Tony Abbott and Barack Obama during the President's visit to Australia in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
As foreign affairs officials in Canberra planned Tony Abbott's visit to Washington DC next week another Australian was already here, quietly checking the vital signs of Australia's most important alliance. She found some views that might startle the PM's team.
Hayley Channer had been dispatched to the American capital by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, where her boss, Peter Jennings, is leading the drafting of Australia's next defence white paper. Her task in DC - not yet finished - has been to interview American experts, including State Department officials, think tank analysts and academics, on how they view the bilateral relationship.
Australia should ''think about what it wants to be when it grows up'', one of the experts suggested in an off-the-record interview. ''Australia seems scared of its own shadow,'' said another.
Abbott's first visit to the American capital as leader could not come at a more critical time for the alliance. The relationship is as robust and close as ever, but is facing its first significant test in recent years, says the former assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell.
A region of marked stability has suddenly become one of rapidly rising tension prompted not only by China's increasingly bellicose maritime claims, particularly those affecting Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, but the threat of another nuclear test by North Korea.
America and China's increasingly terse language deteriorated even further last week in Singapore at the Asian defence ministers' forum known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. The US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel criticised China's ''destabilising, unilateral actions'' in the South China Sea.
Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army's General Staff Department, responded that Hagel's speech was ''full of hegemony, full of words of threat and intimidation''.
According to The Wall Street Journal, another Chinese officer, Major-General Zhu Chenghu, said: ''The Americans are making very, very important strategic mistakes right now. If you take China as an enemy, China will absolutely become the enemy of the US.''
To many, the tension at the talks confirmed that America's hope of peacefully accommodating China's economic rise while retaining its own Indo-Pacific hegemony is marked by magical thinking. Nonetheless that is what the US is seeking to achieve, and Australia - a stable, friendly middle-power that geographically straddles both oceans and has close ties with rising regional players - is central to that strategy.
The problem facing both Abbott and Obama as they prepare to meet this challenge is not just that China has its own plans, but unruly domestic politics.
In Washington the Obama administration's strategic ''rebalance'' to Asia is suffering criticism by political opponents and analysts who say it does not exist outside White House and State Department rhetoric. In turn, that criticism is causing disquiet among key Asian allies. This was not helped when Obama failed to even mention the pivot during a key foreign policy speech at the West Point military academy last week.
In fact the rebalance is real, even if the US has been, as Campbell once conceded to the New Yorker magazine, ''on a little bit of a Middle Eastern detour''. America's foreign policy establishment remains convinced that despite the need to focus on the Middle East and more recently Russia and Ukraine, this will be an Asian century.
But even the rebalance's champions concede the administration has failed to properly explain this to the American public.
Similarly neither Obama nor Abbott - nor the previous Australian Labor government - have been able to quell popular disquiet about the economic cement of the rebalance, the free trade agreement under negotiation known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is crucial, the TPP's proponents believe, for two key reasons. A successful TPP would not only bind its members together in an interdependent relationship grounded in international law and norms, one that China may not find in its interests to disrupt. Secondly, because without it America's battered economy will not get access to Asia's growing middle class, hastening its comparative decline.
And this brings us back to concerns over Australian hand-wringing and American exasperation. With America's defence budgets tightening, the US has been demanding its European and Asian allies shoulder more of their own defence burden. The Obama administration was shocked by defence budget cuts under the Labor government and clearly hopes to see increases under Abbott.
Speaking after a presentation at the East West Centre in DC earlier this week Channer said that the Australian defence analyst Hugh White had virtually ''invaded'' nearly every one of her interviews.
American observers were shocked at how receptive the Australian public has been to his argument for a minimalist US alliance.
In a recent issue of Stars and Stripes Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy school of government wrote: ''If China's increased military power is really so alarming, why are countries like Japan, South Korea and Australia doing so little to bolster their own military capabilities? Either they aren't as worried as they pretend, or they have become accustomed to assuming Uncle Sam will take care of them no matter what. It seems to be easier to complain about US credibility than to dig deep and buy some genuine military capacity.''
American analysts would like to see Australia's northern military bases extended and improved for American use as well as increased interoperability with US forces and those of other key allies, especially Japan and South Korea.
Some would like to see Australia take a more forceful diplomatic position against China's maritime claims.
Aside from these concrete concerns there is the open question about whether Obama and Abbott will be able to forge a close personal relationship. Former prime minister John Howard and George W. Bush built their rapport in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were well regarded by the Obama White House despite the savagery of Australian domestic politics. (Indeed you got the sense that State Department staff followed Australian politics with the same shocked fascination shared by Game of Thrones fans.)
But Abbott and Obama are cut from significantly different political cloth and some of the Australian leader's previous comments about the President cannot have escaped his notice. During the election campaign Abbott gave an interview to Mary Kissell, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board - the Praetorian Guard of conservative American thought - in which he called Obama ''the most left-of-centre government [sic] in at least half a century.''
The position might be defensible, but coming from Abbott as prime minister-in-waiting it was neither complimentary nor politic. Even a segment on the satirical news program, Last Week Tonight, has raised eyebrows in DC.
In the popular Sunday night cable show producers mercilessly stitched together footage of some of Abbott's more awkward recorded moments.
''I hope no one has shown the White House that footage,'' said an adjunct professor of international relations, fearing it might have already jaundiced the President's view of Abbott.
Obama's proposal last week of using government regulations to cut green house gas emissions from the American energy sector by 30 per cent by 2030 will also be another significant point of difference.
Speaking with Fairfax Media, Walt said even if the two did not get on their shared strategic interests would overwhelm any personal reservations.
Either way Abbott, a man known for simplifying his message, might enjoy how Obama recently articulated the conceptual framework underpinning his foreign policy.
Frustrated at what he saw as misdirected criticism, the President broke it down for journalists gathered on Air Force One during his recent visit to Asia in terms he hoped they might understand: ''Don't do stupid shit.''