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Obama in Australia: Balancing not Containment

Rory Medcalf, Director, Lowy Institute, Sydney
December 16, 2011
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President Barack Obama’s November 2011 visit to Australia is widely being described as major marker of Washington’s new strategic direction in a changing Indo-Pacific region. That assessment contains a substantial degree of truth. But simplistic claims that it signals a shift to some sort of one-dimensional ‘containment’ strategy against China need to be treated with great skepticism.

To recap the basic facts: In mid-November, President Obama finally made a twice-delayed trip to Australia, his first as President. There was a clearly security and strategic dimension to the visit. The centerpiece was a speech to the parliament in Canberra, where he outlined his vision for renewed American engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. He affirmed that the United States was back in Asia – a ‘pivot’ from the Middle East - and would not be leaving. He reiterated a desire to focus on engagement with China but also underlined that the United States had both the capability and the will to deter forceful challenge to regional order, from any quarter. And he made some now-controversial remarks about the nature of China’s political system, suggesting that ‘prosperity without freedom’ was a ‘kind of poverty’. His speech was well received by the assembled Australian politicians – even the anti-alliance Greens party could not help but make Obama feel relatively welcome, if only for the obvious reason that he was not their nemesis George W. Bush.

 But this speech was not crafted – or necessarily endorsed in full -- by the Australian Government. As Defense Minister Stephen Smith noted later, an invitation for a foreign leader to speak does not entail a veto over the contents.  Australian public opinion has become more supportive of the alliance – and wary of China – in recent years. Still, Obama could have done more to tap such sentiment; he failed to connect directly with the mass of Australians, avoiding the nation’s large cities such as Sydney and Melbourne. The only other Australian city he visited was Darwin, on the country’s far northern coastline, at the doorstep of Southeast Asia. Here President Obama paid tribute both to the dead and the living: first the victims of a 1942 Japanese air raid – Australia’s Pearl Harbor – and then to Australian troops whose comrades are serving alongside Americans in Afghanistan.

Darwin will be the location for a rotating presence of up to 2,500 US Marines, under an agreement announced at the start of the President’s brief Australian visit. These forces will train with Australians and potentially with those of third countries, whether in Australia’s vast Northern Territory or elsewhere in the region. The Marines would also be well-poised in Darwin for contingencies in Southeast Asia or beyond, for instance disaster relief or stabilization scenarios. And plans are afoot to pre-position some of their equipment in northern Australia – perhaps including munitions, though the details are not yet clear.
 
What does all this mean? Initial regional reactions were clearly divided, with China’s official representatives suggesting the basing of US forces in Australia was ‘not quite appropriate’, and some Chinese media going further and warning that Australia might get ‘caught in the crossfire’ of future China-US tensions.  The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, surprised some Australians by expressing initial doubts about the Darwin arrangement – in case to added to a regional ‘security dilemma’ of action and reaction. Jakarta later softened its tone, including after a meeting between the Indonesia and Australian leaders at the East Asia Summit in Bali. Most other regional countries were silent or positive about the developments, seeing them no doubt as Washington had hoped: as reassurance that they will not be alone in managing the potential instabilities arising from China’s military modernization and diplomatic confidence.
 
This regional security dimension to the Obama visit was borne out when he proceeded straight from Darwin to Bali for the East Asia Summit, the first time a US President has attended this young and promising forum. Along with almost all the other 15 nations present, the United States was determined to see this institution discuss maritime security problems, especially the tensions in the South China Sea. To his credit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao did not seek to prevent such a discussion taking place, though he made it clear that China was not comfortable with this issue being addressed by the EAS. If Bali was indeed a diplomatic win by Obama in being assertive back to China on maritime security, then Washington’s next step will need to be active efforts to advance other regional issues on which common ground with China can be emphasized – easier said than done.
 
The whole sequence, however, may have left the impression that Obama’s Australian visit was no so purposeful in its own right but rather intended as a springboard for reinvigorated US security diplomacy in Asia and against China, beginning with the Bali Summit. Where does this leave Australia-US alliance relations, Australia’s relations with Asia and indeed the whole question of America’s ‘pivot’ strategy?

 First, it is important not to exaggerate a few things. A few thousand Marines in Darwin will not make a strategic difference to China. To be sure, this is a major step from there being no US troops ‘based’ in Australia, but it will not tip the scales in any conflict. The most calculating interpretation of the move is that US forces in northern Australia would be well placed to swing towards a Chinese oil blockade strategy into the Indian Ocean – but the US would probably be better placed to prosecute such a hypothetical operation from elsewhere, and most certainly with naval and air forces.

Also, large numbers of American forces already train in Australia quite often. And the ‘disaster relief’ argument for the placement of light US forces in Australia is no fiction, as the US role tsunami relief in Aceh in 2004-05 confirms. Admittedly, the US and Australia look set to proceed with follow-on discussions about increased access for US ships and aircraft to northern and perhaps even Western Australia.  This will fuel the ‘containment’ theory, not least since Australia’s own defence posture – based on a 2009 White Paper – is increasingly factoring in perceived risks arising from Chinese power.

But it is mistaken to imagine that, until now, Australia would have had no role in a possible US confrontation with China – after all, the country has hosted joint intelligence facilities for decades. Moreover, Canberra is by no means wanting to signal some kind of harsh diplomatic warning to Beijing. Instead, Australia continues to build a respectable mil-mil relationship with China, involving multiple tracks of dialogue and regular combined exercises, this year in disaster relief and last year in naval maneuver and even gunnery. Australia-China military diplomacy is reasonably advanced, and could provide a model and a conduit for other nations that want to continue engaging a rising PLA as a fellow security provider on transnational issues even while hedging against clashes of interests.

Much will depend on what happens now: for instance how adroitly Australian diplomats and leaders are moderating misperceptions in China and elsewhere. Some Australian commentators are speculating that some form of diplomatic punishment from Beijing is a matter of time. This view, however, downplays the fact that the huge trading relationship between the two powers is in large part focused on a few areas – notably Australian iron ore exports to China. Some kind of attempted Chinese sanction in this would damage Chinese interests as well as Australian. ‘Containment’ was a Cold War term, involving economic quarantine and strangulation. That is another reason why the US Asian strategy, and that of its friends and allies, is still all about balancing. 

Rory Medcalf is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney, Australia

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