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Monday, December 3, 2012

Australia and the U.S. Rebalancing to Asia Strategy

Bruce Vaughn
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Australia, a traditionally staunch U.S. ally, is exploring ways to support the U.S. strategy of increasing its involvement in Asia—often called the rebalancing to Asia strategy—at a time when Australia has embarked on significant cuts to its defense budget. Australia is seeking to strengthen its long-standing defense alliance with the United States without jeopardizing its important trade relationship with China. Australia’s strategic geography is increasingly focused on its north and west at a time when the United States is also increasingly focused on the same areas, namely Southeast Asia and the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean. An analysis of Australia’s role in the United States’ Asia strategy is particularly relevant as Congress considers future U.S. strategy, force structure, and defense procurement decisions.

Australia’s place in the U.S. rebalancing to Asia strategy is an important one to a large extent because the United States and Australia share many values and strategic perspectives. Australia’s strategic worldview generally is one that views the United States as a force for good in the world and in Australia’s Indo-Pacific region. The May 2012 Australian force posture review gives insight into Australian strategic thinking relative to its defense posture. While there is strong support for further developing bilateral defense cooperation with the United States, planned Australian defense budget cuts, and their potential impact on Australian defense capability plans, may place limits on the extent to which Australian defense capabilities can grow in the years ahead. That said, Australia has a relatively strong economy and a political context that could lead to more defense capability development in the future. What is clear is that there is strong bipartisan elite and popular support in Australia for remaining a close and valuable strategic ally of the United States.

During President Obama’s visit to Australia in 2011, he and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the deployment of up to 2,500 United States Marines to Australia’s Northern Territory. This deployment is one of the most tangible examples of the rebalancing to Asia strategy, and also demonstrates Australia’s resolve to support that strategy. When in Australia, President Obama stated, “Our alliance [with Australia] is going to be indispensible to our shared future, the security we need and the prosperity that we seek, not only in this region but around the world.” The Marine rotational deployment announcement, and subsequent disclosures of additional plans to further expand the United States’ already strong alliance relationship with Australia, did much to give the rebalancing to Asia strategy military substance. It was also during his speech to the Australian Parliament that President Obama pledged not to cut the United States’ Asia Pacific force posture as cuts to the U.S. defense budget are considered.

Australia’s decision to place renewed emphasis on its strategic relationship with the United States within the context of America’s rebalancing to Asia strategy makes its partnership with the United States a valuable piece of U.S. strategic engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. Australia’s decision to strengthen its American alliance may also reflect growing uncertainty in Canberra with the evolving correlates of power in Asia.

Date of Report: October 26, 2012
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: R42822
Price: $29.95

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