New Leaders Forum

How Australia Sees America

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New Leaders Forum

How Australia Sees America

Australia is happy for a closer alliance with the U.S. But it will always be based on Canberra’s best interests.

The Diplomat is running a series of interviews with Washington DC-based ambassadors on defense, diplomacy, and trade in the Asia-Pacific region. In the seventh in the series, conducted by Washington correspondent Eddie Walsh, Ambassador Kim Beazley discusses Australia's strategic relationship with the United States and what impact changes in that relationship will have on Australian foreign policy.


In announcing the new basing agreement in Darwin, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at length about China. Given that former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, in whose cabinet you once served, came out deeply critical of the Australian government in allowing Obama to make such a speech before the Australian parliament, there was obviously some tension. Was the government itself at all unhappy with his speech? And, how do you respond to domestic opposition regarding the strengthening of military cooperation with the United States? Finally, at a higher level, do you feel that the Obama administration’s policy approach is minimizing Australia’s diplomatic options?

Australia has no criticism of Obama's speech – we liked it. The Australian government thought that it was a very good speech that needs to be properly understood. You are never going to get 100 percent agreement in any democracy. There are always angles from which to attack policy, and folks do. And that is all part of the political debate.

I’m concerned about getting across the complexity and depth of American thinking on these things that provides the proper basis for interpreting what the president said in his speech. There is that level of complexity and depth, as I indicated previously. Knowing that is what informs the speech, how can we possibly object to it?

The decision (to strengthen military relations with the U.S.) was well received in Australia. There are critical elements which I think emanate from a pretty old-fashioned view of the global economy which focuses primarily on the trade of goods. Certainly, China has moved into the position of being Australia’s number one trading partner. But, it isn’t as big of a percentage of our trade as the Japanese in the 1980s, nor is it exclusive.

Furthermore, if you decide to make who Australia’s trade and investment partner is central, then it must be said that the United States is overwhelmingly our number one trade and investment partner. Australia has enormous sums under management. We are the fourth largest in the world with $1.8 trillion. It’s increasing exponentially, and in 15 years it will be at least $4 trillion to $5 trillion. And, the overseas component of that is overwhelmingly going to the United States. So, in a sense, we trade goods with China and we invest with the United States. And the United States is the principal investor in Australia.

The second reason why I am critical of the criticism is because it’s a mistaken view that this can somehow or other be interpreted as the containment of China. It’s a completely erroneous interpretation, but it’s out there, isn’t it?

Those are the minority criticisms. They are there. But, overall, the public reaction has been very positive. The government has already been quite clear that this is just a work in progress. This is what we have already agreed to, but there are other discussions going forward on other forms of cooperation as well. In situation normal, we talk about these things all of the time. It has never been a quiet alliance. It has never been about one activity that has gone on for years and years. It’s constantly evolving, and if you look to the future you have to say that will continue to be the case.

Hugh White has argued that the Obama Doctrine “mirrors the geostrategic and political essence of the Truman Doctrine” and therefore represents clear attempt to contain China. Do you agree that the Obama administration is positioning itself and its allies – or at least reinforcing the perception thereof through its policies – to contain China? And, do you feel that White’s argument for a strategic reorientation for Australian foreign policy is gaining support in the Australian foreign policy community?

I don’t want to personalize this and comment on Hugh. But let me take this as a general proposition. Is the objective of the Obama administration to try to contain China? My read of the Obama administration is no, that isn’t true. In fact, I think there’s an immensely sophisticated diplomacy being conducted by this country. And, it isn’t completely just the Obama administration. The George W. Bush administration was very subtle in its dealings with the Chinese.

There is a thorough understanding that China already plays, and is going to play, a very substantial role in global politics. The United States isn’t entitled to block that, nor does it have an interest in doing so. It does have an interest in the character of the international political system which evolves. The United States wants to see it based upon law and practices which have been decently arrived at by common negotiation across the globe. Particularly important are those that relate to the global commons and those that relate to boundary disputes, especially maritime boundaries.

