The US at sea in Asia-Pacific but Australia can show the way

We can move beyond the role of "loyal ally" to the US and be a diplomatic leader in our region.

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It is hard to know from the externals of Malcolm Turnbull's first visit as prime minister to Washington how it really went, but the nuances were revealing. There was no hint of  Harold Holt's  "All the way with LBJ" or John Howard's notion of  Australia as a "deputy sheriff". Nor was there the clumsy enthusiasm for the alliance that Julia Gillard displayed in Darwin when she welcomed President Barack Obama and the deployment of United States marines in 2011.

Rather, Washington's loyal ally showed flickers of independence. As background to the visit, management of the port of Darwin had been leased to a Chinese company and Canberra had politely declined Washington's offer to beef up its military commitment in Iraq and Syria.

Then the Prime Minister arrived in Washington, freshly briefed from his visits to Australian troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan and confident of his view that terrorism was a weapon of the weak and not an existential threat. This helped to set the tone of their meeting. 

I was reminded of what US officials have confided to Australians over the years: Australia had good access to the White House, they said, but when we got inside we were only interested in discovering what was in the mind of its occupant, not in revealing what was in ours. 

They were reluctant to admit that our touching subservience was misplaced, but wondered whether the alliance would not benefit from a more robust exchange of views.

It was obvious from the snippets of news from Turnbull's visit that he was not backward in putting  an Australian view to President Obama, but what he  said privately, how strongly he held his positions, and what was Obama's response, we do not  know.


Kim Beazley, making way as ambassador to Joe Hockey, gave one of those bluff interviews that suggest everything will be fine with the alliance, no matter who is in office after elections in both Australia and the US this year, but a more subtle judgment is that circumstances are uncertain and only time will tell.

At the moment, the Prime Minister benefits from a supportive Labor opposition on national security. But elections are unpredictable events and, especially in Republican ranks in the US, 2016 promises to be no exception.

Obama has been an unusually thoughtful president, recalling Camus' definition of an intellectual as "someone whose mind watches itself". He has persevered in diplomacy with Cuba and Iran, and in the Middle East has provided a contrast in caution with George W. Bush.

But in the Asia-Pacific region there is a sense that the Obama administration has yet to work out a strategy for the US. Washington is reluctant to relinquish the primacy it has enjoyed in the region, now tested by the rise of China and the increasing independence of Taiwan, a divided Korea and an uncertain future for Hong Kong.

There is an opportunity here for Australia to lead the way, rather than waiting for the US. For example, as an interested party without territorial claims, we are in a strong position to take a diplomatic initiative on managing access to the South China Sea. 

Australia has the diplomatic resources and intellectual and professional talent to establish a taskforce to guide the government through realistic confidence-building measures that would take the heat out of China's attempt to establish a proprietary presence. 

An ideal situation would be for a bi-partisan Australian initiative to be accepted in Washington, and even more hopefully in Beijing, while Obama is still in the White House, although the timing in a double election year may prove to be tight.

The opportunity for Australia will still be there after Obama, however. Influential Americans other than the president are beginning to accept that the 21st century will not be, like the 20th, the American century. 

In a speech by Bill Clinton at Yale university in 2003, the former president suggested the US should be looking to new "rules and partnerships and habits of behaviour that we would like to live in" when the US was no longer the world's primary military and economic power.

The rise of industrial Asia, with skilled labor and big markets, threatens the potency of the American business model. The US developed from a country that wanted to stand apart in order to hold its own values, to one that wants its values to be accepted by the rest of the world and, having become powerful, is tempted to impose them. It is rare for armed forces to be stationed in another country, but the US has its forces in about 60 countries. And if "deployment" and "prepositioning" is taken into account, the number is greater. Its air force and navy patrol the globe and it has the most advanced satellite technology for gathering intelligence. Moreover, it has more nuclear weapons than any one else and is the only state to have used them.

A combination of military power, commercial primacy and religious conviction has made the US – public, media and political leadership – often impatient with the slow processes of multilateral diplomacy. Australia can provide a valuable service by being (in Turnbullesque) nimble and innovative, or (in old Aussie) doing the donkey work on measures that would encourage the US to accept a non-dominant leadership role in our region. 

The record  of regional initiatives by the Hawke-Keating governments ( such as the Cambodian peace settlement and establishing the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum) is evidence that, contrary to what Malcolm Fraser argued in his book Dangerous Allies, Australia does not have to abandon the alliance with the US in order to be a middle-power activist in our region.

Bruce Grant was a consultant to the minister for foreign affairs, Gareth Evans, in 1988-91.