Australia Can't Get Too Close to the U.S.

By Peter Leahy

The arrival of US marines in Darwin is a good thing. It provides a ready capability to respond to disaster and humanitarian crises throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

With their extensive experience in operating amphibious ships, marines can also assist Australia in developing the new Landing Helicopter Dock capability.

But there can be too much of a good thing, especially if it involves putting unnecessary pressure on China. By substantially increasing its close relationship with the US, Australia may unduly complicate its relationship with China. Care needs to be taken to ensure that Australia is not caught between the US, as security guarantor, and China as economic underwriter.

As a sovereign nation Australia should maintain the ability to say no to the US and separate itself from its actions. This will require careful thought and deft diplomacy.

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Australia and the US share fundamental values. They have responded to oppressive ideologies, despots and humanitarian disasters across nearly a century of co-operation.

The ANZUS relationship was designed to enhance Australia's security in a hostile world. Australia has contributed troops to US global missions with the expectation that the US would return the favour in time of need.

Australia's security relationship with the US means that is more secure than we might otherwise expect. Joint facilities provide access to intelligence. Trade, scientific and professional co-operation allows Australia access to equipment, weapons and combat systems that are available to few countries. Personnel exchanges develop the skills of Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Australians should be reassured by the US intent to pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. There are many uncertainties associated with the growth and increased assertiveness of China.

By agreeing to the US Marine Corps and potentially more extensive air and naval access requests, Australia has confirmed that it is firmly in the US security camp. At the moment the US is responding to the security concerns of many Asian nations. Parallel agreements for extended military co-operation with The Philippines and Singapore attest to this. There are more to come.

While it is the right decision to host an increased US presence and support its role in the region, there is cause for concern if the US pivot is handled hastily or insensitively and China sees itself as surrounded. Economic pressure on Japan was a contributing factor to the outbreak of World War II.

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Peter Leahy is the director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra. He was chief of army from 2002 to 2008.

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