By Ernie Bower and Alexander Vagg
On September 15, leaders from the United States and Australia will meet in San Francisco for AUSMIN- appropriately on the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS agreement and in the same hotel where the agreement was originally signed. Headlines will be about efforts to conclude basing agreements between the United States and Australia that would result in having boots on the ground (and ships in port) in Western Australia.
Behind the headlines are key trends – the center of balance of US global security focus shifting from the Middle East to Asia; efforts to encourage India to consider itself – and act like – an Asia-Pacific power; fast developing and important regional security architecture in Asia; and Australia’s fundamental role in anchoring US hard power in Asia for the 21st century.
The United States is working overtime to institutionalize alliances and strategic partnerships across the Asia-Pacific because it believes doing so is a fundamental step to promote its interests – ranging from security to economic – in an increasingly vital Asia-Pacific region. Additionally, the enhanced US presence is necessary, in the view of American planners and Asian friends, to convincing China to emerge as a benign power, extending its economic linkages without challenges regional norms and sovereignty of its neighbors or denying access to sea lanes of navigation to the United States or others.
In this context, AUSMIN can be seen as a model. It is critical to the United States because it is the institutionalized channel to discuss strategic issues with one of America’s most important allies in Asia. Each ministerial dialogue enables the two countries to coordinate a shared U.S.-Australia strategy in the Pacific. This is even more crucial as the center of gravity for U.S. security interests shifts from the Middle East toward Asia for the twenty-first century. Positioned at the juncture of the Indian and Pacific oceans, this geography makes Australia vitally important as new security architecture develops in the Asia-Pacific region.
The results of this year’s AUSMIN could prove to be of greater importance to the United States due to the military basing arrangement between the two countries reportedly in the works. According to Defence Minister Stephen Smith, the basing deal “will be the single biggest change or advancement of alliance relationships since…the 1980s.”
Thirty years ago Australia and the United States negotiated a basing arrangement creating joint facilities in Australia that served as a catalyst for the integrated approach to intelligence sharing the two nations enjoy today. On September 15, the United States is set to take another leap forward in its military relationship with Australia by placing its military forces at bases on the western and northern coasts of the country.
In last year’s AUSMIN meeting, leaders agreed to examine ways in which the United States could make greater use of Australia’s strategic geographic location in the southern theater of the United States’ Asia operations. It appears that such a basing arrangement has been struck and could have a significant impact on U.S. policy in East Asia in two ways:
- It will allow the United States to increase its military presence in East Asia in close enough proximity to maintain stability in the region without interfering in contentious areas such as the South China Sea, where sovereignty remains unclear.
- It will allow a more integrated approach to collective security arrangements in which allies like Australia can play a greater role and reduce the burden on U.S. armed forces.
The increased U.S. access to facilities in Australia is expected to be a significant feature of the Obama administration’s ongoing global force posture review, examining where U.S. forces would be best placed to deal with future threats and uncertainties, including the increasing military power of China. New arrangements will likely result in a significant increase in military cooperation, including more visits by U.S. ships, aircraft, and troops, which are expected to exercise in Australia regularly.
Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser, director of the Southeast Asia Program, and director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Alexander Vagg is an Australia researcher with the Southeast Asia Program.