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All the way with the USA in the Asian Century?

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This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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31 October 2012 13:44


This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Dr Peter Dean is a Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the ANU.

One of the first pieces of commentary after Prime Minister Julia Gillard launched the Asian Century White Paper at the Lowy Institute on Sunday was an interview by ABC News 24 with Professor Bates Gill, Head of the US Studies Centre. Professor Gill argued that the US is only a 'minor player' in the White Paper. I beg to disagree.

During the launch, the Prime Minster reinforced the White Paper's list of the six most important countries in the region for Australia: China, India, Japan, Indonesia, the US and South Korea. A rather crude content analysis of the document, based on the number of mentions each country receives, reveals the US as the fifth most prominent country. To be exact, the US gets 166 mentions (this includes references to United States and US). China leads the way with 348 mentions, India 270, Japan 196, Indonesia 181 and South Korea with 124.

But such crude metrics tell only part of the story. What is important is that, as Peter Hartcher has reported, this White Paper is aimed at an Australian audience, not an Asian or a US one. And while there is always more to be done maintaining and strengthening any bilateral relationship after over a century of business and cultural exchanges, serving together in coalitions in the First and Second World Wars, having a formal alliance for over 60 years and a free trade agreement for the past eight, we can probably forgive the Government for thinking most Australians have a reasonably good handle on the importance of our relationship with the US.

Clearly, the Government thought it needed to focus the community on countries where we lack the type of sophisticated relationship we have with the US; relationships that will be critically important for our future, such as with China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.

Yet while the US only ranked fifth in my crude analysis, those 166 mentions are rather impressive when you consider the type and context. The US is mostly mentioned in terms of trade and security. In fact it dominates the security elements of the White Paper. The White Paper notes that Asia's rising economies were 'major beneficiaries of the open global trading system established under United States leadership after World War II' and that the security guarantees provided by the US to its key allies in the region, 'especially Japan and South Korea, and the development of an effective working relationship between Washington and Beijing after 1972, provided strategic (and business) confidence that helped frame and support the region's economic development'.

The core argument for the importance of the US to Australian and regional security comes on p.231:

We consider that a strong and consistent United States presence in the region will be as important in providing future confidence in Asia's rapidly changing strategic environment as it has been in the past. We will continue to support US engagement in the region and its rebalancing to the Asia–Pacific, including through deepening our defence engagement with the US and regional partners.

Of all the countries mentioned in this document, it allocates the US a central and pivotal role, not only in Asia's past, but also for its future.

Significantly though, the White Paper does not take a wholly sycophantic view of the US. It also acknowledges that while 'our alliance with the United States remains as strong as ever', Asia's continued growth won't occur in a 'strategic vacuum'. Stable relations among the 'major powers in Asia and the Pacific – China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the United States – will remain fundamental to prosperity and security in the region and will require sustained effort'.

One of the most interesting lines in the White Paper is the statement 'this is not a world in which anything like a containment policy can work or be in our national interests'. As Andrew Carr pointed out in his post, this is a clear message that 'Australia hopes is read in Washington as much as Beijing'.

In the end, the US is not a minor player. Australia has already chosen the US as its preferred security partner for the Asian Century and the White Paper reflects the critical role this relationship will play in the future. The emphasis on countries other than the US is about focusing attention on other partners and rising powers and the need to engage many of them in ways that reflect the strength of the US-Australian bilateral relationship. 

Photo Auspic/Prime Minister's Office.

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