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Obama’s speech to Parliament: experts respond

Fighting wars together, free trade, China, and the fact that US is a Pacific power “here to stay” are some of topics covered…

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

Brendan O'Connor, Associate Professor in American Politics, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Barack Obama’s speech to the Australian parliament was a meaningful speech which charts the future direction of US foreign policy. He strongly re-affirmed the Australian-American alliance, stating that it has never been stronger. He drew on the familiar themes of shared history and values as the underpinning of the alliance. This argument was often made by conservative politicians like George W. Bush and John Howard. However Obama added his own touch to this claim talking about the shared multicultural values and the respect for the rights of women and indigenous people. His broader comments hit on the typical US foreign policy themes of spreading freedom and democracy which presidents Clinton and George W Bush regularly spoke of. However once again he added his own dimension talking about the importance of fairness as the US promotes this greater growth and democracy.

In keeping with recent announcements from Hillary Clinton, Obama emphasised that American attention was now principally focused on the Asia Pacific region. Talk from Washington about an Asia Pacific century acknowledges that the somewhat arrogantly referred to American century has passed and the US will soon be sharing its top billing with the new superpower of China. Although the announcement of more US troops in Australia can be seen as an offensive decision by some of our neighbours, the bigger story is one of an Asia Pacific partnership between the United States and China. We are finally starting to see the emergence of President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine rather than a foreign policy aimed at mopping up the decisions made by his predecessors.

“The United States is a Pacific power”. A plaque in memory of the last Queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, whose overthrow in 1893 was swiftly followed by the US annexation of the Hawaiian nation. Flickr/jondresner

Dr Scott Burchill, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Deakin University

Obama’s boilerplate speech to the Australian Parliament was remarkable for its absence of new initiatives or new ideas.

It reaffirmed existing US strategic and economic doctrines, restating (to China and others) that Washington intends to maintain its full spectrum dominance of the Asia-Pacific. That is what he means by “shaping the region” and increasing the capacity of the US to “project power in the region.” Obama ruled out, once and for all, the idea of a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific and, by rotating US Marines through Darwin, has enlisted Canberra’s co-operation in this venture.

Although Obama mentioned a “shift to the Asia-Pacific”, in reality the US had never moved away even when it was intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington has global interests which it intends to preserve. We should not flatter ourselves in thinking we are now at the top of his dance ticket. Every other ally of the United States feels much the same way, especially when he pays them a visit.

History may be “on the side of the free”, but if you ask a Shi'ite in Bahrain about the benefits of being a US ally in 2011, to take just one obvious example where Washington has recently opposed freedom, human rights and democracy, he might consider himself to be on the wrong side of Obama’s version of modern history.

Manila in ruins during 1945’s victorious effort by US forces to retake their colony, the Philippines, from Japanese forces who had seized the archipelago from the US in 1942. More than 100,000 Filipinos died in Manila during the climactic battle. Flickr/John T Pilot

David Goodman, Professor of Chinese Politics, Acting Director of China Studies Centre

It’s a great shame that there was not more public debate about the decision to have a greater US military presence in Australia. Soundings in Beijing suggest that the People’s Republic of China has decided to regard this move as not part of its core agenda and so therefore unlikely to deflect economic interactions between the Australia and China. At the same time, there may be those in Australia who would prefer not to be so much part of a US military alliance, or indeed may prefer closer relations with the People’s Republic of China than with the USA. Denying that debate sits poorly with the claim that Australia and the USA represent good examples of open politics.

A Chinese trawler attempts to snag a listening device being towed by the US Navy’s ocean surveillance ship, USNS Impeccable, in the South China Sea, about 120 kilometres south of Hainan Island, in 2009. AAP/EPA/US Navy Visual News Service

Dr Timothy Lynch, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

The US President offered, perhaps, the clearest statement of an ‘Obama Doctrine’. To paraphrase: the Asia Pacific is the rising centre of global power and the United States will seek to lead in it, not be displaced by it. America is a Pacific power (China be on guard) and we intend to stick around and shape the region in our image rather than defer to values that are not our own. Those who do not rule with the will of people will be overtaken by them (again China be on guard).

