The Australian

By Malcolm Jorgensen

The annual State of the Union is foremost an opportunity for the US president to speak directly to a domestic audience about a legislative agenda and vision for the nation in the coming year. As such international audiences seeking reassurance that they rank among the nation’s priorities are likely to be left wanting. However, read in these terms, Australia can draw some valuable lessons from the way the US explains our region to itself.

The first question for many Australians looking at the ANZUS alliance is not about US intentions in our region, but China’s. In recent years that concern has translated into arguments for reducing dependence on the US, which has been described by Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser as a “dangerous” ally for threatening to draw Australia into unnecessary conflict. Such arguments turn largely on predictions of increasing regional Sino–US competition, and the need for Australia to choose between its traditional ally and its largest trading partner.

Followers of this debate may have looked to the state of the union address for evidence of the so called “pivot to Asia” and the rebalancing of US attention away from Europe and the Middle East toward the locus of 21st century global power. The speech did much to reinforce the perception that the pivot has been sidelined, with a sole mention of the Asia–Pacific serving mostly as a segue between foreign policy and climate change. References to China nevertheless revealed a view of a peer competitor requiring containment of its regional aspirations. Obama sought congressional approval for the trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed Asia-Pacific trade agreement encompassing 40 per cent of the world’s economy, and currently excluding China. It is also one of the issues Republicans may be willing to support — even over the top of Democrats still wary from earlier experiences of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Rather than framing the TPP in terms of free trade benefits Obama instead drew attention to the threat posed by China and its attempts “to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region’’. Evoking a distinctive wariness toward China it was asserted that America “should write those rules. We should level the playing field’’. That sentiment was then reinforced in the lone reference to the Asia-Pacific, where US strategy remained one of “modernising alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules” including those governing “maritime disputes’’.

This can only be read as a reference to China in circumstances where they have been identified by the US as aggressor in recent regional disputes involving allies from Japan to Vietnam. This characterisation of China as a growing threat matters in circumstances where Australian policy remains one of straddling the divide between these two global powers.

The Obama response places a central importance on securing stability through a rules based regional order — emphasising the importance of the US congress finally ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention establishing rules in precisely these cases. At the same time the administration is keeping its alliances close at hand, relying on a growing network of military capabilities through the region to underpin the civility of legal rules.

The ideas guiding Obama’s foreign policy have been difficult to neatly categorise, with public sentiments structured in terms of progressive liberal internationalist values, but actions often revealing a willingness to employ military force where required. In his speech Obama reiterated his belief that “we lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy” — what Martin Indyk has described as “progressive pragmatism.”

In these circumstances Australia’s best course remains a commitment to the pragmatic combination of rules and security alliances, but balanced always against its independent relationship with China. The US alliance should be supported, not as an end in itself, but as a relationship with a known track record in upholding regional security against a rising China’s unknown intentions. Clear gaps in US Middle East strategy however remind of the dangers of being drawn into conflicts specific to American national interests. The US alliance remains a platform not for presuming interests align in every case, but for establishing complimentary relationships to address threats to global peace and security.

This article was originally published in The Australian