Analysis Brief

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U.S.-Australia Alliance and China

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
November 16, 2011


Meeting in Canberra, U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced plans for up to two hundred and fifty U.S. Marines to be stationed in Australia, which will be eventually ramped up to twenty-five hundred, intended to counter China's growing military presence in the region. The agreement also includes increased access to Australian bases for U.S. aircraft and ships, and more joint exercises and training. The move is a reflection of a gradual shift in U.S. foreign policy to increase involvement in the Asia-Pacific, as the United States winds down its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to Obama's announcement, China's foreign ministry said (RTHK): "It may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within this region."

What's at Stake

Some experts say the advancement of China's precision-guided strike capabilities, namely long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, have put U.S. bases in Japan, Korea, and Guam at risk, and the deployment of Marines in Australia would offer the U.S. military a "new operational sanctuary beyond China's striking range." The United States also seeks to expand its relationship with Australia "from a Pacific partnership to an Indo-Pacific one" (ForeignPolicy), which recognizes Australia's strategic advantage amid the growing integration of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. This region, which includes India and China, contains over half of the world's population, boasts the world's largest militaries, and is responsible for the bulk of global consumer production. As Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute notes in the National Review, "America's economic health and global leadership in the next generation depend on maintaining our role in the world's most dynamic region."

The Debate

With China emerging as Australia's largest trade partner, enhanced defense ties with the United States have led some Australian analysts to question the wisdom of aligning more closely with Washington at the risk of angering Beijing (TIME). Australia is also a party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S.-led multilateral free trade deal in the region that excludes China. The agreement has become a "battleground for influence" in the Pacific between China and the United States, says Simon Tay of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Some experts like Hugh White of the Australian National University call U.S. military expansion in Australia "a potentially risky move" (GlobalPost). In a controversial essay last year, he argued for the United States to relinquish primacy in the region (Australian) and instead share power with China and other major powers. Other experts, like former Australian defense official Paul Dibb, say a greater U.S. military presence in Australia will prove to be a deterrent (Australian) against potential aggression. Yet others like the University of Sydney's Tom Switzer call for a delicate diplomacy that balances Australia's military and economic goals (VOA).

Policy Options

The Australian government is expected to provide a national blueprint next year on navigating "the Asian Century." The Lowy Institute's Rory Medcalf says the U.S.-Australia alliance will need to adapt to an era of Chinese and Indian power and recommends coordinating U.S. strategies toward China and India with those of Australia.

CFR President Richard N. Haass says "U.S. policy must create an environment (Project Syndicate) in which a rising China is never tempted to use its growing power coercively--within or outside the region." Auslin of AEI says Washington must commit "to defending against the slow deterioration of security in the Indo-Pacific region, leading the continuing growth in economic production and trade, and furthering the trend of political liberalization."

Background Materials:

"Our Chance to Align with the U.S. Pivot Point," The Australian

"Why America No Longer Gets Asia," Washington Quarterly

"Managing Instability on China's Periphery," CFR Report

"The United States in the New Asia," CFR Special Report