Illustration by Kate O'Connor

Obama’s Tripwire Postpones Australia’s Destiny: Iain McCalman

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Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Barack Obama’s visit to Australia prompted the people of Darwin to take out $50,000 worth of insurance to cover him against the risk of a crocodile attack. The gesture seemed to delight the U.S. president. In a speech to about 1,000 Australians troops, his praise of the “legendary Diggers” (soldiers who fought in trenches) and “true blue Aussies” (Australians loyal to local values) went down a treat.

The applause from troops at Robertson military base showed their support for a deployment plan that will bring as many as 2,500 U.S. Marines to undertake six months of joint training exercises during northern Australia’s dry season. In the future, U.S. warplanes and submarines will also make more use of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Tindal base in the Northern Territory and the Stirling naval base in Western Australia.

Obama’s visit to Australia to commemorate 60 years of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty has proved a success. Several speeches, combined with the new U.S. troop placement, reaffirmed America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. The news was also welcomed by many Australians, who in recent polls have shown support for the Anzus alliance. So have the major Australian political parties -- except the Greens, which expressed polite regret at the lost chance to pursue a Swiss-type policy of independent neutrality.

Gillard’s Chance

For Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose Labor Party is trailing badly in the polls, it was an opportunity to play the global stateswoman, to flaunt her growing personal relationship with Obama, and to deflect attention from what is in Australia an increasingly unpopular commitment of troops to Afghanistan.

The U.S. offer should also help her secure endorsement within the party for her proposed policy switch of selling uranium to India. Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, defied parliamentary convention by using a welcome speech to the president to snipe at the government’s emissions-trading program and to suggest that his party would go even further in establishing joint facilities with the U.S.: “You can’t be too close to America,” he said.

Obama’s speech to both houses of Parliament would also have pleased many countries in the wider Asia-Pacific region, for it squarely affirmed a shift away from George W. Bush’s preoccupation with the Middle East as a cradle of terrorism, in favor of Obama’s decision that “as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends.”

Though he didn’t explicitly say so, it is clear the U.S. troop commitment in Australia represents part of what will be an architecture of containment against China’s political and military power -- a strategy that will encompass the Indian Ocean. Although Obama thanked China for its assistance in negotiations with North Korea, he used his speech in Canberra to call on the East Asian superpower to “play by the rules” in matters such as human rights, currency control, free trade and intellectual property, asserting a characteristic American claim that “history is on the side of the free.”

Evidently it is also on the side of free trade, for he signaled his intention of using the Association of Southeast Asian meeting and East Asian summit in Bali, Indonesia, to urge the hastening of an extensive free-trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, into which he hopes China will eventually be drawn.

For Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, potential membership in the partnership is probably less important than checking China’s increasingly assertive claims to sovereignty in the oil-rich South China Sea. Similar concerns were brought to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s attention at last year’s Asean forum in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Balancing Act

There is no doubt Australia’s dependence on the Chinese economy means it must execute a delicate balancing act. If, as Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Hartcher writes, Obama has delivered Australia a military tripwire for China, we need to be careful we don’t trip ourselves up in the process. Such warnings were commonplace among Australian defense analysts during the 1970s, when many feared the Australia-America satellite-tracking facility at Pine Gap would make Australia a prime target in any nuclear exchange.

One of these strategists, Des Ball of the Australian National University, now claims that a satellite ground station in Western Australia to which the Chinese have been granted access is being used to track the movements of Australian and American warships in the region. If so, we are already entangled in a new Cold War.

We might wonder if Australia has once again deferred confronting a decision that it will one day have to face. When, if ever, will its increasingly dominant cultural and economic links with China be reflected in closer political and defense ties? Of course, popular fears of China have deep roots in Australia, running back to the “Yellow Peril” days of the 19th-century gold rushes and the 20th-century White Australia policy that enforced race-based immigration. Yet this sorry legacy is belied today by Australia’s mineral industry, tourism, food consumption, university education and migration patterns, all of which are oriented toward Asia, especially China.

Darwin, the site of Australia’s reaffirmation of the Anzus alliance, also fulfils a longstanding Australian dream to develop a northern city that could function as a trading hub, like Singapore or Hong Kong. Earlier failed experiments to realize this vision -- at Port Essington and Melville Island -- are now of interest only to historians. Yet, as well as being a core defense site, Darwin is a multicultural and Asian-inflected modern city.

During the Bali summit, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono suggested to Prime Minister Gillard that an offer to include Chinese troops in training exercises with the U.S. marines would be seen in the region as a constructive and tension-reducing compromise. The people of Darwin may want to consider more than just crocodile insurance.

(Iain McCalman, a professor of history at the University of Sydney and the author of “Darwin’s Armada,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Iain McCalman in Sydney at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: David Henry at