The United States' rebalance to the Asia-Pacific has been most prominent in Australia in the form of plans to expand defense cooperation between the two countries under an already close alliance relationship. The details of this closer engagement were jointly announced by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard on November 16, 2011, and included the deployment of up to 2,500 U.S. Marines to Darwin and northern Australia and plans for closer cooperation between the Australian and U.S. air forces.1 The following day Obama defined the broader strategic rationale behind the announcement in a speech to the Australian parliament:
As we consider the future of our armed forces, we've begun a review that will identify our most important strategic interests and guide our defense priorities and spending over the coming decade. So here is what this region must know. As we end today's wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia-Pacific a top priority.2
U.S. and Australian Motivations behind the Rebalance
U.S. interest in the Asia-Pacific is driven by the region's size and economic dynamism—"Here we see the future," Obama told the Australian parliament. Clearly an important factor behind the joint announcement was the sense of heightening strategic competition in the region as Chinese growth propels Beijing into rough economic parity with the United States. Economic weight leads to strengthening military capabilities, and a more confident and diplomatically assertive China worries many smaller powers in the region, where the United States is still regarded as a vital guarantor of strategic stability. Obama's message that "the United States of America [End Page 38] is all in" is thus broadly welcomed. Some Australian analysts interpreted Obama's speech to the parliament as a direct challenge to China because of the president's very firm language about freedom—"History is on the side of the free—free societies, free governments, free economies, free people"—but the speech was equally clear in expressing Obama's commitment to building a "cooperative relationship with China."
Since World War II, Australia has defined a core strategic interest in maintaining a close defense relationship with the United States. While wartime cooperation was directly driven by fear of invasion, the postwar alliance was shaped more by Australia's interest in keeping Washington engaged in the broader security of the Asia-Pacific. Australia is not under direct threat from any country but, rather, is concerned that competition between the region's major powers may cause broader instability.
The U.S. Marine presence in Australia's north is not on a scale to provide for the direct defense of the country, nor is it designed for that purpose. That said, there is an obvious defense value for Australia in having the near-continuous presence of U.S. military personnel in the north, both to show Washington's commitment to Australian security and to complicate the plans of any country that might seek to harm Australian interests. However, the most immediate strategic value of enhanced cooperation is to provide a tangible expression of the U.S. commitment to the security of Southeast Asia, a region that has assumed greater importance in U.S. strategic thinking because of the competition for influence between Asia's major powers. When not exercising on Australian territory, the U.S. Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) will cooperate with countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Some of these activities will involve the Australian Defence Force. For example, the first trilateral exercise among the U.S., Australian, and Indonesian armed forces will take place in early 2013 and involve a humanitarian relief and disaster-response scenario.
More broadly, the United States is seeking to strengthen its bilateral and multilateral engagement with Southeast Asian countries. U.S. defense cooperation with Singapore has grown substantially, and, following the Canberra announcements, the United States has sought to build more substantive defense ties with India, Indonesia, and Vietnam and revive cooperation with old treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines. [End Page 39...