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Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Australia's strategic role in the Asia-Pacific is a delicate matter

US Marines march in Darwin on
Anzac Day, 2012.
In an op-ed piece on the Australian's website this morning, Peter Jennings of the government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute tries to fulfill part of his institute's charter - to inform the public - by talking about Australia's military role in the Asia-Pacific. He starts by mentioning the fact that two Australians have been seconded to fill positions at US Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii and then goes on to warn the government that with this additional level of access and influence must come a serious commitment to the defense relationship with the US in the region. In short, Jennings seems to be lamenting budget constraints that have been announced elsewhere for Australia's military.

Someone who was skeptical of claims that appear in the media - jaded rather than cynical, let's say - might see Jennings' op-ed piece as a piece of PR for the Opposition. Jennings was made CEO of the ASPI last year and he has worked in the Department of Defense for long periods, with additional responsibilities in the form of advisory roles taken - it appears from reading his bio - at the request of the Liberal Party. He has received honours for his service as a public servant. Also noteworthy is that the ASPI appears to derive all of its funding from the Department of Defense. Optimistically viewed, Jennings' op-ed piece might just be a timely reminder (the PM is due to visit China at the end of this week) that Australia's military relationship with the US is crucial to national security. In part, Jennings' op-ed piece says:
That Australian personnel will be entrusted with two critical leadership positions in PACOM is testimony to the growing closeness of our alliance with the US. 
We are valued as an ally because we took on serious combat roles in Afghanistan and boosted our co-operation with a growing US marine corps in northern Australia.
But beyond the quid pro quo it's not just difficult but even distressing to discount Barack Obama's long written message to the Australian people at the time of his visit to Darwin in November 2011. For most Australians, those words speak volumes. Most Australians hold the country's Anzac legacy in high regard and so while military policy might be "a difficult and arcane area of public policy", as the ASPI website notes, as a matter of public interest it is something that is easy for Australians to have an opinion on, because patriotic discourse encompasses matters of intimate concern. Governments can count on patriotism, and also on the way that the US fits into that web of ideas due to the legacy of involvement that began in 1942.

While Jennings carefully petitions the government for increased funding through his op-ed piece, there are other audiences as well. The Chinese will certainly be paying attention, probably as much attention, if not more, as the average Australian voter. This is why discussions such as these must be handled carefully in the media. There is no place for chest-pounding. And Jennings' measured syntax reflects this reality. Yet while it may be difficult to discuss these issues there is no doubt that discussion must take place, and broadly, to help Australians understand how they should fit in with both the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region. So while Jennings calls for more money for defense, others call for better relations with China at top levels of government. For my part, it is clear that it is in the interests of the US to exploit the depth of Australia's engagement in the region.

What is certain is that there are no guidebooks to how Australia should position itself vis-a-vis those two strategic rivals, just as it is certain that the American public responds to suggestions of rivalry; you only have to read the front page of the New York Times to see how they view their place in the world. For its part, Australia is making it all up as it goes along, and so op-ed pieces like the one Jennings placed in the Australian are useful measures to promote discussion within the community.

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