Double talk in Australia

A vastly under-reported drama in Australia this past week both sounded a new departure in the old U.S.-Australian alliance and highlighted the central contradiction of the U.S. policy of "pivoting to Asia."

At the annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial meeting in Perth, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and their Australian counterparts launched discussions on granting the United States further access to air bases in Northern Australia and to several naval ports, including one on the Indian Ocean just south of Perth. They also announced that the Pentagon would establish a powerful radar and space telescope in Australia to monitor Asian airspace.

In a speech in Adelaide following the meeting, Hillary called Australia an "indispensable ally" and said: "these past three days have reinforced for me the indispensability of the U.S.-Australian partnership. We are cooperating everywhere together -- in business, in shipbuilding, from the mountains of Afghanistan, to the atolls of the Pacific, to the thriving cities of Asia." This, of course, follows the agreement last year to deploy U.S. troops to Australia for the first time since the end of the Second World War. The plan is eventually to have 2500 marines at bases in Darwin. However, so far, only 250 have arrived there.

The announcements and the secretary's speech coincided with two major statements by Australians on the future of Australia. A white paper by a government appointed commission emphasized the centrality of China and Southeast Asia to Australia's future and called for a dramatic shift of Australian economic, educational, commercial, diplomatic, and strategic policies away from their traditional U.S. orientation and toward Asia. In particular, it called for a closer relationship with Indonesia and for Australian membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A speech by former Prime Minister Paul Keating not only called for closer alignment with Indonesia and ASEAN, but also called for a degree of separation from the United States, saying that Asia sees Australia as a toady of America and too ready to do its bidding. Other commentators raised the issue of whether Australia is unnecessarily and unwisely (in view of Australia's growing economic dependence on China) abetting the United States in a policy of containment of and opposition to the rise of China.

Indeed, in his own press statements, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr was at pains to explain that there was nothing about containment of China in any of the Australian-U.S. communiqués and insisted that Australia has not surrendered its foreign policy to the United States.

In her own response in Adelaide, Secretary Clinton said "the Pacific is big enough for all of us" and claimed that those who argue that Australia needs to choose between America and China are presenting a false choice. "That kind of zero sum thinking only leads to negative results," she explained.

On Saturday, however, The Weekend Australian foreign editor Greg Sheridan pointed to important hidden realities. The agreement from last year was supposed to bring 2500 U.S. marines for an annual rotation through Australia and was also to provide for expanded use of military air bases in northern Australia and of naval bases in Western Australia. Yet, so far the only thing that has happened is the rotation not of 2,500, but of only 250, U.S. marines. Sheridan says this is because the Australian government has gotten cold feet in the wake of Chinese warnings that Australia should not partner with America in suppressing China's rise.

What's going on here? Well for starters, it clearly is all about containing China. The United States has been the major power in the Asia-Pacific region for the 67 years since World War II. The Seventh Fleet has been there and U.S. troops have been stationed in Korea and Japan for all that time. Contrary to the popular meme that America was somehow neglecting Asia, it never left. But it also never felt the need to do a "pivot" and to establish further bases and troop rotations in Australia, or to station 60 percent of its naval ships in the western Pacific, or to become involved with the claims of various Asian nations over uninhabited rocks in the sea until China began to emerge as the second major power in the world.

Australia, like all of America's other allies, quasi-allies, and friends in the Asia-Pacific region is benefiting enormously from doing business with China and understandably wants to continue doing that business and even expand it. At the same time, however, it doesn't want to be pulled into too close an orbit by the Chinese tractor beam, nor does it want to have to defend itself against terrorist threats and those lusting for its vast mineral resources all by itself. So it turns to the United States to be the balancer and co-defender.

This, of course, is a way for Australia to have its cake and eat it as well. It is a brilliant strategy if it can be made to work. But there is a vulnerability highlighted by Bob Carr's urgent interjection that there is nothing about containing China in any of the U.S.-Australia agreements and by Hillary Clinton's comment that "the Pacific is big enough for all of us."

The vulnerability is that neither Australia nor any of the other Asia-Pacific nations want to risk offending China. Indeed, the Carr/Clinton comments as well as the slow implementation of the U.S.-Aussie agreements concluded last year are in consequence of complaints China has already made about these deals constituting nothing more than a policy to contain China.

Australia and the rest are increasingly ambivalent. They want Uncle Sam to be readily available in times of danger. At the same time, they don't want to admit too close an association. In short, they don't want to be asked to choose between China and America. One may wonder why the Americans would want friends who are afraid to acknowledge them, but so far, at least, Washington has taken the position that there is no need to choose. That, however, is not the position that China has taken. It interprets the ties of Asia-Pacific nations with America as aimed at containment of itself. It complains and threatens and in response everyone starts talking double talk.

Ultimately the question must boil down to what are the Americans getting out of this. The business the United States does with China makes it large and a chronic international debtor, and maintaining fleets, troops, and bases in the Asia-Pacific region only adds to its federal budget woes. Will it eventually conclude that the double talk is not worth the candle?