Faithful US ally, still
When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia took office last December, there was widespread speculation in Australia, Asia and the United States that his foreign and defence policy would favour loosening ties with the US and tilting towards China.
Speculators pointed to his university major in Chinese history and language, further study of the Chinese language in Taiwan and service as a diplomat in Australia's Beijing embassy. The officially controlled Chinese press and TV news were close to ecstatic that Lu Kewen, as Mr Rudd is known in Chinese, had come to power.
To the contrary, said Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, who asserted that the speculators had shown 'poor judgment'. In an interview during a stopover in Hawaii on his way to Washington recently, Mr Fitzgibbon said that his prime minister was 'well versed in Chinese politics' and saw his experience in China as an opportunity 'to promote trust'.
He insisted, however, 'that should not be read as a pro-China tilt.' An American officer said the Pacific Command was 'intrigued' by Mr Rudd's connection with China and was watching to see how it developed.
Mr Fitzgibbon met the leader of the Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, and visited Australian ships in port at Pearl Harbor for the biennial 10-nation maritime exercise known as Rim of the Pacific or Rimpac. He is scheduled to arrive in Washington today to meet Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Mr Fitzgibbon said his ministry was deep into drafting a new defence white paper, the first in eight years, and it would re-emphasise Australia's commitment to its alliance with the US. Even with a new government in Canberra, he said, Australia's reliance on the US for security 'certainly hasn't changed'. The white paper is due to be published next March.
He applauded a budding concept at the Pacific Command, which holds that the US need not take the lead in every contingency in Asia and the Pacific. Rather, others should be encouraged to lead while the US takes a supporting role. Some US officers call it 'leading from the middle', others 'leading from within', and still others 'leading from behind'. Mr Fitzgibbon said Australia was ready to carry out its responsibilities.
Although a nation with a relatively small population of 21 million, Australia has been integrated into the US security posture in Asia because of its strategic location next door to Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Mr Fitzgibbon said the white paper would focus on Australia's role in that region. Said a senior US officer: 'if they are there, we don't have to be there.'
The defence minister said Australia hoped to improve the multilateral security architecture in Southeast Asia, which Australians call the 'near north'. He said the Rudd government wanted to see included all nations within the region or with interests in that neighbourhood. Some proposals in the past, notably those from former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, sought to exclude the US.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he hoped to widen the current focus on economic issues to include more on strategic issues of foreign and security policy.
Southeast Asia today is the site of an alphabet soup of organisations such as Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Apec (Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation), and EAS (East Asia Summit).
They are sometimes considered 'talk shops' of questionable accomplishment.
The defence minister said he was encouraged by Japan's increasing engagement in security issues, and had met Japanese Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba in Singapore in May. Mr Fitzgibbon said, however, he saw no need to formalise the emerging trilateral security partnership among Australia, Japan and the US.
Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington