President Barack Obama's trip to Asia, with economic summits in Hawaii and Indonesia, has provided an opportunity to showcase foreign policy, an area where the White House has much greater freedom of maneuver than in domestic affairs. With understandable fanfare, agreements were announced to export Boeing aircraft and GE engines to the region, which may add up to $39 billion to the value of United States exports.
China's enormous expansion as a global as well as Pacific power is of primary concern. Obama talked tough in face-to-face meetings with Beijing officials, which may not be wise diplomacy but surely plays well in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, already under way.
While attention tends to focus on the economic dimensions of China's influence, that great power's military expansion is also of concern, which in turn introduces the generally under-reported role of Australia. Obama addressed a session of the Australia parliament, and with Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced an agreement to station U.S. Marines in that country.
Australia continues to be a vital, valuable ally of the United States. ANZUS, the Australia-New Zealand-U.S. security alliance, atrophied in the wake of the Cold War, but was dramatically re-energized by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Australians were targets in the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali. In 2004, the Australian Embassy in Jakarta was attacked.
The Aussie-American special relationship dates from the crucible of World War II, and military security is the most crucial dimension. In that war, the enormous Japanese military drive south was finally blunted just short of Australia. Knowledgeable jungle-savvy Australian troops provided vital support to generally inexperienced Americans.
The Vietnam War led to strengthening the Australia-United States partnership even while straining U.S. relations with Britain and other allies. Fifty thousand Australian military personnel served in Vietnam; 520 were killed and 2,400 wounded. Reflecting these pressures, Australia reintroduced military conscription in 1964.
In October 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson became the first U.S. president to visit Australia, underscoring cooperation with Prime Minister Harold Holt. This characteristically dramatic LBJ expedition was undertaken to cast the Vietnam War in global terms.
Australian military professionals gained valuable guerrilla war experience during the Malaya Emergency from 1948 to 1960 fighting the Malayan National Liberation Army. The insurgency was finally suppressed, confirming the value of long-term patience in employing sustained, carefully directed military force.
President Richard M. Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger tried to apply Malaya insights to Vietnam. Sir Robert Thompson, a British guerrilla warfare expert, was consulted and provided an encouraging estimate of the prospects of the South Vietnamese military.
Gen. Creighton Abrams, after succeeding Gen. William Westmoreland as Vietnam commander, redirected U.S. forces away from massive search-and-destroy operations to small unit actions, reflecting the strategy successfully employed in Malaya. The war greatly strengthened ties between Australian and American military and also civilian government professionals.
The insurgency in Afghanistan is in some respects similar to Malaya and Vietnam. Obama's emphasis on a multilateral approach could further reinforce Australia-U.S. relations. David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer, is influential in American security circles. Australians also engage in humanitarian work in Pakistan.
Australia provides a distinctive bridge between developed and developing nations, reflecting history as well as geography. The nation's economy has been greatly aided by proximity to China. That bilateral tie could mitigate Beijing-Washington friction.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org