As I noted last Friday, the media's coverage of Tony Abbott's meeting with Barack Obama made it seem a pretty anodyne affair, but there are a couple of reasons to think there might be slightly more to it than that. Both reasons will be encouraging to those who favour an ever tighter Australian embrace of the US alliance, but worrying to those of us who think we ought to have a little more breathing room and the occasional show of independence.
1. Ballistic missile defence
As James Brown said in his analysis, the joint statement released after the meeting said Australia and the US are 'working to explore opportunities to expand cooperation on ballistic missile defense, including working together to identify potential Australian contributions to ballistic missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region.'*
That bit about the Asia Pacific is crucial. Previously, Australian governments have talked about missile defence largely in the context of protecting deployed Australian forces from missile attack. This statement suggests a broader ambition, a suggestion reinforced by President Obama in his joint media appearance with Abbott:
And we also had an opportunity to talk about North Korea and the continuing threat there and the importance for us to maintain vigilance, including additional coordination around protection from potential missile strikes from North Korea.
There are three reasons why this is concerning. First, if Australia was to develop the capability to participate in defence against North Korea's ballistic missiles (almost certainly on board the new Air Warfare Destroyers), it would be difficult for the government of the day to withhold that capability in a crisis. Without it, we could get away with a token contribution to any military build-up, or we could make a substantial contribution in some other area. We'd have a real choice. But with BMD capability, Australia would be more or less obliged to send one of our most valuable warships into a crisis. So we're tying our hands when we don't really need to, because our contribution to a larger BMD effort would be marginal anyway.
Second, the Chinese hate US missile defence because they think it is aimed at them. They're wrong about this, but they have reasons to be suspicious. They have a small nuclear arsenal, and worry that if most of it was knocked out in a first strike, the rest could be mopped up by missile defences, leaving China without a deterrent. That's not a fear Australia should be aiming to reinforce, because it encourages China to field more nuclear weapons, just in case.
Third, as I explained some years ago in a Fairfax op-ed, missile defences of the kind Australia could deploy would be useless for defending the Australian continent, but they would be useful for defending South Korea, Japan and US Pacific territories. So in a weird way, we would actually be increasing the risk to ourselves from a North Korean long-range missile (if one was ever fielded). After all, if Pyongyang knows that its principal enemies have missile defences, why not avoid the risk of having one of your scarce missiles shot down by aiming it at one of their allies instead?
2. US Air Force rotations
As James Brown pointed out, the Force Posture Agreement announced by Obama and Abbott should see 'US Air Force rotations through northern Australia...increase, assuming the force posture agreement clears the way for the expansion of runways and ramp space at RAAF Learmonth and RAAF Tindal. Australians should expect to see more USAF long-range bombers, transport aircraft, and air-to-air refuelers operating from those locations.'
The prospect of B-52 bombers flying regularly out of Australia is something former foreign minister Bob Carr agonised over, as revealed in his memoirs. Carr was worried that such a move make Australia look like 'a continental US aircraft carrier...it would really lock us in, irreversibly, as part of the American empire. But then again, I may be wrong.'
It now looks like that step has been taken without too much debate or too much fuss.
* A reader informs me that this language is not new. It also appeared in the 2013 AUSMIN communique.