The US Asian pivot and Australia’s role (part 2)
31 Mar 2016|
President Barack Obama listens during a meeting about the current situation in Pakistan Oct. 7, 2009 in the Situation Room of the White House. Left to right, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Vice President Joe Biden; the President; National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis C. Blair (partially obscured); and CIA Director Leon Panetta. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Washington in 2010—one year into the Obama administration, still mired in the fallout of the global financial crisis and troubled by Afghanistan and Iraq—didn’t provide fallow ground for new commitments in the Asia–Pacific. A new posture in Asia had its supporters and its sceptics.

In DC, the administration subjected me to a hostile full-court press. On the Asia–Pacific Community initiative, the White House was convinced we were talking above ourselves. Our Asian friends derided the idea and our place to raise it. We pushed back. We were aware of the problems. The Americans needed to understand that a key part of our motivation was to find a structure that would embed them in the region’s politics and economy. It was about them, not us. If not the Community, then the US should seek membership of the East Asia Summit. Australian government pressure for US engagement became relentless from that point.

On the American side, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton had been steadily moving in that direction. She signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity. She turned up at the regional forums and understood the value the region placed on turning up. Her senior officials were consistently in the region, particularly assistant secretary Kurt Campbell, who did most of the strategising. The preferred regional vehicle became American membership of the East Asia Summit. The ASEAN demand was for presidential attendance if the US were to be admitted. The US demanded that the EAS agenda be broadened beyond economics.

The internal debate came to a head in June 2010, a few days before Clinton was due to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum to discuss the US’s attendance. A ‘moot’ took place in the National Security Council with the president presiding. Arguing for EAS membership were Clinton and Jeff Bader, the NSC senior director for East Asia. Kurt Campbell was present and Tom Donilon, national security adviser, supported. Against were the Treasury secretary, White House economic advisers and the president’s schedulers. The economists argued the case for priority for APEC, which the US was about to host. The schedulers were infuriated at yet another regular overseas commitment for the president. We did all we could to weigh in favour of EAS membership. The president declared for Hillary and she was off.

A few weeks later I was directed by DFAT to cable on the history of US decision-making around the determination to centre the pivot on EAS membership. DFAT asked who was responsible for the change. When I put the question to Bader he just laughed and said, ‘Well I would say you [Australia] were responsible. You know the history as well as we do.’

More than a year later, Obama announced in the Australian parliament an Australian–American decision to rotate marines and aircraft through Darwin and northern Australian bases. Some in the region affected shock. Some, including Chinese spokesmen, voiced anger. Critics in Australia shared their anxiety. However, rather than reflecting a new initiative, Obama’s speech was more a consolidation of a series of initiatives in which the US had many Asian advocates.

As the US leans forward in Asia on freedom-of-navigation exercises, as it deepens its diplomacy and its economic, political and military engagement in North and Southeast Asia, American decision-makers see themselves as marching to local drummers, one of whom is us. We aren’t, as is perceived by some commentators, a supine ally bending to yet another ill-advised US policy. We were joyfully complicit.

In the minds of policymakers who opposed the pivot, Australia is a culprit. We dealt not with an overbearing ally but one which sought advice. We gave advice, and that creates an entirely different dynamic when our preparedness to uphold a ‘rules-based order’ is on the table. The US is used to allies pushing it into commitments then fading away. It doesn’t expect that of us and wouldn’t tolerate it. From the American point of view, the leitmotif of DWP 2016 is reassuring.

The question arises: can the US sustain the pivot? The answer is complex. The US has backed and filled on Asian policy in the past. Attention is hard to sustain in the face of the ISIL challenge. ISIL isn’t taxing of resources, and US air and special forces capabilities are more than adequate for the task. Special Operation Forces Command is now virtually a corps in itself. The service personnel attached numbers are over 60,000—about the size of Australia’s armed forces. The current Middle East campaign doesn’t demand the commitment of heavy forces as those in Iraq and Afghanistan did. The US can handle its global commitments and base force structure around what it requires to underpin the military elements of the Asian pivot.

Political will is another issue. Should Clinton be elected, the thrust of American policy will be sustained. If Donald Trump is elected, the future is problematic. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be killed immediately. The Chinese relationship would go from competitive to adversarial. The relationship with Japan and Korea would be instantly complicated. Some argue Trump is exaggerating for his political base and on election, in time-honoured tradition, will tack to the centre. On some things maybe, but not sufficiently on the Asian agenda.

There is a mind in the US Congress now to pass the TPP. They confront a frightening public mood captured by Trump and they have gone quiet on action. Failure of the TPP in the Congress would devastate American influence in Asia. An American president would have to work very hard to overcome the consequences for American influence in that event. Trump would hardly perform such a role given his joyous efforts at its destruction and his longstanding hostility to features of American relations with Asia.

If Trump happens, DWP 2016 will need a rewrite early next year and the strategic sections will look very different. We won’t be able to make assumptions about American forward policy. We would still be deeply embedded in what might be seen as the American deep state—the intelligence community, the military and the arms industry. However, a lot more intellectual muscle would need to be put on the priority attached to defending our approaches. More broadly, bilateral investment now standing at $1.3 trillion would still be surging, integrating our economies more deeply.

Dare one say it, but ‘self-reliance’ might be expected to pop its head up again, and ‘rules-based order’ might become a little more muted.