mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
The View from Down Under

Via Meadia has always enjoyed the hospitality of Australia, teeming though it and its surrounding waters may be with various venomous or otherwise disagreeable creatures eager to do you harm.

But the country, often referred to as Oz, is more than just a holiday destination. It boasts the 13th largest economy in the world and has been one of America’s staunchest allies for generations. It is also home to some clear-eyed observers of the international scene, particularly when it comes to Asia. One such analyst is Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Medcalf recently sat down for an interview with the National Bureau of Asian Research to discuss how America’s renewed commitment to Asia—and to Australia—is perceived Down Under.

The alliance with the U.S. remains overwhelmingly popular in Australia, says Medcalf. Around 85 percent of Australians support it to some extent. But Medcalf does note that there is a “a substantial minority view in Australia that is worried by the alliance”; he thinks Obama missed an opportunity to solidify the relationship when he limited his visit in November to just two cities: Canberra, the nation’s capital; and Darwin, a small northern city that Obama announced will host an additional 2,500 U.S. marines. Medcalf believes that an additional emphasis on public diplomacy—especially given Obama’s strong personal approval ratings in Australia—rather than a narrow focus on the military and security aspect of the relationship would further bolster America’s reputation.

The Darwin troop-basing announcement grabbed headlines around the country and in capitals throughout Asia, but, according to Medcalf, the significance was more symbolic than strategic:

These moves do symbolize a U.S. commitment to allies and partners in Asia. But these forces would not make a large difference in a hypothetical military confrontation with China. They will undoubtedly be useful, however, for training with allies and partners and in multilateral activities. And they will add materially to the region’s ability to deal with transnational scenarios like counterterrorism and disaster relief.

Medcalf also echoes a point that Via Meadia has been articulating for some time: that Asia is not a synonym for China. The Game of Thrones has been heating up throughout the region, and Australia has taken note. A 2009 study of Australia’s defense requirements called for a considerable increase in its maritime capabilities, and although not every recommendation from the review has yet been adopted, Medcalf points out that “Australia’s navy is becoming more substantial.” Two large flat-deck amphibious ships, replete with helicopter landing docks, and several air warfare destroyers are due to enter service in the next few years. Nor is Australia alone on this front. Says Medcalf:

 Indonesia has had a weak navy traditionally, but this is changing, for instance, with the acquisition of modern submarines. Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, and even Japan are all strengthening their navies, especially sub-surface.

The other great power in the region, India, is too often forgotten when discussing geopolitical developments in Asia. While it may lag a few years behind China in terms of economic development, India is beginning to flex its muscle as well:

India is becoming a permanent fixture in the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific strategic order. It is increasingly clear that India sees itself as a central player in the future of Asian security, including maritime security, as it continues to build security links with many countries in the region while also moving to build confidence with China. And naturally India is and will remain the key power in the Indian Ocean.

The emergence of a new Asian security system has only just begun. The coming decades could see Australian policymakers confronted with some awfully tricky choices as Oz tries to maneuver between Washington, Beijing and New Delhi. The rise of Indonesia, the instability in North Korea, and potential disputes over access to resources and trading lanes are also sure to keep Australian analysts busy.

Australian thinkers like Medcalf are gradually realizing that their country will no longer be the kind of geopolitical backwater it was during the Cold War. If the center of action in world politics is shifting to the Pacific, Australia now has a front row seat.

That is going to make for some tense moments; it also deepens Australia’s sense of the value of its U.S. connection—even as it leads the U.S. to take Australia more seriously as an ally. Look for cultural and educational as well as political and military ties to strengthen between these two English speaking countries—and, if you can, go down to Oz and do your bit to help build one of the building blocks of what, we all hope, will be century of peace and progress across Asia.

Just avoid the gimpie gimpie plants, a kind of poison ivy on steroids that can actually kill, and remember that the spurs on the hind feet of that cute little platypus are, like so much else in Australia, poison. Unlike the gimpie gimpie Death Shrub, platypus venom can’t kill people. The pain is agonizing but survivable.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Anthony

    Serious strategic geopolitical action goes west…. (the Pacific covers a lot of expanse).

  • Mrs. Davis

    Australia is the only nation to fight beside us in every war since 1900. I’d call that our staunchest ally.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I’ve spent about half of my 3 score and 9 in Perth and agree in general with the tricky position Australia now occupies as articulated above. An astute engineer friend expressed some skepticism about the troop deployments and how much more difficult they would make dealing with our biggest customer for our iron and gas – China.

    I would add that something is happening politically in Oz. Even my labor friends generally regard our PM Julia Gillard is probably toast despite the fact that the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbot, is a conspicuously Roman Catholic traditionalist. When he was Minister for Health in the last Liberal (read conservative) government he publicly agonized approving the morning after pill. Some call him the Mad Monk. In American terms he something like Santorum, but it would be a mistake to see too close a parallel. Full on Socons of the American variety are a lot rarer in Oz. The long time leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, has left politics and in Queensland the Labor party has been reduced to less than ten members – short of the number required to be recognized as an official political party. The election next year will be fought on largely domestic issues – neither the carbon tax nor the mining tax have been popular. I will be watching the Green vote carefully. It has been the recipient of much of the protest vote against the two major parties, but a shift may be occurring. It is interesting that Mr Abbot got his job right after the East Anglia emails were released. His predecessor as leader of the opposition had made a deal with labor on the carbon tax. I think what has been said in other posts on Vis Meadia about the Greens putting forward bad policies based on questionable scientific claims may be noticeable in the election. I think people will still vote Green as a brake on the major parties, and they will continue to enjoy broad popular support on issues like whaling. But carbon taxes…not so much.

  • Jim.

    So does Australia have a bigger navy than Britain yet? How about another aircraft carrier or two?

    If they don’t have that sort of power now, we need to help them develop it. Their existence as a major source of raw materials will give them the prosperity they need to support such a defense expenditure, and the motivation to do so — they’re a great big target otherwise.

  • Glen

    Thanks for the shoutout. There are quite a number of good people at Lowy and my old workplace, ONA. The lowy interpreter blog is essential reading for Australians, and pretty handy for an international audience to follow.

    The recent debate in Australia is pretty heavily focused on the rather ambitous white paper promises not being followed through on. A tight fiscal situation and pretty major procurement problems mean we are nowhere near those goals, and they were probably never too realistic anyway.

    We are pretty perceptive about Asia, mostly because we have to be. And our relationships with South-East Asia, particularly Indonesia, matter a lot to us.

    And we do have a lot of things that can kill you, but thankfully, rarely do. Almost ran over a big wombat the other day, it’s a wierd little animal that is pretty much all muscle, and will destroy your engine if you hit it.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service