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Foreign Policy

The Eagle Down Under

Jan 11 , 2012

Amidst all the symbolic gestures of President Obama’s recent visit to Australia, perhaps none was more powerful than his remarks to US and Australian service members at an air force base in Darwin. In his opening lines Obama chanted the Australian sporting war cry of ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!’ to which he received an equally rapturous reply from the assembled troops. Here was the Anglosphere at work. It would be difficult to imagine a Japanese or Chinese leader attempting so intimate a cultural exercise. Of course, most presidents attempt these rhetorical acts of communion when abroad, searching for that elusive moment when the visiting head of state can connect, even if briefly, to his hosts.

But the significance of the Obama visit will be felt long after that sort of cheering has died down. The announcement that from next year 250 US marines will be deployed to Darwin and Northern Australia – a number that in the coming years will develop into a rotational presence of a 2500 strong Marine Air Ground Task Force  – means that for the first time Australia will host a permanent US military presence on its own soil. Both the President and the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, were at pains to point out that this was not a conventional American base; rather, it was the extension of an existing Australian training facility. Moreover, the vast majority of US troops in the region will continue to be based on Guam, Okinawa and in South Korea.

Yet the announcement came with a new language about both the US-Australia alliance and American regional policy more broadly. Before he embarked on his Asian tour senior officials in the National Security Council and the White House emphasised Obama’s aim to ‘restore’ America’s alliances in Asia and ‘raise’ its standing in this part of the world. The trip was held up as nothing less than the ‘maturation’ of Obama’s regional vision. Indeed, far from seeing Australia as the ‘southern anchor’ for the US in Asia – language reminiscent of State Department country briefs during the Cold War – US officials stressed that they were not coming to a ‘far flung part of the world’. In the words of Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, the alliance is being taken to the ‘next level’. And as Obama said in his speech to the Australian parliament, America is intending to play a ‘larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future’.

But why now? Why in 2011 has the US decided to go beyond the symbolic gestures that have so often characterized the management of its relationship with Australia?  In the past, Washington has had to do very little to keep the alliance in good shape. Putting aside the ongoing cooperation in intelligence sharing and the staging of joint military exercises, the Australian need for an American military presence seems to have been assuaged by the occasional port visit by a touring US naval vessel, or, in a more serious – but still limited – fashion, the provision of crucial logistical support offered at the time of the East Timor crisis in 1999. The Gillard-Obama announcement therefore marks a new departure for the alliance.

And the answer is of course to put this development in the broader context of the US Global Force Posture review, and its stated desire for a more agile, geographically dispersed military footprint in Asia.  That might mean a quicker response time for humanitarian and disaster relief, but the emphasis on maintaining security in the region means that the announcement has one overriding and binding context: the rise of China. For Australia, the implications are clear – Canberra is locked into an intensifying American grand strategy in Asia. Only time and circumstance will tell whether that means Australia now has less freedom of action in the event of a military crisis between the US and China.  As one senior journalist, Peter Hartcher, put it, the new training facility now becomes part of a regional ‘tripwire’, ensuring Australia will be inevitably caught up in any military contingency.

All this has again brought to the surface the much vaunted ‘dilemma’ that  some commentators believe Australia faces: a nation still looking to the US as its strategic guarantor while simultaneously becoming more and more susceptible to the gravitational pull of the Chinese economy.  Prime Minister Gillard in an attempt to reconcile these forces shaping Australia’s foreign policy stressed that Canberra can have ‘an ally in Washington and a friend in Beijing’.  But the eagerness on the Australian side to welcome this new military presence might well make the deft and delicate diplomacy required in these new times just that bit harder. After all, the announcement is a result of a joint US-Australian force posture review for the Asia-Pacific. And although China and Indonesia were among those briefed by Australia before the Obama visit, both Beijing and Jakarta have, unsurprisingly, expressed concern at the development.  Indeed it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that although rising Chinese power was the primary strategic driver for this announcement, Australian policymakers might well have one eye on potential instability in Indonesia.

