The United States and Australia signed an agreement on US military deployment on August 2 at a two-plus-two meeting at Sydney. This deal, as supplement to the agreement signed between the two countries in 2011, was arranged in June when Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbot visited the US and met with US President Barack Obama. Concurrent with this 25-year deal, US marines stationed at the port of Darwin will increase from the current 1,500 to 2,500 by the year 2017. The deal also suggests that the coordination capability between the two countries’ special operations forces will further improve in order to deal with security threats in the Asia Pacific. The agreement also proposes to set up a team by both sides to continue bilateral cooperation on a missile defense system. This is definitely Obama’s new move in its rebalancing strategy, the importance of which should never be ignored.
Obama attaches great importance to the role of US allies, reiterating time and again that allies could greatly increase its strength, and the system of allies is the backbone of its rebalance strategy. The Asia Pacific that Obama refers to in his rebalancing strategy is a broad geographical concept, which includes the West Pacific, South Pacific and most of the India Ocean. The United States has five allies in this area, of which Japan is the most important. All US administrations have considered the US-Japan alliance as its linchpin in the Asia Pacific. If US’ military bases in Japan can be considered as its security anchor in the north, the Port of Darwin is undoubtedly the southern counterpart. Though 2,500 marines are not a large military presence, their strategic importance can never be underestimated.
The Obama administration attaches great importance to its alliance with Australia. In the middle of November 2011, Obama visited Australia, where he delivered a speech announcing the US’ pivot to the Asia Pacific. He promised that the US would increase its input in this region, which would not be affected by the cut in US’ defense budget. It was not by coincidence that Obama made this announcement in Australia. Now, the new deal should be part of the input Obama referred to in 2011.
The alliance between the US and Australia was established in 1951, and was transformed from a ‘Cold-War type’ relationship to ‘post-Cold-War type’ after the Cold War. After the September 11 terrorist attack in the US, Australia participated in the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. The US-Australia alliance will deepen the US strategy and extend the sphere of its rebalancing strategy. This alliance also alleviates the strategic position of Southeast Asia and the India Ocean. The strategy intends to connect the Pacific Ocean and the India Ocean with not only the sea route but also the design of security strategy.
Now the Obama administration faces a tricky diplomatic situation. The Arab Spring has caused long-term political instability or civil wars in some countries. Peace talks between Israel and Palestine are in deadlock, despite State Secretary Kerry’s repeated mediation. Obama has repeatedly insisted that Syria President Bashar Assad must step down, but he was instead reelected. Relations with Russia have deteriorated to the worst point since the Cold War because of the Ukraine crisis. Now, Obama is forced to authorize a targeted air strike against ISIS in Iraq, but no one can tell whether the strike will achieve what Obama expects. In such circumstances, the deal the US and Australia signed is meant to tell the world that the Obama administration will continue to pursue its rebalancing strategy. US defense secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated in Australia that the US was a Pacific power and remained a force in the region, despite considerable challenges posed by conflagrations around the globe. He said that the US would not go anywhere and the US was capable of balancing its various interests and allegiances around the world. It is obvious that Obama won’t relax US’ efforts in its rebalancing strategy, which he wants to leave behind as the legacy of his administration. The US and Japan will update its security alliance within the year to further strengthen Japan’s role and position in the rebalancing strategy. That will be another important move.
Why is the rebalancing strategy so important to the United States as to take so much energy and attention from the Obama administration? When the strategy was initiated, the US explained to China time and again that it did not target China. However, this strategy is intended to check China’s rise. The US indeed faces various threats and problems. But the majority of US strategists believe that the challenge to the US’ supremacy primarily comes from China. So how to deal with China’s rise is a big question on whether the US will still maintain its position as world leader in the 21st century.
China has been frank with the US ever since the Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy was put forward and will not feel panic just because of the US. China will still stick to its principle of a peaceful rise and will also try to establish a new type of relationship between major countries, with a view to breaking the historical trend that conflict is inevitable between major countries.
Tao Wenzhao is a Researcher for the Institute of American Studies at the ChineseAcademy of Social Sciences.