Obama Down Under

Obama's trip to Australia may prove crucial in a future showdown against China.

Obama, like a champ_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Obama, like a champ_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama is using his trip “down under” this week as an attempt to further American economic and security interests in a region that will continue to be a top diplomatic priority for the next several decades.
As part of its efforts to effectively contain potential Chinese influence and expansion in Southeast Asia, the Obama Administration is establishing a permanent military presence in Australia. To date, the US presence in Australia has been primarily limited to the Pine Gap surveillance station located near Alice Spring, in the country’s desolate desert heartland. As an indication of the strategic importance of Australia in Washington’s sphere of influence, Obama has followed in the footsteps of his four immediate predecessors by visiting this Southern-Hemisphere ally. Prior to George H.W. Bush’s visit, only one other American President, Lyndon B. Johnson, managed to make the long trip.
US soldiers could be stationed in either Darwin, on the north coast, or in Perth, on the west coast. US forces permanently based in Australia would significant decrease the response time necessary should their deployment be required on short notice. Initially, the US would make use of existing Australian air fields, naval facilities and military bases.
Australia’s left wing Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is supportive of the increased US military commitment in light of China’s increasing acquisitions of modern, long-range missiles and submarines. In addition, Obama enjoys huge popularity among Australians, and Gillard may hope to benefit from a presidential bump in her own approval ratings.
These deployments would give the US easy access to both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, as well as complement existing US bases in Japan and Guam, which have been the foundation of American deployment in the Pacific Ocean since the end of the World War II.
Despite America’s increasing dependence on China economically, the Obama Administration correctly realizes that it is essential to main stability in the region. An Asia without an American presence would be one in which Chinese dominance could be easily established. In addition to Australia, the US is also making arrangements with Singapore and Vietnam to allow US ships to have access to their ports and facilities.
Whether Australia will suffer any backlash for supporting China’s possible arch-rival remains to be seen. China has been increasingly assertive in recent years, which has lead to more uncertainty and anxiety among its smaller neighbors.
Obama’s twice-postponed Australian trip is part of a wider Asian diplomatic push.  Earlier this week, at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held in his native Hawaii, the President announced plans for a new trans-Pacific free trade zone that would cover nine countries, including Australia, and over 500 million consumers. If completed, the new trade zone would eliminate tariffs and introduce uniform patent and copyright laws among members. Current plans presume that at least 12 months will be needed to negotiate the treaties and agree to the fine print.
Although not formally part of APEC, the new trade zone would be open to other nations and Japan has already publicly expressed interest in joining. Should Japan join, the zone - which would also include Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam - would account for one-third of global GDP.
President Obama has a very tough reelection campaign ahead of him. As he remains dogged by criticism over the sorry state of the US economy and the lack of new jobs, it will be important for him to be able to point to as many different initiatives as possible in the months leading up to November 2012 in order to convince reluctant voters that there is some possibility of genuine economic growth in the near future. Whether these initiatives have actually had a real impact is a secondary concern. Otherwise, he will be particularly vulnerable to claims that his symbolic legislative triumphs early in his term were not followed up by substantive improvements to the economy.
China has, perhaps unsurprisingly, expressed doubts over the feasibility of such an “over-ambitious” plan. Given the Obama Administration’s express desire to link membership in the trade zone to countries with high labor and environmental standards, it is not likely that room could be made at the table to allow China to join. As a result, the proposed trade zone could be seen as a battleground for influence in the Pacific. In recent years, China has been very effective in inking trade pacts with smaller countries the region, so the trade zone represents an American attempt to keep the region in play.
Who is best positioned to win the hearts and minds of leaders and citizens across the Asia Pacific region?
America’s role as a Pacific power will be just as important this century as its role as an Atlantic power was during the last century.
Nothing about the proposed trade zone or the Australian deployments will impact the lingering US-China disputes over trade imbalances and currency manipulation. These questions will need to be fully and finally addressed in their own time, as will concerns over China’s domestic political situation.
In the meantime, America will need to continue to invest significant time and energy in maintaining economic and military stability in the Asia Pacific region, in order to achieve the much-needed growth and security at home.
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.