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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 29, 2006

Australia sees U.S. as its most crucial ally

By Richard Halloran

President Bush with Prime Minister John Howard. Despite widespread public opposition to the war, Howard says Australia will remain in Iraq as long as its troops are needed, or until Iraq requests their withdrawal.


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In Canberra, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia said something about America recently that is not often heard these days: "None of the security challenges we face can be met without American power and purpose."

Asserting that Australia's alliance with the U.S. was the cornerstone of his nation's defense, the prime minister told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute: "For the foreseeable future, no other country in the world will have the spread of interests or strategic reach of the United States."

The plain-spoken Australian evidently sought to convince several audiences that his nation's reliance on the U.S. for security served not only Australia's national interests but those of other countries in the region. Among those audiences:

  • His own voters, among whom is a vocal left-wing, anti-American element. In a separate address, Howard said: "We should not underestimate the degree to which the soft left still holds sway, even dominance, especially in Australia's universities."

  • The Americans, whom he has been eager to keep engaged in Asia and the Pacific despite the possible isolationism that may be the consequence of a looming defeat and subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Third countries, including Japan, Indonesia and China. Howard said Australia has "encouraged Japan to play a greater security role regionally and globally." He noted that Indonesia was "in the center of Australia's fight against terror." With China, Australia sought to build on shared interests "while dealing openly and honestly on issues where we might disagree."

    Australians, a nation of only 20 million people, have long harbored a sense of isolation and dread of being abandoned in a potentially hostile region. Many Australians contend they were forsaken in World War II by Britain, of which Australia was then a colony, and by Britain's withdrawal of its forces from east of Suez in 1968. In those eyes, only the U.S. could fill that vacuum.

    Today, Prime Minister Howard and other Australian leaders have fashioned a series of appeals to the U.S. to remain a Pacific power. Canberra's ambassador in Washington, Dennis Richardson, said a few weeks ago that Australia "would be greatly disturbed if voices calling for greater protectionism" were to become more influential in the U.S.

    The foreign minister, Alexander Downer, said Australia's standing in Asia "is enhanced by our alliance with the United States." He said the U.S. regularly sought Australian views on regional affairs because "we know the region and can help to interpret events here." His key point: "It is very much in our interests to encourage continued American engagement in the region."

    An Australian Defense Department paper published in September lays out Canberra's vision of its military relations with the U.S. They have become particularly intense since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent terrorist assaults in Indonesia in which Australians died. The paper pointed to three levels of connection:

    First, "there is a vast array of bilateral cooperation" in training, exchanges and exercises. Australia, the paper says, has "exceptional access to U.S. military technology and intelligence, including highly critical and very sensitive areas that give us a vital edge in operations." The specifics are secret.

    Second, "Australia strongly supports continued engagement by the U.S. in the region through its network of alliances and close strategic relationships." The paper asserts: "This bedrock of supporting sustained U.S. engagement in the Asia Pacific region will endure."

    Third, "the alliance is founded on our mutual undertakings to support each other in time of need." The defense paper says: "If Australia were attacked, the United States could be counted on to, and would no doubt, provide substantial assistance."

    The paper asserts, however, that Australia would not assume "that U.S. combat forces would be provided to make up for any deficiencies in our capabilities to defend our own territory. The alliance is not a relationship of dependency but one of mutual help between parties able and willing to do their share."

    Thus, Howard's government has embarked on a long-term plan to build "a more combat- focused, better equipped, more mobile and operationally ready defense force." Australian defense spending is to rise by 3 percent a year until 2015, increasing the military budget to $21.7 billion in 2015 from $9.6 billion in 2000, in U.S. dollars.

    The exception, the defense paper says, is the nuclear umbrella of the U.S. "Australia does rely on the extended deterrence provided by U.S. nuclear forces to deter the remote possibility of any missile-borne nuclear attack on Australia."

    Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.