A new paper entitled Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030 from Ross Babbage, founder of the Kokoda Foundation, an Australian think tank, has furthered the debate in Australia about the future of Asia with a rising China and the role of the U.S.–Australia alliance.
This paper continues the strategic discussions that took place within Australia following the release of Australia’s 2009 defense white paper and Hugh White’s 2010 Quarterly Essay piece “Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing.” It, and the conversation it has generated in Australia, illustrates the continuing necessity for the U.S. to reassure allies and friends in the region while taking action to maintain its predominant leadership in the security and prosperity of Asia.
It is not so much Babbage’s recommendations that should concern Americans but Australia’s worry over the future of Asia. All of these papers address the rise of China and the role of the U.S., and all three envision a declining or less capable U.S., requiring Australia to alter its current course to deal with a changing region. The U.S. needs to look for relevant openings within the conversations to provide diplomatic reassurance, enhance military capabilities and partnerships, and increase U.S.–Australia alliance initiatives.
Much of the diplomatic reassurance the Obama Administration has tried to provide to Asian countries has come from attending multilateral forums (including joining the East Asian Summit) and by making forceful, positive statements at those meetings. These efforts, along with constructive bilateral sessions, such as the Australia–U.S. ministerial consultations, demonstrate the willingness and ability of the U.S. to develop effect policies with allies and partners in Asia. These are useful forums, and it is important that the U.S. show the flag. The U.S. and Australia should also look to do more with countries like India, Japan, and South Korea to address broader regional issues.
But diplomatic engagement alone is not enough to stem Australia’s and other allies’ concerns about the future. We need to make the investments in presence and hardware—ships and aircraft—that substantiate America’s long-term staying power and effectiveness in Asia. Many recommendations in the three papers stem from an increase of China’s anti-access capabilities and concern over the U.S.’s long-term investment in its forces.
Being at least 30 ships below the U.S. Navy’s recommended level clearly signals to countries like Australia that U.S. military presence may not be fully available in the future. Even with a full force, the U.S. needs to examine expanding its presence and involvement at bases in Asia. The debates in Australia entail discussion over increasing U.S. access to bases in Australia. Increased U.S. and Australian military cooperation over basing and presence would help reassure East and South Asian publics about America’s commitment to a secure region.
Good allies and democracies, like Australia, are always going to be evaluating the future and preparing policies that best address their interests. The U.S., as a good ally to Australia, can adjust its own policies to maintain leadership in Asia while strengthening the U.S.–Australia alliance to allay concerns over U.S. decline.
These papers and debates in Australia acknowledge that American presence has been beneficial for the development of Asia. The U.S., through combining the enhancement of its own diplomatic and military capabilities in the region with the collaboration of allies like Australia, can provide evidence of a future peaceful and prosperous Asia that is also based upon prominent American leadership.