FPI Bulletin: President Obama’s Trip to Australia

November 16, 2011

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From FPI Policy Analyst Patrick Christy

Amid growing tensions in the Asia-Pacific—in particular, the rise of China, North Korean nuclear weapons, and bitter territorial disputes—Australia has emerged as a pillar of stability and strength.   President Obama will draw well-deserved attention to Australia’s growing regional and global role when he arrives in that country today.

The President’s visit comes as leaders from the two countries are announcing an important strategic agreement to expand the U.S. military’s access to Australia.  But it also comes at a time when the Obama administration is attempting to reassure friends and foe alike that the United States will remain a critical player in the Asia-Pacific in the future.    Many nations see the United States—after three rounds of deep defense cuts and ongoing economic troubles—as potentially unable to maintain its regional presence.  Obama’s arrival in Australia is therefore an important step in countering this perception.

No doubt, America’s continued engagement in the Asia-Pacific—diplomatically, economically, and militarily—will continue to play a critical and stabilizing role in the region.  And as the United States looks westward across the Pacific, they will find no greater friend than Australia.  Indeed, as President Obama noted on March 7, 2011: “We have no stronger ally than Australia.”

Australians Recognize Importance of U.S. Ties.

At the political and cultural level, relations between the United States and Australia are only intensifying.  To begin with, the two countries are linked by a deep history, a common language, and shared values.  U.S. and Australian troops have fought and died alongside one and other in every major war since World War I.  Today, Australia has emerged as one of America’s closest and vital allies, not just in the Asia-Pacific, but throughout the world.

Australians remain strongly committed to their alliance with the United States.  According to a poll conducted by the Lowy Institute, a prominent Australian think tank, 78 percent of Australians say a strong alliance between the United States and Australia is a natural extension of common values and ideals between the two nations.  And while many in Australia believe a formal security alliance with the United States is more likely to bring Australia into a foreign intervention in the Asia-Pacific, 82 percent of people nonetheless continue to rate the U.S. alliance as “fairly important” or “very important.”

Australia Has Stood Shoulder-to-Shoulder with America.

At the strategic and military levels, Australia has been a steadfast and strong ally of the United States.

Like Americans, Australians have witnessed firsthand the carnage of international terrorism.  On September 11, 2011, al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City killed 22 Australians.  One year later, 88 Australians died when Jemaah Islamiyah, an terrorist group liked to al-Qaeda,  detonated explosives inside a popular nightclub in Bali, Indonesia.  Moreover, Jemaah Islamiyah not only attacked the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004, but also bombed another Indonesian nightclub in 2005, killing four Australians.

Yet the threat of Islamic extremism has failed to deter Australia from engaging more  actively in regional and global affairs.   Within the Asia-Pacific, Australian forces have deployed as regional peacekeepers in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.  In Indonesia—the world’s most populous Muslim nation—Australia has taken the lead, working hand-in-hand with Jakarta on critical counterterrorism initiatives.  And in the vast waters of the South Pacific and Indonesian Seas, Australia’s Navy has assumed a greater role in safeguarding regional maritime security.

Globally, Australia has borne more than its share of responsibilities.  Canberra has approved the deployment of approximately 3300 Australian Defense Force personnel to 11 operations overseas, including Afghanistan, East Timor, Solomon Islands, and Sudan.  And at the highest levels of government, U.S. and Australian officials have collaborated closely in military planning, intelligence gathering, and combat operations throughout the world.

It’s critical to recall that Australia was among the first nations to commit to operations in Afghanistan after 9/11.  Ten years later, over 1500 members of the Australian Defense Forces are based in Afghanistan, making Australia the largest non-NATO coalition member there.  During her time in office, Prime Minister Gillard has been a fierce defender of the war in Afghanistan, despite domestic disapproval of the war.  In a show of her commitment, she even made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on November 7, 2011.

Australian forces also played an important role in the liberation of Iraq.  In 2003, at the outset of the Iraq War, then-Prime Minister John Howard committed 2,000 defense and Special Forces personnel, as well as crucial air support in the form of F-18s, frigates, and large transport aircrafts.  Australian forces were critical in providing security and training to Iraq until the end of their military operations there in July 2009.

To further the bilateral strategic alliance, President Obama will announce on Thursday a significant agreement that will allow U.S. military forces greater access to Australia’s military facilities.  The agreement will also increase America’s access to Australian ports, and allow the pre-positioning of U.S. military equipment on Australian soil.  Over time, this will expand joint operations and training exercises between U.S. and Australian forces, and greatly enhance the already strong security partnership between these two nations. 

Impact of the U.S.-Australian Military Agreement.

For the United States, the agreement carries important strategic implications.  First, it will geographically diversify America’s force posture in the Asia-Pacific.  Currently U.S. naval forces are centralized in Japan and South Korea, so if a military confrontation with China were to occur, both countries would be vulnerable to attack by nearby Chinese ballistic missiles.  But by distributing some U.S. forces, equipment, and ships to Australia, the United States will place certain assets outside the range of key Chinese military capabilities.

In addition, the agreement will bolster U.S. naval operations throughout the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.  The positioning of U.S. naval assets in Australia will provide a geographically centralized location from which to embark on maritime operations that would otherwise be launched from distant locations in Bahrain (Fifth Fleet) or Japan (Seventh Fleet).  An expanded U.S. military presence in Australia will also enhance humanitarian assistance and cooperation in the region.  Although the announcement may anger China, it will do much to reassure Australia and other allies throughout the region of America’s staying power in the Asia-Pacific.

Indeed, Australians understand the complexities of the region—and the duality of China’s economic and military rise.  On the one hand, there are positive aspects to the Sino-Australian relationship.  For example, China is now Australia’s largest trading partner.  Moreover, the number of Chinese students enrolled in higher education programs in Australia ranks second only behind students from South Korea.

On the other hand, the Australian public continues to view China with a deeply suspicious eye.  The Lowy Institute reports that 44% of Australians believe that China will pose a military threat to their homeland at some time in the next twenty years.

In the near future, China will remain an important trading partner not only for Australia, but also for the United States.  No doubt, officials in Washington and Canberra hold out hope for the eventual emergence of a peaceful and more democratic China.   However, given China’s growing diplomatic, economic and military presence throughout the region, both the United States and Australia will continue to worry about the rise of a hegemonic and more aggressive Chinese state.  It therefore will be in the interest of both countries to continue working together and more closely coordinating their respective China policies.


Speaking before a joint session of the U.S. Congress earlier this year, Prime Minister Gillard stated:  “You have an ally in Australia.  An ally for war and peace.  An ally for hardship and prosperity. An ally for the 60 years past and Australia is an ally for all the years to come.”  In turn, President Obama’s imminent visit to Australia marks an important opportunity to further elevate this crucial bilateral relationship—an alliance suited to the task of tackling the strategic challenges of the 21st century.  Indeed, as the United States returns its gaze to the Asia-Pacific, it should welcome Australia’s decision to play a leading role in regional and global security matters.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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