacific', as claimed in the recent defence review, they have overlooked the establishment of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and its implications. (7)

Those attending the recent USSC seminar, likewise, quite rightly drew attention to the problems arising with ITAR and that, 'the approach to technology sharing between the allies had not changed to reflect evolving challenges'. (8) They also drew attention to their concern about 'how the ITAR system would affect co-operation under AUKUS's so-called Pillar Two – which covers advanced capabilities, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, advanced cyber capabilities, hypersonic missiles and electronic warfare'. (9)

In conclusion, the USSC seminar noted that 'the need for urgent reform is poorly understood by the US Congress or sections of the US government'. (10) To date, however, the same concern could also be levelled at Canberra and their silence has been deafening: the problem, nevertheless, has far-reaching implications for Australian sovereignty and government control when dealing with regional war preparations by the Pentagon. While 'the Australian Defence Force will be transformed into a more agile, lethal force, capable of mounting missile strikes and amphibious assaults far from the mainland', it will be the Pentagon which provide the orders for war, and total control of the military equipment. (11)

If it was a game of chess, Australia would be a pawn, or another expendable piece:
                                          We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     'Decisive action' urged with the US, Defence Strategic Review, Australian, 25 April 2023.
2.     Wikipedia: ITAR.
3.     'Earthbound', The Economist, US Edition, 28 August 2008.
4.     'Decisive action', Australian, op.cit., 25 April 2023.
5.     The reasons behind Washington's push for GSOMIA., Hankyoreh, 12 November 2019.
6.     Ibid.
7.     Next-gen bomber off the wish list, Defence Strategic Review, Australian, 25 April 2023.
8.     'Decisive action', Australian, op.cit., 25 April 2023.
9.     Ibid.
10.   Ibid.
11.   Mission critical, money neutral, Australian, (front page / headline), 25 April 2023.



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