Why Australia Matters

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For over forty years the United States has been the guarantor of peace in the Asia Pacific. However, the emergence of China as both an economic powerhouse and military strongman is forcing the US to question how it should engage in the region.

The American answer comes with a decidedly southern focus, including embracing its already tight relationship with Australia. In October, Secretary of State Clinton commented on the importance of trans-Pacific bilateral alliances and their importance in guaranteeing security in the Pacific, highlighting an expanded view of the US’s alliance with Australia from a regional to a global partnership. The transformation of the Australian American alliance from a Pacific alliance into something far grander signals an expansion of an already close relationship

Australia is so central to the Obama administration’s reinvigorated Pacific policy that the President announced its details in an address before the Australian Parliament during his recent visit.  Not only did the President announce his policy for the Asia Pacific in Canberra, he also announced the deployment of American Marines and aircraft to Darwin in Australia’s tropical north.  One must ask, why Australia?

First, Australia and America historically have had deep security relations.  In 1941, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin recognized the US as a partner in the future of the region. 2011 marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS treaty, a security agreement that linked the US, Australia and New Zealand. After 9/11 the Australian government invoked the mutual defense clause of the ANZUS treaty—signaling its commitment to the war on terror—and deployed forces to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Consequently, in 2004 the intelligence sharing relationship between the US and Australia deepened.  Australians have been granted

“…access to virtually everything in the American intelligence system concerning international terrorism and joint military operations.  Material previously classified as ‘No Forg’, meaning to be seen by no foreign eyes, would henceforth be available to Australians.” (Sheridan, Greg, The Partnership, New South, Sydney, 2006, 97)

Second, both Australia and the US share commitments to democratic ideals, international norms and institutions, and human rights. Granting the similarities, it would be foolhardy to say that the two nations are always in agreement.  A commitment to international institutions like the United Nations is arguably more broadly shared amongst Australians than Americans. American capitalism has been more hyperactive than its Australian cousin, and Australian labor unions play a more central role in daily life than American labor does.  Yet, for all of these differences, Australia and the US are strikingly similar in their embrace of the ideals that make liberal democracy what it is today.

Third, both the US and Australia enjoy great benefits from their economic ties with Asia. The success of the Australian mining sector is built upon exports to Japan, Korea and especially China.  As the Australians would say, ‘even blind Freddie’ could figure out the importance of Asia.  The challenge for the US and Australia is keeping the region stable in order to preserve these benefits

Central to a peaceful and prosperous Asia are the rules and norms that govern the behavior of states and businesses.  However, many are concerned that the rise of China threatens these norms. The business giant Google ‘spat the dummy,’ another Australian-ism, and left China claiming that the government in Beijing was not following rules governing intellectual property.  In 2009 Stern Hu, an Australian executive from mining giant Rio Tinto, was arrested in China for stealing commercial secrets.  Prior to his conviction in a Chinese court many Australians felt “… the Chinese were obviously dismissive of Australia’s likely reaction.” Internationally, Beijing’s refusal to harmonize aid to Pacific Island nations with other regional donors has become a point of complaint and an illustration of China’s lack of abide for international norms.  For governments and businesses around the region threats to these rules and norms have emerged as primary concerns.   

The challenge, of course, concerns guaranteeing a stable international order.  President Obama declared in Canberra:

My guidance is clear. As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region. We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace. We will keep our commitments, including our treaty obligations to allies like Australia. And we will constantly strengthen our capabilities to meet the needs of the 21st century. Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in the region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.

Such bold talk makes for an excellent rhetorical flourish, but the mundane job of gaining adequate funds for maintaining a military presence in Asia may be less easy.  Looming budget cuts imperil American aspirations.  President Obama was at pains to emphasize the seriousness of the US military commitment to the region saying, “… reductions in U.S. defense spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.”  One way to dodge thes budgetary constraints is to look towards Canberra to expand its financial support for military options, but Canberra has its own, albeit much smaller, budgetary concerns.

It remains to be seen how this strategy will ultimately manifest.  Will the US be able to persuade its partners to make a greater financial commitment to help underwrite its new-found and deepening engagement?  Will China be persuaded to join the other Asia Pacific states in an embrace of international norms and institutions?  How will Canberra balance its deep trade links with East Asian nations such as China with its security and democratic ties to Washington and the West?  What will become of the emerging Indo-Pacific focus in the Australian-American relationship? And what unforeseen factor will emerge to test the American presence in Asia? I can’t wait to see what happens.

Alan C. Tidwell is currently the Director of the Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies located in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. From 2001 through 2004 he was a program officer with the United States Institute of Peace, where he focused on conflict resolution and education. His area of specialization includes work on conflict in the Australasian region.

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