Obama deploys troops down under

The military commitment will help US preserve its interests in Southeast Asia.

julia gillard australian pm 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
julia gillard australian pm 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week, 200 US Marines were deployed to Australia as part of US President Barack Obama’s decision to substantially increase America’s military commitment in Southeast Asia.  Plans are for this number to increase to 2,500, as part of the administration’s five-year commitment to advancing deployment in this region.
The marines will be stationed at Robertson Barracks, at the edge of the city of Darwin, in the far north of Australia.  US forces will be only miles from nearby Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, where Obama lived for several years as a boy.
In recent years, China has increased its presence in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, exerting its influence over nervous neighbors.  China claims the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory.  For the US to remain a “Pacific power," a firm response to these actions is needed.
Obama’s decision to open a new front against China in Australia is a bold move, which could escalate competition with Beijing.
Notably, Obama’s personal knowledge of the region is higher than any of his predecessors in the White House.  When he visited the University of Indonesia in November 2010, he demonstrated his command of the local language several times in a keynote speech, including the heart-felt statement, “I’m home.”
At present, there are no permanent US military bases in Australia but it is unclear how long this limitation will be maintained.  For now, the US can make do with permanent access to the Australian armed forces' bases and facilities.  US forces will not be limited to Darwin, but will eventual be deployed to other locations within the Northern Territories and Western Australia.
Drone launching facilities appear to be on the near-term agenda, as well.
Australia will be completing a new military base in the Cocos Islands, which are based halfway between the Australian mainland and Sri Lanka.  The base would provide an effective location for the US to deploy surveillance drones and other unmanned aircraft, which are playing an increasingly significant role in the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
The strategic relationship between the US and Australia is mutually beneficial.  On the one hand, with Beijing acquiring submarines, missiles and other weaponry, Australian military planners have become more jittery.  On the other, Australia and the US have maintained a formal military alliance for over six decades, and Australia is the US's only ally in the increasingly important Indian Ocean.
That said, Australia must walk a very fine line.
Despite tensions over Beijing’s growing military reach, China remains the most important trading partner for Australian businessmen and famers.  This means that Australia will want to indulge Washington’s desires, but will also take care not to offend Chinese customers and investors.
Fortunately, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard is on good terms with the American president.
As she told friends last week, “I’m good mates with Barack Obama. I tell him, ‘You think it’s tough being African-American? Try being me. Try being an atheist, childless, single woman as prime minister’.”
The Obama administration must fashion a comprehensive response to the challenges posed in a rapidly evolving world.  However, Obama must respond to these developments in a way that will lower tensions, rather than increase them.
Will China come to dominate Asia?  What proper role should America play in countering or limiting the growing assertiveness of Beijing?  Should China’s assertive claims of maritime sovereignty be acknowledge and accepted, or rebuffed?
The Asia-Pacific region will remain a strategic priority for the US for decades to come.  It is the most dynamic area of the world, according to the US Ambassador in Australia, Jeffrey Bleich.  The region's high levels of economic growth and expanding prosperity make its continued stability of the utmost importance to Washington.
In the recent past, America was able to maintain its influence relatively easily, projecting power into the region when necessary.  Beijing now wishes to increase the cost of such casual displays.
Conflict in Asia could lead to the closing of important maritime trade routines, quickly undermining recent efforts to restart economic growth in the West.  Fragile economies in North America and Europe would find it difficult to withstand the closure of Asian markets.
Although Obama’s willingness to significantly expand American military commitments may surprise many of his 2008 supporters who believed that they were voting for a renunciation of American unilateralism, his actions and policies sit comfortably within a bi-partisan tradition that goes back over 30 years.
There are clearly tremendous risks in Obama’s assertiveness, but hopefully he has the good judgment to sail the treacherous course that may be approaching.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.