The vista from the White House is very different from the “serenity” that is seen from the front lawn of the Lodge. This is evident in Andrew Smith’s post DWP 2013—what will the Americans think?. Andrew provides an important take on the new White Paper and how it matches ‘US vital interests’. What it also highlights is that there is a big difference in strategic interests between regional middle powers and global superpowers.
Andrew’s take on the nexus between US and Australian interest hinges on the White Paper’s heavy regional focus. As he quite rightly states, despite the ‘pivot’ / ‘rebalance’ Washington cannot overlook that fact that it has ‘global interests and responsibilities from which it can’t resile’. Andrew’s major concern is the Middle East. The continuing US engagement with this region is smartly captured by the Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove, who has made reference to “Obama’s ‘Michael Corleone moment’” from The Godfather III: “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
For a regional power like Australia the ‘pull’ of the Middle East is nowhere near as strong especially as the shift of global economic weight and strategic competition moves closer to home in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also a clear reflection, as Section 3.58 of the new White Paper outlines, of the “limits of our capacity, given the priority of our other tasks.” (See also Section 6.17 of the 2000DWP (PDF) and Section 3 of the 2009DWP) (PDF).
This is not to deny that Australia has interests in the Middle East. But throughout its history Australia’s commitment of military force to this region has always been dependent on a stable Asia-Pacific, one that is largely devoid of tension and major strategic competition. Not only that, but when it has gone to the Middle East it has followed its great and powerful friends, who themselves have been guaranteeing Australia’s maritime security in Asia.
During WWI we waited until the German fleet and possessions in the Pacific were no longer a threat before sending the AIF overseas. From 1940–42 we committed to the Middle East on the principle of Imperial Defence and British assurances over the Singapore Strategy. US primary in Asia provided the backdrop to our commitment of forces to the First Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. As competition in the Indo-Pacific rises the likelihood of a significant ADF deployment to this region declines.
The Middle East may well be “the western shoulder of the Indo-Pacific.” But such an interpretation of this concept is too broad. The White Paper narrows this strategic region to “India…looking East” (Section 2.14) and, more specifically, to the fact that it “adjusts Australia’s priority strategic focus to the arc extending from India though Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia.” (Section 2.5)
At the epicentre of this arc is Southeast Asia.
The focus on Southeast Asia is both crucial and overdue. Southeast Asia is the connecting point of this “new Indo-Pacific strategic arc” (Section 2.4). This region has been a magnet for Australian strategic interests whenever competition in the Asia has increased. From the Singapore Strategy in the 1920s and 30s, to the Indonesian Konfrontasi in the early 1960s and the establishment of the Five Power Defence Arrangements as well as the Cold War conception of a domino theory that drove the strategy of Forward Defence and saw Australia commit forces with the United States to South Vietnam.
Underscoring Australia’s engagement in this region from 1950s and 60s has been the US Alliance. While some may quibble over the language of the 2013 White Paper in relation to US primacy in the region, the fact is the Alliance remains the corner stone of our national defence policy. The reaffirmation of the US Alliance (with a capital A) in the 2013 White Paper sits alongside recent moves that include the appointment of Major-General Rick Burr as Deputy Commanding General (Operations), US Army Pacific, the potential for B-52 bombers to start operations out of the NT and the move to send HMAS Sydney to join the US Seventh Fleet in Japan. Furthermore the new White Paper made it clear to the region, including China, that the rotation of US Marine and Air Force assets through Darwin will continue and it left the door wide open for an increased US navy presence staging out of HMAS Stirling (Section 2.25).
But does this go far enough? If the US is looking for burden sharing (and quite rightly they should be) they should be aligning their partners and allies to their regions of interest. While the Southwest Pacific may be of little interest to the US it as critical to Australian national security and as the 2013 White Paper reaffirms Australia’s the long standing approach to this region means that it is an area of ‘non-discretionary’ operations for the ADF. But this is not all that Australian regionalism offers: the new focus on Southeast Asia is critical to both Australia and the US.
If the US wants to get the most it can out of its alliance with Australia and have it shoulder its share of the ‘burden’ then it is should be less concerned with our presence and role in the Middle East and looking more towards what we proactively offer, in the partnership, in Southeast Asia and into the eastern Indian Ocean, while more broadly, the US should continue to look at how Australia can provide the US military strategic depth in the Pacific.
From the White House steps one has the chance to view the globe and all the vital US interests it contains, from the Lodge the ‘serenity’ for a middle power like Australia looks more like a region much closer to home.
Peter Dean is a fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU. Image courtesy of Flickr user State Records NSW.