Australia takes key role in U.S. strategy

September 15, 2007

The George W. Bush government recently signed two important defence
trade co-operation treaties -- the first with the United Kingdom on
June 27 and the second with Australia Sept. 5.

These treaties establish privileged access and co-operation between
the United States, the U.K. and Australia, eliminating bureaucratic
delays in regard to billions of dollars in military sales. As well,
they will mean big business for the military establishments of the
three countries and their domestic defence industrial companies.

The two deals have great economic and strategic significance. Just as
Bush is caught in the Iraqi quagmire, his administration had added a
new leg to develop Asia's security architecture. Australia's
importance has grown in the new scheme because Asia is now more
important to the U..S., which is unable to manage Asian affairs on its

Australia provides a strategic location giving the U.S. unimpeded
access for its military, commercial and political requirements in Asia
-- from the U.S. to Australia and the South Pacific, and from
Australia to Asia.

The Aussies share Western cultural and political values, they have an
internationalist outlook, and have a solid record as a reliable U.S.
ally -- despite Bush's unpopularity with a segment of the Australian

Subtle shifts in U.S.-U.K.-Australia links have led to the elevation
of Canberra's role as an American ally. The U.K., no doubt, remains
important for Washington as a member of the United Nations Security
Council, where it uses its considerable diplomatic skills and vast
international experience to craft UN resolutions and build consensus
for them, often fronting for Washington. London remains an effective
interlocutor for Middle Eastern and Commonwealth affairs and in
Africa. It has functioned as a junior military partner, most recently
in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it has continuous access to Middle
Eastern political establishments, using its defence trade links with
key countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms to promote
its own and broader Western interests.

Privileged U.S.-U.K. defence industrial co-operation is key to
maintain access to Middle Eastern political establishments and markets
that are hungry for high technology military goods that serve insecure
political regimes living in a volatile region.

The June 27 treaty expresses a special relationship, but is not simply
a sign of an ongoing government-to-government relationship. It points
as well to the growing importance of defence industrial links and
private defence firms among nations.

Since 2003, for example, Iraq has given Bush many political headaches,
but the volatility within Iraq and the region has been a blessing for
U.S. military contractors. The insurgency may have wrecked Iraq's
economy but it has fattened the bottom lines of American energy and
defence companies.For America, Iraq has meant bad news for the
politicians and good news for the business community.

Nonetheless, the U.K.'s importance in Asian strategic affairs has
declined. During the Second World War the U.K.-U.S.-Soviet partnership
defeated Hitler in Europe, and then the U.S. and U.K. turned Germany
around into a modern, democratic ally. In the Cold War the U.K.-U.S.
partnership kept NATO going to contain Moscow's threats.

Also during the Second World War both worked together to check Japan's
military expansion into the Far East and Southeast Asia. The U.K.'s
Lord Louis Mountbatten was the Supreme Allied Commander in the
Burma-Southeast Asia theatre. But the fall of Singapore to Japan's
military advance ended the British claim as keeper of the peace and
signalled the end of its empire.

Later, the U.S. alone bore the brunt of the deadly fight in the
Pacific with Japanese forces. It defeated Japan and turned it around
into a modern, industrial and a democratic ally of the West. As the
senior partner, it negotiated transfer of important Pacific islands
from U.K. to U.S. control and acquired strategic Diego Garcia in the
Indian Ocean -- bases that continue to serve as vital communication
facilities and platforms for U.S. bombers.

With the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the British presence
in Asia was effectively finished.

Japan became the cornerstone of U.S. alliances in Asia and served as a
platform for U.S. military presence in the region, as a source of
military supplies during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and as a partner
to check North Korean and Chinese expansionist tendencies. Japan and
the U.S. have adopted military guidelines to safeguard the security of
Taiwan and the integrity of the region's open sealanes.

With this recent deal, Canberra now becomes the bigger kid on the
block, having served as a junior kid in the past. Washington is
pushing its Australia links for several reasons. China is pushing its
presence into Southeast Asia through energy acquisitions and trade
deals, and it is pushing its navy into the Pacific and the Indian
oceans. Beijing is promoting itself as a peaceful neighbour, but its
neighbours are on guard by interacting with it and by building their
economic and military capacities just in case Beijing's intentions
become aggressive.

Russia, too, is asserting itself in the Far East. With a triangular
U.S.-Japan-Australia relationship, and with the U.K. in the background
to help on the diplomatic front, Australia is well positioned to
assert itself in the Southwest Pacific and to expand its presence by
building military links with India as well.

Recently the U.S., India and Australia held joint military exercises
in the Bay of Bengal, off the Myanmar coast where China is building
naval facilities. With the uncertainty in Japanese politics as a
result of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to resign, Canberra's
-- and New Delhi's -- importance is likely to grow as the American
search for strong allies continues.

Ashok Kapur is a distinguished professor emeritus of the University of

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