Australia and the American ‘Pivot to Asia’

The ‘Pivot to Asia’ (‘Pivot’ — now called a ‘rebalance’ in the US) refers to a strategic shift in American foreign policy towards a renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific, formally articulated by US President Barack Obama in a speech to the Australian parliament on 17 November 2011 commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS treaty.

Obama declared that the US would play a greater role in shaping the future of the Asia-Pacific region in order to ‘preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace’, emphasising that the US ‘is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay’. Obama pledged a renewed focus on regional alliances, increased engagement with Asia-Pacific multilateral organisations, and the realisation of his signature Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade coalition.

Prior to the speech, Obama and then prime minister Julia Gillard announced the first major Pivot initiative: the establishment of a 2500-strong US marine air-ground task force in Darwin by 2017, and an increase in the rotation of both US Air Force planes and US Navy vessels through Australian bases.

Despite Obama insisting that the US and Australia ‘have a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China’, the deployment of US marines to Darwin was seen by many observers as aimed at ‘containing’ China. Analysts believe that Australia-based containment strategies are an essential anti-China component of the US AirSea Battle military doctrine, especially given Australia’s strategically favourable geography and mounting local resistance to US bases in Japan and Korea.

China reacted icily to the announcement of US marines deploying to Darwin. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs decried the move as reflecting a ‘Cold War mentality’ and added that: ‘It may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within the region.’ The state-affiliated Global Times warned that Australia ‘cannot play China for a fool’ and could be ‘caught in the crossfire’ if it joined the US in harming Chinese interests. The then foreign minister Kevin Rudd responded that this was a ‘sovereign matter for Australia’, and declared that China had been briefed on the proposal.

The first contingent of 200 US marines arrived in Darwin in April 2012, the first complete battalion of 1150 marines was deployed in March 2014, and the first full deployment of 2500 marines is scheduled by 2017. In August 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed a twenty-five-year US-Australia Force Posture Agreement formalising the generational deepening of military cooperation announced in 2011. Long-term Australian defence planning [topic page link: Defence and Strategic Relations] envisages pre-positioning US military equipment in Darwin, basing US Navy warships at Darwin and the Stirling naval base in Western Australia, a US drone base on Australia’s Cocos Islands, ballistic missile defence cooperation and increased US Air Force rotations, possibly including hosting B-1 bombers in northern Australia.

Australian support of the US as an ‘utterly dependable ally’ seems assured. But while Obama described the Australian alliance as ‘indispensable’ to the Pivot, many observers have questioned his administration’s commitment to the Pivot over the long-term. Analysts consider current US Secretary of State John Kerry to be more concerned with the Middle East; key proponents of the Pivot such as Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton have left office; and Obama’s failure to attend either the 2013 East Asia Summit or 2013 APEC Summit led to questions over his personal commitment to the region.

However, from late 2014, the Obama administration seemed to make a concerted effort to reinvigorate the Pivot: when Obama returned to Australia for the Brisbane G20 meeting in November 2014, he delivered a speech promising to ‘deepen our engagement’ with the Asia-Pacific ‘using every element of our power’; he then used his January 2015 State of the Union address to reframe the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a geopolitical instrument necessary for the US to continue to ‘write the rules’ in the region instead of China; he has heavily prioritised TPP negotiations, which officials say are ‘in the endgame’; and, the appointment of Ashton Carter as Secretary of Defence in February 2015 has brought a harder line against Chinese military expansionism and territorial disputes.

Commentators in Australia are divided between those who think the renewed Pivot will improve Australian security by reasserting the US-led regional order, and those who think it will destabilise the region by ratcheting up US-China competition.


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