Director of Military Analysis Nathan Hughes discusses the political nature of the timing of the announced military cooperation deal between the United States and Australia and the broader realignment of U.S. military expansion and wider governmental efforts in the region.
During his visit to Australia, U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard formally announced a significant expansion of American military activity in, and cooperation with, Australia set to begin as early as 2012. Though the timing of the announcement itself is clearly political, the agreement is part of a wider realignment of U.S. military forces, as well as broader national efforts that span the entire region.
It was no accident that Obama and Gillard chose to formally announce the new deal during the American president’s stopover in Australia which fell between the APEC summit in Hawaii last weekend and the 2011 East Asian Summit in Indonesia this coming weekend, where he will meet with regional leaders. After years of focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is not only in the process of rebalancing its global posture, but it is now resuming its reorientation towards the Pacific and East Asia that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In this most recent deal, increasing contingents of American Marines will train on large Australian proving grounds with 2,500-strong task forces expected to start rotating through by 2016. Royal Australian Air Force bases in the north and west of Australia will host American fighters, bombers, tankers and transport aircraft while Royal Australian Navy bases in Darwin and near Perth, already regular ports of call for American warships, will expand their capacity to host and support U.S. ships and submarines. Of particular significance here, is the more established presence and support capacity that there Australian facilities provide so close to the strategic Strait of Malacca.
Overall, this is a process that has been underway since the collapse of the Soviet Union but that was in many ways sidelined by the American response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The U.S. Navy, in particular, has continued the reorientation of its forces to the Pacific, but that process is intensifying across all services and across the American government. This includes updating the American military’s posture for post-Cold War realities and also responding to increasingly assertive and aggressive Chinese military efforts, particularly in the South China Sea and with anti-access and area denial capabilities. Indeed, the relevance and value of the distance of Australia and the further dispersal of facilities on which American forces rely is particularly relevant in this regard.
But from Washington’s perspective, this is all about returning to a more balanced global posture, prioritizing East Asia and the Pacific and rationalizing its presence and efforts there. But to Beijing this looks a lot like the United States essentially doubling down with its closest allies and partners in what China can only assume is a potential attempt at encirclement.
At stake is everything in-between. The American relationship with Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan is settled by comparison, though the United States appears to be making a big push in the region for reassuring these allies and partners. What really concerns China is the foundation this creates for the U.S. to expand engagement with countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and India and others in the years ahead.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.