August 17, 2005

August 17, 2005 | Commentary on Asia

Australia and the U.S.: Regional and Global Partners

Despite a long, rich history of partnership, especially on the battlefield, the US-Australia alliance is, arguably, stronger than it has ever been. Re-forged in the crucible of the tragic events of 9/11, Australia has more than proven its mettle as America's ally.

Without question, Canberra's contribution to democracy, freedom, and international peace and security since 9/11 has been significant. Australian support for these important free world principles has not gone unnoticed in Washington. The relationship has come a long way since the alliance floundered over dealing with the challenges of Indonesia's transition and East Timor's independence in the late 1990s.

The American people will not forget Australia's response after 9/11. I know I will not, having sat next to Prime Minister John Howard on September 10, 2001 in his meeting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld while serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs. Along with the United Kingdom, Australia was one of the first countries to commit troops to coalition action in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Australia deployed 150 elite Special Air Services (SAS) forces, along with aerial tankers to Kyrgyzstan and P-3 patrol aircraft to the Persian Gulf region. The highly capable Australian SAS was largely responsible for reconnaissance and surveillance and directing air strikes in close cooperation with the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Lowering its military presence, Australia later committed more than $80 million in assistance to Afghanistan. In April 2005, Canberra pledged $12 million for the delivery of basic health and education services, combating opium cultivation and heroin production, and assistance for upcoming September elections.

In March 2003, Prime Minister Howard announced that the Australian government had decided to commit troops to the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq to unseat the Saddam Hussein regime. Despite some unpopularity at home over the decision, Australia currently maintains over 900 troops. To date more than 2,000 Australian Defense Forces personnel have served in Iraq.

In addition to supporting both the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and coalition military operations against the insurgency and terrorism, Australian Defense Forces are conducting maritime interception operations in the northern Persian Gulf, providing intra-theater airlift and sustainment and logistics support, too. They are also giving training to the Iraqi Armed Forces, including officer and logistics training.

In February 2005, Howard announced the decision to enhance Australia's commitment to the coalition operations in Iraq with the deployment of an additional 450 personnel to the southern Iraqi province of Al Muthanna. The Task Group will provide security for Japanese Self Defense Force reconstruction efforts as well as training for the Iraqi Army in the province. The total number of Australian military personnel in Iraq will be brought up to 1,300 once the deployment is completed.

Australia has also pledged more than $78 million for humanitarian relief efforts in Iraq since 2003. The Australian contribution consists of $13 million for international agencies operating in Iraq, $30 million for urgent humanitarian relief operations under the United Nations Flash Appeal, and $35 million for further humanitarian requirements and priority reconstruction activities. The Australian government also provided 100,000 tons of wheat through the World Food Program, sufficient to feed almost two million Iraqis for six months.

Australia has long been a proud leader in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the alliance has also been strengthened by new cooperation on the weapons nonproliferation front. Australia is one of the 11 nations that initially backed the creation of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in 2003. At present, Australia is among 63 countries that have signed up for the PSI. Australia hosted and chaired the second PSI plenary meeting in Brisbane in July 2003, which advanced an operational framework for the proliferation effort. Australia also led the first interdiction exercise, 'Pacific Protector,' in the Coral Sea in September 2003, involving Australian, Japanese, French and American military and law enforcement assets.

Supporting the PSI, in December 2004 the Australian government announced plans to impose a 1,000-nautical mile (nm) security perimeter around Australia that far exceeds the traditional 200 nm economic exclusion zone (EEZ.) Ships passing within the zone would be required to provide comprehensive information such as ship identity, crew, cargo, location, course, speed and intended port of arrival. Cargo vessels penetrating Australia's EEZ would be asked even more detailed questions. Ships suspected of transporting illicit cargoes, especially nuclear related materials and or terrorists, would be intercepted and boarded. The project has since been scaled back because the government has no legal jurisdiction to enforce such a zone and no interdiction rights to board ships outside its EEZ. But ships will still be asked to provide information on a voluntary basis when they come within 500 nautical miles offshore.

Australia has been an important partner on missile defence. In July 2004, Australia and the United States signed a framework memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining future Australian participation on cooperative missile defense activities. The 25-year agreement lays the groundwork for joint US-Australian missile defense system development and testing, and includes Australia as a participating country in the US missile defence program.

Canberra has been a leader in its region in counterterrorism as well. Australia has concluded ten bilateral memorandums of understanding on counter-terrorism with Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Fiji, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India, East Timor and Brunei. These MOUs support practical and operational-level cooperation. In February 2004, Australia coordinated a regional ministerial meeting on counterterrorism held in Bali, Indonesia. The meeting identified ways of strengthening the region's counterterrorism efforts in the critical areas of law enforcement, information sharing and legal frameworks.

Despite unprecedented levels of cooperation, some will argue that the current honeymoon in American and Australian relations will wane. This is sure to be the case, especially as our respective governments change from liberal to conservative-and back again. It is a certainty that they are not always going to be in synch on all issues. The issue of trade comes immediately to mind. But a relationship based on shared values has a greater chance of weathering the tough times than one that is based on an incidental overlap of interests.

This is the case with the US-Australian relationship. The US-Australia alliance is firmly anchored in our shared values of personal freedom, democracy and free markets. And the alliance is much more than the bravery and courage exhibited by American and Australian forces in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. It is mutually beneficial relationship, fortified by vibrant people to people contact and friendship.

Matching America's size with Australian grit and determination benefits both countries. The United States and Australia are not just regional partners-they are global partners, sharing global responsibilities for making the world a better and more secure place for themselves and others. Based on mutual respect and understanding, it is an alliance that is sure to endure well into the 21st century.

Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at The Heritage Foundation, and was former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Office of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 2001-2002.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy