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What Does U.S. Military Deployment Mean for Asia-Pacific?

November 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama announced Wednesday that more than 2,000 U.S. troops will head to Australia, but he stopped short of saying the move was meant as a message to China. Ray Suarez explores what the move means for regional politics with Jeffrey Bader of The Brookings Institution and John Higley of the University of Texas at Austin.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: For more on President Obama’s trip to Australia and the military agreement, we get two views.

Jeffrey Bader was the senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council from January 2009 until April of this year. He’s now a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution. And John Higley is director and founder of the Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Professor Higley, starting with 250 Marines and aircraft, gradually expanding to 20,500 (sic), President Obama saying, we are here to stay, is this a big development for both countries?

JOHN HIGLEY, University of Texas at Austin: No, I think it’s an incremental step up.

It does have some symbolic value, because it could be seen as a significant step forward. But remember that Australia has had very close relationships with the American military for a long time. Australia’s been our most reliable ally for most of the 20th century, you could say.

And they have had a lot of experience with American troops in Australia. During World War II, about a million American troops funneled through Australia. So this is not a turn in the road in any deep or meaningful sense, but it’s not without its significance either.

RAY SUAREZ: Indeed, this is the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty that tied the United States, New Zealand and Australia together.

Jeffrey Bader, why is this happening? Who threatens Australia?

JEFFREY BADER, former National Security Council official: Well, in part, this is an affirmation of the U.S./Australia alliance.

This is a — as you say, a 60-year-old alliance. Australia contributes more troops to Afghanistan than any other non-NATO country. Australian troops have fought alongside American troops in every war in the last century. So this is an affirmation of the alliance.

But, beyond that, it’s a statement about the U.S. determination to stay in the Asia-Pacific region. We believe that our presence, our security presence, in the Asia-Pacific region is critical to peace and prosperity in the region. It’s helped maintain that peace and prosperity for most of the last 60 years.

The countries in the region welcome our presence there. And they are uneasy about the impact of potential budget cuts on the defense side and what that might mean for deployments of U.S. forces in the region. So by making this announcement today, the president, in essence, is saying that whatever our struggle, our difficulties may be in terms of the defense budget, we are going to keep our deployments west of Hawaii intact.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Higley, you heard Jeffrey Bader use the word presence, just like the president did, but why is it necessary to have a presence? They’re not putting 250 nurses or 250 soccer players there

They’re putting 250 United States Marines, going up to 20,500 (sic), to defend who from what?

JOHN HIGLEY: Well, it’s not, I think, in the first go-round, a defensive move of any significance.

Bear in mind also that there’s going to be additional deployments. It looks like parts of — some vessels in the U.S. Navy will have access to the port in Western Australia that the Australian navy operates. We will have Air Force bomber fighters using a target range in the Northern Territory for practice.

And so I think that what is really being done here is to ratchet up an already close collaboration between the two militaries, and also make it a little bit clearer that the U.S. is, indeed, in Southeast Asia, as well as Northeast Asia, for the long term. And having facilities in Australia drives that point home.

RAY SUAREZ: Much of the world’s commerce moves through the oceans really quite close to Australia. There’s Indonesia, right next door Vietnam and the Philippines. Are other countries interested in having the United States active in the neighborhood?

JEFFREY BADER: When I was in the White House, we heard from pretty much everyone in the neighborhood that they wanted to see us present politically, militarily and economically in the region.

Part of it is they welcome our presence and our values, for the most part. In addition, I think there is a general understanding that the — there are changes going on in Asia, particularly with the rise of China, to some degree the rise of India, the emergence of Indonesia, but above all the rise of China.

And the U.S. presence — and I keep using the word — military, as well as other kinds of presence, provides assurance to countries in the region that they will not be subject to sort of one-sided pressure or influence as China rises.

RAY SUAREZ: Why the worry about China, Professor Higley? It’s a big, powerful and increasingly rich country. Isn’t it just doing what big, powerful and rich countries do and have done since time immemorial?

JOHN HIGLEY: Well, two points.

One is that it is very large and increasingly powerful. Its political future, of course, is extremely murky. We just don’t know what it’s going to look like 10 or 20 years from now politically. But, still, it’s building its military. It does have a bent toward a nationalist justification for the regime.

So, all in all, one wants to be a little bit wary of Chinese intentions.

The other point to make, really quickly, is that, from an Australian perspective, China’s enormously important. It’s the number-one export market for Australia. It’s helped Australia get through the financial crisis with virtually no injury because of booming exports to China.

And so the Australians are also a little bit edgy about the danger of alienating China, or at least raising hackles in Beijing. And that’s another aspect of this particular move that one wants to keep one’s eye on.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Chinese said quite openly that they weren’t very happy about it.

Professor Higley, is there any tension between Australia’s frank and open economic embrace of a future relationship with China, while it has security concerns and is also binding itself closer to the United States?

JOHN HIGLEY: Well, I think that the Chinese were, in fact, briefed by the Australians about this happening. So it’s not exactly a big surprise to Beijing.

The second thing is that the Chinese are in serious need of these exports that Australia sends to them, iron ore, in the immediate future, liquid national — natural gas, LNG, and many other components of the industrial base of China.

So it’s not like they’re in a position to just say, OK, well, we will just cut off all relations with Australia because they’re in the lap of the United States, but one has to, of course, be cautious on both — in both directions here.

RAY SUAREZ: A balancing act for Australia, Jeffrey Bader?

JEFFREY BADER: Well, Ray, this is not unique for countries in the region. Japan’s biggest trading partner in the world is not the United States. It’s China. South Korea’s biggest trading partner is China. India’s biggest trading partner is China. Taiwan’s biggest trading partner is the People’s Republic of China.

So with China’s emergence economically, all the countries in the region are facing these developments and these trends, and they don’t see any contradiction between developing their economic links with China, the trade and investment ties, and having growing security ties with the United States. They think it’s an appropriate balance. They don’t think that they’re choosing sides.

They think that they can have good relations with both China and the United States. There is a certain element of hedging and balancing that these countries are seeking by having the U.S. in the region. That undoubtedly is part of their calculation.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Bader and John Higley, gentlemen, thank you both.

JEFFREY BADER: Thank you, Ray.

JOHN HIGLEY: You’re welcome.