Maintaining the balance of power in the Pacific requires strong allies. And as Tony Abbott, the opposition leader in Australia’s Liberal Party (conservative in the American sense) noted last month in a remarkable speech at The Heritage Foundation, the U.S. has a particularly strong ally in Australia.
Mr. Abbott identified an alliance based on shared values as much as common interests in areas such as “trade, prevention of aggression and, where possible, fostering democracy based on the rule of law.” He characterized U.S.-Australian ties as virtually familial.
But what made the speech exceptional was the trust he expressed in American leadership. There are few countries in the Pacific where a leading politician would be so publicly pro-American about real policy choices. And although his colleagues might not be as effusive and principled about it, that sentiment is shared across the Australian political spectrum.
There is strategic significance to this.
The nations of the Western Pacific, and India, are struggling with one principle geopolitical challenge: how to manage the rise of China in a way that contains its most dangerous manifestations. Among these are aggression in what China calls its “near seas;” fortification of its military presence on the Indian border; an ever growing, sophisticated military capability; and attempted use of trade as a weapon in political disputes.
The U.S. needs allies and partners who understand this imperative in the same way we understand it. Our meeting of the minds with Australia makes it a lynchpin in that strategy. This is borne out in the effort to include Australia in the U.S. force posture review and development of the “AirSea Battle” concept.
Perhaps most visibly, it is embodied in a recent agreement to rotate more U.S. marines, aircraft and ships through Australian bases; and less visibly, in security assistance to America’s Pacific ally most in need, the Philippines.
Not all of our friends in the region are as clear-cut about the need for American leadership as the Australians. ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is a key venue for diplomatic interaction. But despite the attention it has generated in recent years, ASEAN is just that -- a venue for outside powers to voice concerns and demonstrate their commitment to the region. On substance, all the foreign policy establishments of the individual countries are wedded to an “omnidirectional” or “free and active” foreign policy.
What this means is that although the uncertain implications of China’s rise is nudging the ASEAN consensus toward deeper engagement with the U.S., there is no permanent frame of mind that dictates it remain so. ASEAN also has an interest in balancing the U.S. Even in the short term, its members are conflicted among themselves -- some more China-focused, some less so. And ASEAN reconciles its differences through lowest common denominator diplomatic solutions, often in the form of marginally effectual diplomatic statements.
This is not to say the U.S. should abandon ASEAN or the good work done in recent years to step up our involvement there. It would be a grave error to leave the field to the Chinese. But when it comes to vital American interests -- those identified by Mr. Abbott at Heritage and other interests besides -- we have to rely first on our “hubs and spokes” system of alliances, principally, Japan and South Korea in the North and Australia in the South. .
The U.S. does not need a “deputy sheriff” in Asia. As Mr. Abbott himself pointed out, American and Australian global interests will not align in every instance. Australia has its own democratic process for determining what those interests are.
But we do need partners that we can trust implicitly and for the long term. It’s the strategic clarity of partners such as Australia where we must put our confidence.
Walter Lohman is director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).
This commentary first appeared in the August, 9 2012 issue of The Washington Times.