President Obama Will Announce Increased Marine Presence during Australia Visit
November 15, 2011
President Barack Obama will visit Australia on November 16–17 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty and reestablish U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. His arrival in Canberra will mark his first visit to Australia as president and the first U.S. presidential visit since George W. Bush arrived in Sydney in 2007 for a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. While reaffirming the historic security relationship between the United States and Australia, Obama will also emphasize economic ties through the nine-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement under negotiation.
The president’s two previously planned visits in 2010 were canceled due to the congressional vote on his healthcare bill and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Australia has fought alongside the United States in every major conflict since World War II, and the longstanding U.S. ally participates in a broad range of issues, including the war in Afghanistan, sanctions against Iran, nuclear nonproliferation, and a mutually beneficial free trade framework. This Critical Questions explores Obama’s trip and what it will do to bolster U.S. efforts to counterbalance potential threats in Asia, including in the disputed South China Sea.
The president’s two-day visit highlights a recent diplomatic surge to deepen relations with countries in the South Pacific. An interagency delegation composed of leaders from the Departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development underlined a whole-of-government approach in a visit to the Pacific Islands in June and July 2011. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides led the highest-ranking U.S. delegation ever to the Pacific Island Forum in New Zealand in September 2011.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta advanced a deeper level of cyber and military cooperation with their Australian counterparts in San Francisco two months ago at the annual Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations. Obama’s visit this week is diplomatically symbolic and will lock in U.S. cooperation with its most important ally in the South Pacific during “America’s Pacific Century.”
Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley said, “The fact that he’s turning up is in itself enormously important” after rescheduling two trips. The bilateral relationship is “basically being changed, not so much by how Americans and Australians see each other but by geopolitics. Australia’s geographic location is becoming increasingly important to the U.S.”
Recent efforts by the Obama administration have sought to harmonize U.S. and Australian policy in East Asia and the Pacific by strengthening the alliance through enhanced levels of military and cyber security cooperation, interoperability, and regional security. The president will reaffirm relations through a long-awaited visit to Australia, an announcement to increase the U.S. military presence, and a speech spelling out his vision of U.S. interests in Asia.
Q1: What deliverables are expected from the visit?
A1: President Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard are expected to announce an increase in the number of U.S. Marines rotating through Australian bases around the northern coastal city of Darwin, which serves as a critical gateway to Southeast Asia through Indonesia and East Timor. U.S. officials say the United States is not setting up any permanent military bases in Australia. Instead, the United States will rely on Australian military facilities, while withdrawing forces from Afghanistan as the war draws down. The activities of the U.S. Marines will include training and joint exercises. The United States and Australia are also discussing the prepositioning of supplies to better respond to natural disasters.
Q2: What is the president’s agenda during the visit?
A2: On November 16, President Obama will meet with Prime Minister Gillard and answer questions in a joint press conference. The president will also be hosted at an official dinner at Parliament House later that evening.
On November 17, President Obama will lay a wreath at an Australian war memorial and meet briefly with Tony Abbott, the opposition leader. He will then address a special session of Parliament. U.S. officials say the speech will be a broad description of how the United States sees the Asia-Pacific region and what his administration is doing to “strengthen our core alliances to engage emerging powers like China and India and others.”
The president will visit a primary school with the prime minister and stop at the U.S. embassy. Obama will then fly to Darwin where he will visit a memorial to the USS Peary, a naval destroyer that sank during the Japanese air raid on Darwin in World War II, and he will address Australian military positioned in this northern coastal city about U.S.-Australia security cooperation.
Q3: Why is Australia important to the United States?
A3: Australia is the most important U.S. treaty ally in the South Pacific. At a time when Japan is dealing with economic and political woes, Australia is stepping up its military and economic influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Australia is the most reliable ally in the region on a broad range of issues of interest to the United States. The proximity of Australia also serves as a key anchor at the crossroads of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The United States has played a critical role in the economic development of Australia during the past 20 years, as the largest foreign direct investor in Australia, providing about 30 percent more investment than China. The United States has run a trade surplus with Australia since the two countries completed a free trade agreement that went into effect in 2005.
Australia is a Western ally that has close economic ties with China, while at the same time it serves as a counterweight to that rising economic and military power in East Asia. “Australia is basically a western country in Asia with a strong history and alliance with the U.S. and massive trade ties with China,” said Peter Kenyon, professor of economic policy at Curtin University. “[Australia] can act as a conduit for ideas from the U.S. and China, and discreetly report back to each side through diplomatic relationships.”
Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kiet Nguyen is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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