The Buzz

America’s Lazy Asian Allies? Not Down Under

It’s been a great few weeks for foreign policy wonks watching Washington.

President Obama’s Asian tour was complemented by a fascinating PBS Frontline documentary examining the role of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the post-9/11 era.

An even greater treat for Australians came with the first visit Down Under by Harvard Professor Stephen Walt - regarded by many, this writer included, as one of the most astute observers of U.S. foreign policy this past decade.

Walt followed up his visit with a column, “What Has Asia Done for Uncle Sam Lately?”. Walt urges American officials to put the onus on “free-riding” Asian allies by asking them what they are going to do for the United States, and for themselves, in the face of serious challenges to stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia, for one, has already stepped unto the breach.

In the recently-released 2014 Budget, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott committed his government to increasing defense spending to AUD$29.3 billion next financial year, a nominal increase of AUD$2.3 billion, and a real (corrected for inflation) increase of 6.1%. Australian defense budget specialist Mark Thompson has outlined that, as a share of GDP, defense spending will rise from 1.7% this financial year to 1.8% next year, and is “about as good as it gets in an environment dominated by fiscal concerns. Not only has Defense received more money in the near term, but a credible path to 2% of GDP has been established.”

Just one recent qualitative example of Australia pulling its weight is the decision to acquire 72 Lockheed-Martin F-35s. In addition, there is the possibility that Australia could acquire the F-35B jump jet variant, which could be operated from one of Australia’s new 'flat top' Landing Helicopter Docks - providing Australia with a potent new force projection capability. 

Of course, the weight of history is a critical consideration. As Tom Switzer recently noted in these pages:

Australia is the only nation to have joined America in every major military intervention in the past century: both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq…It has neither sought nor received aid in return for its support. And it is one of the few U.S. allies that has not been a burden on American taxpayers…”

In an ideal world, Australia would have accrued significant capital in Washington’s calculation of the alliance, yet as former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has asserted in a controversial new book, “you do not create a bank of goodwill with great powers on which you can necessarily and inevitably draw at a time of your own choosing.”

For his part, the current Prime Minister made the prudent observation just prior to his election in 2013, “Decisions which impact on our national interests will be made in Jakarta, in Beijing, in Tokyo, in Seoul, as much as they will be made in Washington”.

Now in government, Tony Abbott has made good on this election promise to be an “Asia-first prime minister,” capitalizing on his recent ‘Northern Tour’ to strike trade deals with Japan and South Korea, while making significant progress with China. There are also reports that Abbott is trying to build on this success by significantly enhancing Australia’s relationship with India - a seemingly natural yet under-developed partnership that can accelerate under new management in New Delhi.

On the vital relationship with a rising Indonesia, too, Australia has been putting in immense effort.  Yet as the recent PBS Frontline documentary reminds us, a serious security blunder by the U.S. security establishment was primarily responsible for temporarily derailing Australia’s “most crucial regional relationship — past, present, and future.”

When taken together, these efforts demonstrate that Australia is pulling its weight, and is being prudent in broadening the basis of its foreign and security policy by focusing on tangible enhancements to regional relationships. This effort presents Washington with an Asian ally that is directly addressing the need to come up with creative and practicable approaches to help ameliorate the growing complexity and tensions in the strategic environment