These are important issues in the region which you are dealing with. First, the global commons here carries about 50 percent of the world’s shipping. Second, the countries which are the littoral states to the south in the Southeast Asian archipelago don’t have a single settled maritime boundary with China. There are a plethora of disputes, not just between those states and China, but also between each other. All of those disputes have the potential to produce clashes and some of them have already produced them.

So, the relationship between the criticality of this portion of the global commons and a lack of agreement on where boundaries lie leaves a situation where there has to be resolution. The United States is prepared to pitch itself into this region to ensure that all of these issues are resolved in a way that: 1) Upholds the agreed practices; 2) Is based on negotiation not force. So, the U.S. stands there for the settlement of bilateral and multilateral resolution of boundary issues and the development of protocols for managing good conduct in the region. That’s what the U.S. presence does. It has nothing to do with containment.

The U.S. ought not to be verbally blackmailed out of doing what it is perfectly capable of given its maritime capacity in upholding decent international practice and law by some argument that what they are doing could be perceived as containment of someone else. I don’t think the U.S. gets sufficient credit for what is the real underpinnings of policy. There’s too much old Cold War thinking that too readily identifies the only possible form of relations between countries of substantial power as adversarial. That’s what is setting up the analysis which is supposedly designed to rail against it.

We think it’s a good thing that the United States is involved in various organizations given the role it needs to play in upholding these important principles.

As for Australia, we don’t have to be linear in the way we think about relationships between trade policy interests and strategic outcomes. The world is complicated and it doesn’t just simply revolve around a simple exchange of economic benefits for political favors. China trades with Australia because it’s in their interest to do so and vice-versa. We don’t need to be anything other than straightforward and direct in the reasons for our strategic relations.

China and other countries in the region have been thoroughly aware that Australia has had strong relations with the United States since World War II that has from time to time had a military component to it. There’s nothing going on between Australia and the United States which is in principle new. It’s always an evolution of practices long established.

Within the alliance, the South Pacific has traditionally fallen within Australia’s sphere of influence. In recent years, Australia has taken the lead on engaging its neighbors in the region on behalf of the West, including taking on major peacekeeping operations in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and taking the lead on engagement with Fiji. However, significant challenges have emerged in a number of these countries. Democracy hasn’t taken hold and there now appears to be a slitting of the Pacific Islands Forum along Melanesian and Polynesian lines. This raises the question of whether the United States should not only take a more assertive role in the region, but also advance an alternative diplomatic approach in situations like Fiji or PNG. From Australia’s perspective, do you see any tension forming within ANZUS on diplomatic engagement in the South Pacific? And, how concerned are you about the rise of anti-Australian sentiment and the emergence of the Melanesian Spearhead Group as a possible alternative to the Pacific Islands Forum?

The thing that we have always appreciated in our relationship with the United States is that the U.S. has always kept its engagement with the South Pacific islands under constant discussion with us. They engage us on where American policy is going. Clearly, from our point of view, the U.S. determines its own direction wherever it goes. It will rationalize that policy direction with its friends and others as the U.S. sees fit.

From our point of view, what’s much more important is that the U.S. is engaged. We think that it is good for the countries of the region that the U.S. involves itself. We have been arguing to – rather than with – the United States for a very long time that they become more involved in the region. So, we would do nothing but encourage them.

The region is getting increasingly complex as the leaders in the region become more adept at international diplomacy and more aware of the character of international relations. Australia doesn’t own any of this territory. We did once – at least part of it. But, we don’t own any of it now. So, our concern for that region is that they be wealthy, happy, cheerful, well-governed. That is our objective. And, we all stand for democracy. So, we are prepared to provide material assistance where that aid is sought – not imposed – by countries in the region. Because the U.S. tends to have very civil values, the U.S. is engaged in pursuing those objectives too.

