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.


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.

The 2013 Australian Defence White Paper: A Paper with ‘Teeth’ or a ‘Toothless Wonder’?


Ben Moles

“What do we want [fill in the blank] when do we want it [blank,,, but sooner preferably to later]”. 

And so the old chant goes. The 2013 Australian Defence White Paper is expected to be released tomorrow. Anticipate the first blank to be filled with a list of things Australia can’t really afford or doesn’t really need (at least another Air Warfare Destroyer, at least a few Super Hornets as a ‘filler’ for delayed JSF F-35’s, where it appears to be the case that in terms of the price, the sky literally is the limit), or for domestic political purposes won’t determine where they will come from (think- Australia’s submarine odyssey, I cant see why a feasibility study is even necessary, Australia excels at many things; building and maintaining reliable submarines really isn’t one of them). Expect the second blank to be, well non too committal.

There are two issues that will stymie the overall effectiveness and utility of the 2013 Australian Defence White Paper: This White Paper will largely remain overshadowed by the failings of its predecessor, the 2009 Defence White Paper (which was a debacle) that promised much and delivered little and that an anticipated likely change in Australian Federal Government in September this year will likely lead to a decision to produce a new Defence White Paper- rendering this one redundant soon anyway.

But an even bigger failure, than what has been cited above, and a problem that looms large over Australian Strategic Defence Planning is the failure to ask the precursor to ‘what do we want’ and ‘when do we want it’- that being: ‘what do we want to be able to do’ and ‘where to we want to be able to do it’, followed by ‘what can we afford‘ and ‘what can we afford not to do‘?

The key aspect absent from Australian Strategic Defence Planning is vision and this may, or may not, be linked to an inability to look beyond Australia’s ANZUS alliance reliance, the ANZUS alliance being a factor which will feature prominently in tomorrows White Paper I am sure. I also anticipate the ground will be set for a larger US ‘foot-print’ on Australian soil, and perhaps in our waters, in the not too distant future- however, we will just have to watch this space and wait until tomorrow on that front.

For Australia to produce a Defence White Paper of substance, of value and worth, something with ‘teeth’ it must grapple with and set out to answer these paramount questions as its starting point; a failure to do so in combination with the factors above will likely render the 2013 Australian Defence White Paper, and any future Defence White Paper for that matter, a ‘toothless wonder’.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security Studies from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He can be contacted at bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au or Follow on Twitter @bwmoles


ANZUS – A skilful and necessary exploitation of America

Guy Roberts

It’s no insight to say there’s a debate in Australia about the nature and necessity of our alliance with the United States.  This has been going on for decades, but was kicked into high gear by Hugh White’s 2010 ‘Power Shift’.   Ben Moles, Andrew Kwon and Jerry Hofhuis have all commented on this blog about the US/Australian relationship.  Other big fish have also spoken – Prime Minister Gillard wowed the US Congress, Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser made an elegant contribution at the 2012 Whitlam Oration.  Yet too often there seems to be a focus on what we give (which is comparatively little) to what we get (which is comparatively much).

Debate about the relationship is a good thing – but the only logical conclusion is that the ANZUS alliance is incredibly useful and beneficial to Australia – it gives us access to US decision makers, it gives us security, and it also (frustratingly for America) gives us quite an enjoyable bit of a free ride.

This is not to say we shouldn’t continue to examine the relationship both constantly and critically – but this should include recognition of the concrete advantages of the relationship, and not just the intellectual imperfections or imbalances that some commentators complain about, or view it as a zero-sum card game with the wrong partner, against the inevitability of Sino-hegemony which some strategists (wrongfully) predict.

Access: America takes Australian individuals, ideas and interests seriously.  If we feel something is serious enough to talk about, then they will listen.  But remember, the idea that Australia can ‘teach’ America something about Chinese engagement is a little patronising (Since ’79, three of the US Ambassadors to the PRC were actually born in China).   What Australia can do best is to drop the right comment in the right ear at the right time.   To paraphrase Churchill, if America does the right thing after exhausting all other possibilities, then the task for Australia is to help steer America there more quickly and conveniently than would otherwise be the case – to the benefit of Australian interests.  Fraser’s autobiography gives one example, when a word in the ear of Reagan’s Vice-President triggered a realisation that a planned US apathy over the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands would render Margaret Thatcher so furious with betrayal that she would have made De Gaulle look like Lafayette.   During the Bush era, words were said that helped America appreciate the risk of being seen as the anti-Islamic Crusader of Bin Laden’s propaganda (perhaps not as successfully resolved as Fraser’s example, but it could certainly have been far worse!).  Picking up a megaphone and shouting the obvious is crude – but having a serious talk off the record can get results.

Thus, we should appreciate that our words count, and that a discrete and sophisticated Australian Word to the American Wise can and does help steer America toward more effective and successful policy goals.

Security: America provides a security guarantee to Australia and the region – a guarantee that has been tested time and again.  In the 1950s it protected Taiwan and South Korea from communist occupation.  It went into South Vietnam for the same reason (and arguably bought enough time for more southern countries to shore up their own anti-communist defences).  In the 1980s it worked in Afghanistan, and has of course been involved with many countries in the region.  America has proven itself – and even if Clinton might have apparently almost fumbled the ball over in East Timor, Indonesia still knew what was what.

As Authoritarian China continues to rise, and its future remains unknowable (to itself, if not to those predicting the inevitability of democracy ), and the PLA plays its own in-country game, the guarantee of a liberal-democratic rule-based friendly powerful off-shore balancer is self-evidently a good thing.  After all, if Andrew Kwon is correct, and Australia ‘needs’ an alliance with the powerful…why did we choose America in ’41, and not Japan in ’39?

Free ride: The problem of this security guarantee is that it let many countries relax – why should you do the heavy lifting on your security when America will always step in for you?  America’s response to this altitude was the Guam Doctrine of President Nixon.  Richard Armitage’s recent call for increased Australian Military spending is very much in the same vein – and perhaps equally in vain.  As Hartcher noted, “The rotating deployment [of US Marines in Darwin] provided a level of assurance that gave the government an excuse to cut the Australian defence outlay”. It did indeed, and quite an adroit step it was!  Australia has an amazing level of access to the US machine – both in military hardware and intelligence data.  Our alliance gives us a phenomenal bang for our buck – and we need to calibrate our spending to make sure we don’t take too much for granted.  Thus, given America’s self-interested commitment to regional stability, the call by some Australian commentators to draw away from America and pursue an ‘independent’ foreign policy strikes me as self-indulgent blather.   Australia would look like a rebellious and snotty-nosed teenager making a scene – pursuing an ‘independent’ foreign policy in the full knowledge that America’s presence means nothing can seriously go wrong.

Free rides are free rides, and Australia should not increase defence spending just because America feels slightly used.  But at the same time, scorning the alliance for the sake of Canberra’s ego would put us out in the cold for no gain at all!

Overall: With contemporary China alternating between cranky and belligerent and cranky and insecure, maintaining a snug alliance with America makes sense – to us, and to all the regional countries that are scrambling to strengthen their own ties with the USA.  When the Chinese Foreign Minister declares “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact”, (can you imagine the opprobrium if a US Secretary of State had said that!) then we should straighten our backs and walk with pride by America’s shoulder.  Given that  America has many more years of bearing the leadership burden – Robert Lieber, Robert Kagan and a recent New York Magazine article all point out America’s many regenerative strengths – we should welcome the fact that our alliance is in such good shape – and that it serves Australian interests so such an effective and efficient manner.

Guy Roberts is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.  His thesis examines the ‘China Policy’ of President George W. Bush.