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Aussies Play Game of Thrones

Australia’s delicate balance between its long-standing ally, America, and its largest trade partner, China, will be challenged this week, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attend annual defense talks. In particular, the U.S. would like to send more marines to a base in Australia and would also like U.S. aircraft and ships to enjoy greater access to strategic Australian bases.

The talks come at an uncomfortable time for Australia, when its traditional friendship with the U.S. is being challenged by its desire to pivot to the east in recognition of the dawning “Asian Century.” Australia has been a U.S. ally since World War II, when the country hosted U.S. troops, and is now struggling to balance its interests.

Today officials from both countries unveiled plans to build a space radar and telescope system in Australia. According to a statement, the system will “track space assets and debris” and will be up and running by 2014.

But, even as the U.S. and Australia agree to closer military cooperation, Australia plans to cut back on defense spending. The WSJ reports:

Australia is in the middle of implementing around five billion Australian dollars (US$5.04 billion) in defense cuts by shedding civilian staff and delaying planned procurement programs and the construction of a new A$8 billion project to build Air Warfare Destroyer ships.

“We’re seeing really substantial defense spending cuts in this country,” said Rory Medcalf, director, international security program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “I would be surprised if the Americans don’t ask some very pointed questions during the talks.”

An interesting question for the Australians. Will their massive planned defense cuts survive the pressures of the Game of Thrones?

The U.S. is willing to help in Asia, but it doesn’t want to be the patsy by stepping up commitments and costs while its Asian allies pare them back. And if prosperous and developed countries like Australia are cutting defense budgets, what will less developed countries with more urgent social needs be thinking?

Ultimately, the goal should be for all Asian countries and the United States to cut back our defense spending in the Pacific even as security becomes more established. It is in everyone’s interests to explore both nuclear and conventional arms limits talks that could provide for regional security at lower costs and lower risks to all involved. That isn’t going to come right away, however. China is feeling its oats and the question of how the regional system can adjust to the natural and ultimately desirable consequences of the emergence of China and India as regional powers will have to be worked out over time. Japan, too, is rethinking its regional posture.

Premature disarmament and uncoordinated defense cuts will make genuine peace, security and arms control in the Asia-Pacific region harder to achieve, not easier. Australia’s defense budget is ultimately its own business, to be decided by Australian representatives after consulting the wishes of their voters. But the Asia-Pacific region is on a knife-edge at present, with the potential to move toward durable and sustainable peace on the one side and the prospect of rising tension and confrontation on the other.

This is a time when friends need to stick together and coordinate their policies for the common good. Let’s hope Australia’s decisions about defense spending fully take on board the views of the other countries involved.

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