We don’t have any problems with the U.S. keeping the backdoor open as long as they consult with us. Clearly the U.S. will make up its own mind on what direction it wants to go. So long as it doesn’t give us any surprises, we have no basis for complaint.

The MSG has been around quite a long while, and we have coexisted with it jointly. So, it’s not something that has us phased or fussed.

The relevance of nuclear extended deterrence in Asia is being contested in certain Track II communities. Do you believe that extended nuclear deterrence is still critical to American allies in Asia-Pacific? If so, did the recent Nuclear Posture Review, which emphasizes nuclear arms reductions, measurably affect Australia’s strategic posture?

Although there was an active debate in the 1960s, Australia chose not to become a nuclear power both because of the significance of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and the importance of the NPT as a means of limiting proliferation.

Having said that, we also take the view that the world would be a better place without nuclear weapons because the consequences of a nuclear strike would be horrific. We understand the complexity of how this would be achieved, so we have been standing out there and telling our partners that we should keep in the spirit of nuclear non-proliferation.

So, when the president announced his changes in doctrine and the direction he wanted to take us in, I was very happy. It was pushing doctrine in the direction of where we hope ultimately it will end up, without losing the value to countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and others. We could be reasonably confident that we still have a capable friend in the United States.

There has been persistent talk that the Australian government is reassessing its $16 billion-plus, 100-plane commitment to the F-35 fighter program following well-publicized statements by Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith. There has also been widespread criticism of the program within Australia and beyond. However, there’s the very real perception that American allies will be required to belly-up to the F-35 as a sort of indirect tax for American security guarantees in the Asia-Pacific region. Do you believe that the decision to procure the F-35 will ultimately be a political one for Australia, or do you think it will be based solely on its merits? Also, there are increasing concerns that if the Eurofighter doesn’t find markets, that the West could be left with just one manufacturer capable of offering future generation fighters. Does this argument concern you?

No. What plays into our decision-making is what aircraft provides the most effective defense for Australia and what aircraft gives us the deterrent value a secure strike capability. And we have chosen the F-35 as the aircraft that does that. For Australia, we need a well-armed defensive system right now…not two weeks from now or 20 years from now. So, Australia always has an eye on that. That’s something that anyone who is working with Australia needs to keep in mind and that is that we need something that’s ready right now.

Australia also has a lot of past procurement experience in new capacity aircraft that push the envelope, such as the F-111. During that time, it was extremely controversial and it took us a long time to get it – nearly 15 years. In the end, it was one of the most effective elements of the Australian deterrent for 30 years and it was a great aircraft.

We know that the U.S. will make the F-35 work, but the question when and how much the cost? And the U.S. answer to that is “soon” and “as soon as possible.” So this gets factored into the decisions. But, at the end of the day, there’s no doubt to Australia that the F-35 is the best thing around.

We aren’t concerned about the argument of having one supplier for the next generation fighter for the entire West because we’re not in crisis. We always seek things that work and things that keep us comparable to our friends and provide a good defense to our country.

One issue of concern for Australian national security is the co-basing of Australian fighters in Guam or other bases which are in the strategic reach of potential American strategic adversaries. Some allege that this basing strategy is designed to trap Australia into becoming party to conflicts in which it would not necessarily want to engage, like Taiwan. Others argue that such basing agreements are a natural extension of the alliance and reassure all parties in the region of Australia’s complete commitment to the United States. What are your views on American-Australian co-basing in Guam and other regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans (ex. Cocos Islands)? What are the risks and what are the benefits?

What the president and prime minister announced last November was an intensification of training opportunities with the rotational presence of Marines in northern Australia and an increase co-operation between our two air forces. In terms of the normal deployment, we don’t see any changes. However, (the issue of joint-basing of Australian aircraft in Guam or other U.S. military facilities in Asia) hasn’t been discussed.


Eddie Walsh covers Africa and the Asia-Pacific. He also serves as a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a full member of the International Network of Emerging Nuclear Specialists. Follow him on Twitter: @aseanreporting