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Australia–US relations: The implications of loyalty and relevance

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COMMENTS

10 November 2010 10:39

Matt Hill is a Lowy Institute intern in the Global Issues Program. A New Zealand Freyberg Scholar, he recently completed a Master's in Strategic Studies at the ANU.

The Lowy Institute has put a lot of intellectual effort behind analysing the strategic implications of the changing balance of regional economic and military power, exemplified by the rise of China and India. With all the coverage of US Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defence Gates' attendance at the annual AUSMIN talks, it's worth exploring how the dynamism of Asia is impacting on the US–Australia alliance.

First off, the resurgence of Asia marks a rebalancing of Australia's position within US strategic calculations. Canberra has made a huge effort over the past decade attempting to define itself as a middle power. But power is relative. Inevitably, the rise of some states reduces the stature of others. As Australia is discovering, the real limits of its influence are increasingly stark.

This raises the value Canberra places on its ties with Washington. The relationship has often been referred to in the military jargon as a 'force multiplier'. Yet regional dynamism, by reducing Australia's influence, challenges its relevance to the US. The rising powers of Asia provide a wide field of potential partners. Indeed,  on President Obama's trip, Canberra has been bumped off of the schedule in favour of New Delhi.

Overall, however, a strong, effective alliance with Australia remains a valuable asset for Washington — if only because of Canberra's loyalty. India, Indonesia, and other states wooed by the US are still ambivalent as to how far they want to take things. Australia has no such qualms. As Secretary Clinton noted, Canberra has fought by Washington's side in every conflict in the past one hundred years. You can't buy that sense of solidarity – as the Japanese have learned.

Conversely, important for Canberra to consider are the long–term implications for the alliance of the changing balance of US power and interests in Asia. What concerns Australia's strategists is whether America will have the political willpower to continue anteing up in Asia as it has in the past.

The US still has a huge lead in terms of capabilities needed to influence events far beyond its shores. Yet its access to Western Pacific is increasingly threatened by China's emerging submarine and missile forces. And while China's economy continues to roar ahead, the US is hurting — with implications for relative military expenditure. Last week's mid–term elections herald increased popular pressure on Washington to cut the record budget deficits seen in recent years. Some newly–elected representatives have questioned the wisdom of the US paying the costs of underwriting global security.

So where does all this leave the Australia–US relationship heading after this week'

Rory Medcalf's analysis of yesterday's AUSMIN communiqué leaves little room to doubt the future tangent of the Australia–US alliance. Practical considerations necessitate an ongoing concern with how to manage the extraction of both parties from Afghanistan – without letting the roof cave in on Kabul.

But looking ahead, both parties are increasingly willing to recognise publicly the panda in the room. Moves to increase American access to Australian bases, and a shared focus on cyber, space and energy security, are all driven by considerations of how best to manage the burden of competition, and potentially conflict, with China.

At the same time, it's increasingly clear that bilateral cooperation is insufficient to manage this challenge. On security matters, US cooperation with Australia is part of a reinvigorated 'hubs and spokes' model of strategic engagement with key partners in Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN.

All this suggests an increasingly complex and challenging diplomatic and strategic agenda of cooperation between Canberra and Washington.

Photo by US State Department via Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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