Leadership Change, Alliance Support and Domestic Priorities: Australia’s election and the US in the Asia-Pacific

Andrew Kwon

This week, Australia will be going to the polls to decide on whether it should keep the incumbent Center-Left Labor Party or the Opposition Centre-right Liberal-National Coalition. A culmination of several years of domestic instability and drama, when considered in the context of the regional ‘big picture’, the Australian election is potentially another leadership change following on the heels of others that have occurred in Major US Allies in the Asia-Pacific. At a time when the Obama Administration is increasingly looking to its partner to insure the success of some of its key legislation (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) as well as unity in the face of destabilizing threats (such as North Korea), the importance of understanding the potential effects of the Australian election and its representation of a larger trends in the region cannot be underscored.

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Recently having undertook my civic duties as an Australian Citizen and voted (living abroad, I pre-polled), the lead up to the election and the events which triggered it had led me to see parallels with Australian counterparts throughout the Asia-Pacific. Though it is true that China and North Korea recently went through change, the degree of uncertainty that resulted from these leadership transitions was due in no small part to similar changes occurring in The Republic of Korea (hereafter referred to as South Korea) and Japan.

Much like Australia, South Korea and Japan are key US allies that recently experienced leadership changes amidst a highly divisive and domesticized political climate fed by economic tumult or uncertainty. South Korea recently saw the election of Park Geun-hye to the presidency. Though the candidate who seemed most likely to succeed, the road to the presidency was a tumultuous one. The president’s familial ties to one of the most divisive figures in South Korean political history (her father was the authoritarian figure Park Chung-hee), substantial criticism over and undistinguishable policy alternatives between candidates on key issues as well as the unpopular and controversial legacy of her immediate party and presidential predecessor were all major factors. Japan in turn saw the return of the Centre-Right Liberal Democratic Party and a contentious former premier, Shinzo Abe. Winning in a landslide election following mass public outcry against the Centre-Left Democratic Party of Japan, now-Prime Minister Abe rode to power on not only a platform to satisfy the electoral demand for economic recovery but by also appealing to its resurging nationalism. Australia has similarly dealt with considerable turbulence. The last several years have been a roller-coaster in Australian politics, acts ranging from internal party coups (called leadership spills in Australia), partisan mudslinging, scandals as well as doubts over the sustainability of Australia’s economic growth has created a poisonous political environment, pushing party and leadership disapproval to almost parity.

However, in comparison to the domestic negativity, political support for the US is contrastingly high. The first high profile summit abroad for Prime Minister Abe and President Park was in the US. Also, besides the multiple occasions Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has visited, even the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has visited the US and declared the importance of the US-Australia alliance on that occasion. In addition, public support is also extremely favorable in the aforementioned countries of South Korea, Japan and Australia. Overall, all of this raises questions as to what happens when domestic concerns collides with continued support of the US alliance, which of the two forces will prevail?

Though it is difficult to say what either a Labor or Coalition government will do, a divisive pre-election period which includes critical elements like a lackluster economic projections have led Australian counterparts to create some difficult self-imposed obstacles. Much like Japan and South Korea before it, the winning party in the Australian election will remain highly supportive of the Alliance but will likely be tied down by a heavy domestic agenda and be posed to prioritize the economy and consolidate amidst the still fresh fissures of a divisive period. This will likely lead to foreign engagement which has maximum potential domestic gain but minimal effort required, this is particularly so for large and time-consuming activities like those led by the US. Hence, the Obama Administration should watch closely the events in Australia and take overtures of support with a grain of salt. When all is said and done, the calculus is shifting and so are the priorities.

Andrew Kwon is a Joseph S. Nye Jr. Research Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, USA. The views expressed are his own.

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3 thoughts on “Leadership Change, Alliance Support and Domestic Priorities: Australia’s election and the US in the Asia-Pacific

  1. http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2013/09/05/Drifting-Washington-will-look-to-new-Australian-PM.aspx Dont know if you saw this on the interpreter: “Washington is strategically adrift right now. An Australian prime minister with a fresh win, a clear foreign policy vision, and robust defense spending will not only get a hearing, he could help to right the list in American leadership globally.” Sounds to me like an offer of the deputy sheriff badge, for a price- but at what cost? Really getting at the heart of what you are saying here. Like many American allies, we like the alliance but don’t want to have to pay more for it. As a man on the ground, how is the issue of freeriding going down in Washington?

    • @Ben Great Question. Honestly, The US wants more pro-activity from its partners in the Asia-Pacific and there is a growing chorus for it to happen soon (this is of course my very humble opinion). Pure and simple.

      To us it may sound like a Deputy Sheriff’s badge, with all its negative connotations, but to people here in Washington it really does boil down to some good ol’ fashioned burden sharing to help find direction. Mike Green was spot on about ‘DC being strategically adrift’, he is part of a group of brilliant people who after years working on policy both in and out of government have become unsurprisingly burnt out after being forced to apply the same formulas to the same issues year after year with very little to show for it. To men and women like Mike, they just want a brief moment to take stock of their surroundings, formulate a series of new approaches and then look for opportunities to apply it.

      After non-stop war for over a decade, depleted political capital and a difficult economic environment, you can imagine how mentally exhausted everyone here is. Yes, its great to hear that alliance support is so strong, but to the US it would be more helpful if everyone could help to make that support more tangible because it otherwise appears as just hot air. The US is looking for some relief (in the military sense) to get back on track. To many they figure the best way to help alleviate some of that anxiety that their allies are feeling over commitment issues can only happen after they can get their house in to some semblance of order, but it must be reciprocal i.e. quid pro quo.

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