Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Buildup Down Under

The American president insisted his historic visit to Australia was not about China. But, of course, that's exactly what it was about.

Scott Barbour - Pool/Getty Images
Scott Barbour - Pool/Getty Images
Scott Barbour - Pool/Getty Images

SYDNEY – U.S. President Barack Obama's just-concluded trip to Australia proved far more than a chance to swap notes with an embattled prime minister on antipodean vernacular or the frustrations of democracy, although he did learn that Australian political discourse involves a great deal of "ear-bashing."

The visit was historic on two counts.

It marked a tangibly strengthened alliance, with announcements of much-enhanced access for U.S. forces in Australia's north: a first step toward possible basing arrangements on the territory of an ally that for 60 years has hosted only visits, exercises, and intelligence facilities.

SYDNEY – U.S. President Barack Obama’s just-concluded trip to Australia proved far more than a chance to swap notes with an embattled prime minister on antipodean vernacular or the frustrations of democracy, although he did learn that Australian political discourse involves a great deal of "ear-bashing."

The visit was historic on two counts.

It marked a tangibly strengthened alliance, with announcements of much-enhanced access for U.S. forces in Australia’s north: a first step toward possible basing arrangements on the territory of an ally that for 60 years has hosted only visits, exercises, and intelligence facilities.

But even more profound was the message that the American president conveyed about U.S. strategy in Asia. In a forthright, only slightly sentimental address to the Australian parliament in Canberra, Obama gave the world the starkest signal yet that, whatever its budgetary woes, the United States is in Asia for good — in both senses of the word. Obama laid plain the contours of a balancing strategy to deal with a rising China, tempered by renewed efforts at engagement.

"As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority," he said. "As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific."

An overwhelming majority of Australians support the alliance with Washington, and many are becoming worried about what China’s rise will mean for their nation’s security. One poll by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute suggests that 55 percent of Australians would accept a U.S. base on Australian territory. Still, some Australians would have been surprised to learn that at the core of Obama’s speech in their neat little bush capital was a message aimed not so much at them as at all the powers of Asia, most notably Beijing.

It was, said Obama, "a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping the region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends."

Most Australians live in big multicultural cities and urban corridors along the country’s southeastern coastline. The all-too-brief visit — it was just 28 hours — skipped what they think of as real Australia.  All they saw of the leader of the free world when he came to their country was televised images from places that most of them consider too dull or distant to visit.

Even so, there was a latent sense of goodwill: Obama remains more popular in Australia than in most countries, if only for the reason that he is not George W. Bush. The current hand-wringing angst on the Australian left about the prospect of a U.S. military presence here is nothing next to their public displays of outrage during the last presidential visit in 2003, when the leader of the Greens party, Bob Brown, heckled until he was ejected from parliament. This time, Brown and all his Greens were on their best behavior, even while they sat through a speech extolling an alliance they can barely abide.

The Canberra address was the centerpiece of this twice-delayed visit to Washington’s antipodean ally. It burnished the foreign-policy credentials of Julia Gillard, the nation’s first female prime minister, who also showed leadership this week by signaling a determination to overturn her own Labor party’s ban on uranium sales to India. She has been struggling with a minority Labor government, an unrelenting conservative opposition, and the fallout from her overthrow last year of Labor colleague Kevin Rudd, now her less-than-compliant foreign minister.

Obama opened by saying all the right things for his Australian audience. He emphasized the commonalities of the two nations, their democratic values, their success stories of migration, toil, and improvement, their progress from a painful past toward equal rights and inclusiveness.

This homage extended, naturally enough, to the solidarity of Australians and Americans in battle, for these two nations have indeed been allies every time they have found themselves in a major conflict since World War I. The president reserved special praise for the Australian troops in Afghanistan, 32 of whom have died.

He concluded his visit in Darwin, capital of the vast Northern Territory. Here, with Gillard, he addressed Australian forces and a laid a wreath in memory of the 80 or more American sailors lost with the destroyer USS Peary during a massive Japanese bombing raid in 1942 — Australia’s Pearl Harbor.

But the main symbolism of the brief Darwin call was contemporary and strategic. Beginning next year, this small, tropical city will host a "rotating" presence of U.S. Marines for the six dry months of each year — just a company at first, building to a force of 2,500 within five years. They will exercise in the territory’s huge training areas, often with Australian forces and potentially sometimes with those of friendly third countries. Gradually, the military infrastructure of northern Australia — and perhaps western Australia as well — will host an accelerated tempo of visits by U.S. ships and aircraft.

All of this is laying groundwork for the United States to use Australia’s unique Indo-Pacific geography for more flexible access to potential trouble spots in the wider region. Much was made by Obama and Gillard of how their troops — and prepositioned U.S. equipment — could contribute to humanitarian missions and disaster relief. And both nations remain serious about transnational threats like terrorism, piracy, and weapons of mass destruction shipments.

But the China-centric overtones of the new force posture announcements are hard to miss. Australian and U.S. think-tank analysts have for some time identified the benefits of using Australia as a sanctuary for U.S. forces beyond range of most Chinese weapons. And easy access from Australia to the Indian Ocean — China’s energy lifeline — raises obvious questions about blockade contingencies.

For now, China’s foreign ministry has contented itself with a mild public statement that U.S. troops in Australia might be "not quite appropriate." The nationalist Global Times, a state-owned paper in Beijing, meanwhile, has channeled a message from more hard-line quarters. It warned that Australia should not "take China for a fool" lest it be "caught in the crossfire" — the kind of talk that might make even more Australians realize they could do with an ally.

As for what the rest of the region thinks about all this activity down under, Obama now has the ideal opportunity to find out. From Darwin, he flew to Bali, where he is attending the East Asia Summit, the first time a U.S. leader has joined what is shaping up as the region’s premier diplomatic forum. He declared in Canberra that this meeting should promote rules and cooperation on hard security problems like the South China Sea, where China’s extraordinary territorial claims and maritime assertiveness have led to continued incidents with Vietnam and the Philippines this year. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao will also be in Bali, and his response will be a crucial marker of what lies ahead.

One of the few jarring notes struck during Obama’s Australia visit came inadvertently from Tony Abbott, the leader of the conservative opposition, who threw a Cold War literary reference into his words of welcome without perhaps realizing how it might be taken. "Not for nothing," he said, "did Graham Greene say of his Quiet American that he had never met a man with such good intentions for all the trouble he caused."

It is safe to assume that the avowedly pro-American Mr. Abbott — who is already offering a permanent U.S. base if he wins government — was not trying to be prescient.

<p> Rory Medcalf designed and oversaw the 2013 India Poll. He is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Associate Director of the Australia India Institute and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. </p>

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