Obama’s speech to Parliament: experts respond

President Barack Obama meets Julia Gillard’s queenmakers: independent MPs Rob Oakeshott, left, and Tony Windsor today. AAP/Alan Porritt.

Fighting wars together, free trade, China, and the fact that US is a Pacific power “here to stay” are some of topics covered by President Barack Obama in his speech this morning to the Australian Federal Parliament. Senator Bob Brown did not interject.

Experts respond:


Professor Geoffrey Garrett, CEO of the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Barack Obama’s speech to Parliament justly celebrated the deep history of abiding friendship, shared values and sixty years of the ANZUS alliance between the United States and Australia. But the President quickly moved on to bigger game. Call it a clear statement of the new Obama Doctrine.

The President said, using an American poker metaphor, that the US is “all in” regarding its strategic pivot away from George W Bush’s war on terrorism and towards the Asia Pacific where America knows the history of the 21st century will be written. The US goal, as a “Pacific nation”, is to realise the “vast potential” of the region. But how?

Here’s the rub. Obama said the US’s overriding objective is to promote not only peace and prosperity but also human dignity, with political liberties and economic freedoms looming large. This means working with America’s allies (like Australia and Japan) and new friends (like India and Indonesia) – its values and interests coalition – both on a US-led economic agenda (the Trans Pacific Partnership) and on greater military cooperation with the US (as in the new “permanent rotation” of marines through Australia’s top end).

China stands on the outside looking in. If it plays be “the rules”, Obama said, China would be welcome to join the club. But the price would be high. China would have to temper its assertiveness over sovereignty issues on the South China Sea. It would also have to float its currency, improve intellectual property protections, and increase access to its market for foreign companies.

No wonder the immediate Chinese response has been frosty. But the US strategy looks less like cold war containment than an effort to “socialise” China, already a central player in the global economy, into accepting a set of rules that Obama said are not America’s but rather are shared by most of the world.

Time will tell if this socialisation strategy works, but Australia is clearly buying in.

Indeed, after several days of good press for “Julia” as the President calls her, Tony Abbott sought to one up the Government in his parliamentary welcome to Obama. Abbott said the Coalition not only supports the new rotation of Marines but also would go further to offer the possibility of a fully joint military facility with the US on Australian soil.

After a decade of the war on terrorism, welcome to the Asia Pacific Obama doctrine.

Chinese Australians welcome China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval training ship the Zhenghe as it docks at Garden Island in Sydney last year. AAP/Dean Lewins