Viewed in historical perspective, a permanent US military presence in Australia has long been something of a Holy Grail for generations of Australian politicians and policymakers. In the wake of the Second World War – during which Australia played host to nearly a million American troops on recreational leave – the Australian external affairs Minister HV Evatt sought the creation of joint US and Australian bases in the Pacific, but was rebuffed by the Truman administration. From the moment the ANZUS treaty was signed in 1951 there was active encouragement from the Australian government for the US to establish a permanent military base, and the agreements to host US intelligence installations at Pine Gap, North West Cape and Nurrungar in the 1960s were part of a determined Australian effort to ensure that its country was integrated as much as possible into the US global defence network. In the late 1970s, fearing Soviet ambitions in the Indian Ocean, conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser offered the US the opportunity to establish a naval base at Cockburn sound on the western Australian coast.  Again the offer was turned down.

Such offers reflected ongoing Australian doubts about the security guarantees contained in the ANZUS treaty itself.  Australians had learnt only too well during key moments in the Cold War, especially with Indonesia’s intention to annex West New Guinea and Sukarno’s policy of confrontation with Malaysia, that the US would not necessarily come to Australia’s aid should there be military conflict with Indonesian forces. It is hard to escape the conclusion that with this most recent announcement, Australians have at last secured the sort of protective umbrella that they have always struggled to find in the language of the treaty itself.

But the domestic response in Australia revealed a measure of ambivalence. Although the once flame-throwing element of Labor’s left wing, traditionally hostile to the American alliance, has been well and truly becalmed, other voices were more sceptical. Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, for example, claimed that the government had been ‘verballed’ by the Obama administration into ‘what looks like the stringing out of a containment policy’, while mining magnate Clive Palmer believed the decision was a ‘poke in the eye’ to China, an act of ‘hostility’ towards Australia’s major trading partner.  Former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull was another to air his doubts about Australia basing its long term policy ‘on the proposition that we are on an inevitable collision course with China’, while two of the countries most esteemed strategic thinkers, Owen Harries and Hugh White, each underlined the risks for Australia of hitching itself so closely to the new American policy.

All of this suggests that despite the overwhelming bipartisan and public support for the alliance and this announcement, some Australians are not so sure that the Australian government has made the right move.    But Prime Minister Gillard knows all too well the risks of being seen as suspect on alliance management: witness the spectacular fall of former Labor leader Mark Latham in 2004 when he called for Australian troops to be home before Christmas. Whilst cables from the US Embassy in Canberra released by Wikileaks showed that in the past there has been some suspicion of Gillard’s alliance credentials, this visit will surely have removed any ongoing concerns in Washington.  Perhaps the ultimate test of the extent to which Gillard has silenced the doubters is the fact that the posse of left leaning commentators so eager to paint former prime minister John Howard as an American lickspittle for his close relationship with George W Bush, were nowhere to be seen or heard amidst this latest Australian-American love feast. 

Arguably, therefore, this was the most significant US presidential visit to Australia since the first – when President Johnson arrived in October 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War. On that occasion, Johnson told the Australian Cabinet he had not come to ask for a ‘single man or dollar’ of extra assistance.  On this most recent visit, however, Obama asked a great deal of Australia. Towards the end of his speech in Darwin, he even reached for verse from one of Australia’s most famous bush poets, Banjo Paterson, who had asked of Australia in 1901: ‘hath she the strength for the burden laid upon her, hath she the power to protect her own?’ The words were taken from Paterson’s ‘Song of the Federation’, written as the Australian colonies federated to become one nation. In essence, the poem asked whether or not Australia was ready for the responsibilities of nationhood – especially where that entailed the defence of the country and the maintenance of its status as a white British nation on the edge of an alien Asia. Paterson envisaged a people who whilst ‘strangers to the tumult of battle’ were ready to bellow to the world ‘Australia’s marching song’. Obama did not quote those precise words, but some may well argue that he didn’t need to.


James Curran is Associate Professor and historian at Sydney University and a research associate at its US Studies Centre. He is the author of The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image (2004) the co-author (with Stuart Ward) of The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire (2010) and Curtin’s Empire (2011).  He is currently writing a history of the US/Australia alliance in Asia from 1969-present

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