Obama, Australia and ASEAN

Recent Features


Obama, Australia and ASEAN

A basing deal with the U.S. military has critics in Australia worried. They should be focusing on Southeast Asia.

As U.S. President Barak Obama began his address to the Australian Parliament yesterday, some of the locals had worked themselves into a lather. The pro-China lobby was complaining that a decision to allow U.S. troops to be permanently based in Darwin might upset Beijing.

The preoccupation with China is everywhere these days, and it’s understandable to a point down south, given the extent to which the Chinese government has sustained the Australian economy through the global financial crisis by paying top dollar for items like iron ore.

Additionally, Australia’s left wing has always had something of a sycophantic affair with China. However, the latest ramblings that Canberra was going too far in support of its relationship with Washington were, well, a bit much.

China isn’t on Australia’s northern door step, Southeast Asia is. The United States has just two allies there, and the type of bases proposed are politically impractical in the Philippines and logistically too difficult in Thailand.

What matters more are the potential threats.

Given Burma’s history, the recent brawling between Cambodia and Thailand, Thailand’s internal conflicts and the region’s unfortunate place as the second front in the War on Terror with Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines occupying pride of place, Southeast Asia should be of great concern.

Perhaps the biggest potential tussle with China lies in the Spratly Islands, and again this is an issue for Southeast Asia. The U.S. decision to base its troops in Australia and within reach of hotspots to the north might annoy Beijing, but those who think outside China’s parameters are a little bewildered.

In Australia, Obama said the United States would expand its military role in the Asia-Pacific region, despite planned cutbacks on defense spending.

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

“Indeed, we are already modernizing America's defense posture across the Asia Pacific. It will be more broadly distributed, maintaining our strong presence in Japan and the Korean peninsula, while enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia.”

He said this while rejecting China’s one-party political system, saying that “history is on the side of the free” and that prosperity without freedom was just another form of poverty.

China has voiced its disappointment over the build-up, and its state-controlled press has warned Australia against playing China for a fool. Beijing also wants U.S. military alliances with countries around the region eliminated. This includes Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia.

That’s not likely to happen.