Australian accent on US role in Asia-Pacific

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am


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Within the Obama administration's plan to 'pivot' towards Asia and the Pacific is a shift in emphasis away from Japan and South Korea in northeast Asia to Australia in Southeast Asia.

To be sure, American political and military leaders still have public words of praise for the alliances with Japan and South Korea. But there is little doubt that the long-standing partnership with Australia is blossoming into a robust alliance.

Japan is seen as a grudging, indecisive partner unwilling to commit to a vibrant alliance. Military ties are on solid ground. But inept governments in Tokyo over the past two decades have left the US-Japan alliance in tatters.

In South Korea, political leaders and senior military officers have been unwilling to take full responsibility for the defence of their own nation, even when they are capable of defeating a North Korean conventional force that is crumbling. It is easier - and cheaper - to rely on the US.

In contrast, Canberra has taken a low-key but forthright attitude to the alliance with the US. Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith underscored that approach last month when they made public a Defence Force Posture Review.

The review said: 'Australia's strategic outlook is shaped most fundamentally by the changing global distribution of power.' It pointed particularly to the rise of China, India, and 'the continuing strategic engagement of the United States' in the Asia-Pacific region.

Today, 'Australia and the United States are seeking to align their respective force postures in ways that serve shared security interests,' the review said. The US intends 'to develop a more flexible and resilient military posture in the Asia-Pacific, and access to facilities and training areas in Australia has become more important'.

For the US, Australia's strategic location is vital. Its northern reaches are close to the South China Sea, through which more than half the world's shipping passes each year - and are within striking distance of the Chinese lifeline through those waters, which may deter Beijing.

Australia has nurtured good military relations with Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia and has worked hard at gathering intelligence throughout Southeast Asia, which can benefit the US.

Historically, Americans and Australians have served together from the second world war through Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They also belong to nations of immigrants. Thus, Australians and Americans communicate easily - even if each speaks English with an accent that the other sometimes struggles to understand.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington