When US officials talk about the US-Australia alliance, they almost always highlight, as President Obama did in his November 2011 speech in Canberra, that Australians have fought alongside Americans 'in every single major conflict of the past hundred years.' This is a fact to be celebrated, but statements on both sides of the Pacific that Australia is America’s 'deputy sheriff' in Asia, compounded by the enduring concept of US-led 'hub-and-spoke' alliances in the region, have only reinforced perceptions of Australia as a dependable junior partner.
Australia’s own actions in recent years have portrayed a country reluctant to step out on its own. Canberra has often appeared unwilling to take a leadership role in the region or on the world stage, much less help to manage the US-China security competition in Asia. When Canberra does lead, it is too often on niche issues deemed more appropriate for a 'middle power.'
Through American eyes, this appears to be driven by a combination of factors, including an overly-modest self-assessment of Australia’s power and influence, the perception that Australia’s real national security challenges do not extend far beyond its periphery, and the belief that there is little to be gained by inserting itself politically between the world’s two largest economies, both of which have an outsized effect on Australia’s economic wellbeing.
But in recent weeks, Australia has taken steps that suggest these assumptions may no longer be predominant in Canberra. Even if driven by domestic politics, Australia has played a leading role in marshaling the international community’s response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. Capitalising on Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop quickly traveled to New York to introduce a binding resolution calling for a 'full, thorough and independent international investigation.' It passed unanimously. Back in Canberra, Prime Minister Abbott went so far as to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be welcome to attend November’s G20 summit in Brisbane if Russia proves complicit in the attack.
Meanwhile, only days earlier, People’s Liberation Army General Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, was in Canberra to help announce that Chinese troops would train with Australian soldiers and US Marines together for first time in October’s Exercise Kowari in northern Australia.
This activism — best understood, in my view, as Australian initiatives to support Australian interests — only builds upon recent efforts to deepen economic and security partnerships with leading regional countries, including Japan and India. No longer content to simply be a spoke in an American-led order, Australia is increasingly positioned to contribute independently or in concert with fellow Asian countries to help maintain regional peace and stability.
Are these harbingers of a more pro-active Australian foreign policy? Only time will tell, but Washington should hope the answer is squarely in the affirmative.
It turns out that the US doesn’t need a 'deputy sheriff' in Asia or more broadly on the international stage. Instead, it needs willing and capable partners who share America’s vision for a rules-based international order. It needs countries with comparative strengths and the power to complement, supplement and sometimes replace the traditional role of the US.
Few countries, if any, fit this bill as well as Australia. Regardless of its relatively small population and military, Australia carries substantial normative authority (particularly outside Southeast Asia) as a modern, liberal country in Asia, distanced by physical geography and national security perspectives from both Europe and the US. Together, this provides significant untapped potential for Australia, even in pursuit of its own interests, to act in ways that advance US goals in the region and the world.
But this is not just about Australia’s latent influence. It’s also the case that the regional security environment in Asia increasingly demands this kind of leadership from America’s partners. It is no longer sufficient, much less wise, for Canberra to sit on the sidelines while hoping for the US and China to resolve a growing set of serious differences on their own. To the contrary, US-China cooperation is far more likely to spring from activities led by third-party countries or regional institutions, which is what makes the announcement of the October exercise in northern Australia so important. Tony Abbott was right when he told General Fan last week that the trilateral exercise would be 'good for the stability of our region.'
As to Australia’s burgeoning relationships in the region, analysis by the Center for a New American Security, my home institution, has argued that intra-Asian security networks can at times contribute more to deterrence and regional security when they are largely independent of the US rather than always being led by Washington.
Of course, decisively dropping the 'deputy sheriff' badge and moving toward a more pro-active and independent foreign policy — in which Australian actions are commensurate with its power and influence — will inevitably produce friction with the US. For example, both countries will be competing for the ears of new leaders in India and Indonesia, while disagreements are likely to emerge on climate and energy. But if done transparently and in the spirit of healthy competition, this should not be something to be feared in Washington. On balance, there is no doubt that, even if sometimes at odds with the US, greater Australian involvement in world politics — again, even in pursuit of its own aims — will ultimately advance American interests.
Australia is in a unique position to move the international community, contribute independently to peace and stability in Asia, and help to manage the competitive aspects of the US-China relationship. Here’s hoping that recent events aren’t just a fleeting burst of Australian activism.
Photo by Flickr user Tony Abbott.