The speech and doctrine was far less grounded in a liberal illusion of Obama as a cosmopolitan-in-chief. His public diplomacy on this trip was meant less to reassure and more to make plain America’s intent to augment its hard military power in Australia’s backyard. His believe in the efficacy of hard power is one of the most underappreciated aspect of his presidency.

He has feigned a reluctance to use hard power belied by his actual preferences. He killed Osama bin Laden, invaded Libya (with UN approval) leading to regime change (without UN approval), he has put troops into Uganda, he has killed more terrorists with Drones in his almost three years in office than the ‘war monger’ Bush did in his entire eight. His visit to Australia has an avowed military emphasis – visiting the war memorial and announcing Darwin’s complicity in America’s revised military project in the Asia Pacific.

He has offered and is delivering a more competent version of the Bush Doctrine.

Thermonuclear power in the Pacific. After taking control of the Marshall Islands - which were inhabited by Micronesian people - from the Japanese, who had taken them from the Germans, the US used them as an open-air testing range for hydrogen bombs in the 1950s. The explosion here is from a blast code-named Castle Bravo. Wikimedia Commons/United States Department of Energy

Dr David Palmer, Senior Lecturer in American Studies, Flinders University

Obama’s new policy is a major shift in US strategic policy, in military terms and geopolitical terms. It is probably the biggest shift for the US since World War II - a move away from Europe and the Middle East toward the Asia Pacific. Australia will become the most important US “strategic base” location on the globe. We will become the equivalent of what Germany was in the Cold War era, except that our geography makes us far more secure, and we are not divided as Germany was with East and West.

It is also a way of the US saying that if there is another major war, it will be with China. It is an extremely disturbing development, and a complete abrogation of Australian sovereignty. However, it is consistent with a long tradition in Australia - the “White Australia” policy: Europe “whites” versus “non-white” Asia (China in particular). PM Gillard is reviving a distant Labor Party tradition, one that we’ve also seen echoed in her advocacy of offshore refugee processing in Malaysia. President Obama is perfect for this transition because of his ethnic background and color - much as President Nixon was perfect for opening up China for the US because of his conservative credentials.

Military and intelligence operations and contracting will now become a major sector of our economy, which is part of Gillard’s rationale for the arrangement. The uranium sales to India (another anti-China ally in all this) is just one aspect of how this is unfolding. The paradox in all this is that Australia’s economy is now heavily dependent on sales of minerals and coal to China, just as it is a paradox that the massive US federal budget deficit is underwritten by China’s purchasing US treasury bonds (China is the largest holder of US bond, Japan is second largest holder).

While Europe crumbles economically and the US stagnates, the class divide greater than at any time since the Great Depression, China continues to surge, and even Japan is experiencing good economic growth despite the massive hit the country took from the tsunami and Fukushima disasters. East Asia and the Western Pacific region are now at the forefront of the world economy, with Australia on the edge of this, riding along with China’s continued boom.

Today’s New York Times ran the story “US sees China everywhere” and noted the significance of resources in the seas surrounding China. “Over the past year and a half, China has moved to assert territorial claims in the resource-rich but hotly contested waters near the Philippines and Vietnam. Many of the region’s smaller countries have asked Washington to re-engage in the region as a counterweight.”

Clearly this is an economic power struggle between China and the US in the region, with the US behind at present. However, China will view the East Asia Pacific region as its “sphere of influence”, not that of the US. This will only increase tensions in the region, especially because China does not have any military bases in the region, in contrast to extensive US military presence. It doesn’t need them because its economic power has become so overwhelming regionally. However, the history of wars, including World War II, have always had economic rivalry between big powers as its underpinning. Australia should be neutral in the current environment, but instead the Gillard government is taking great risks by allowing an open door for unfettered US military operations and bases here. While President Obama says the US is not setting up its “own” base in Darwin but merely using Australian facilities, this is disingenuous because it amounts to little more than subcontracting. This development, in reality, will establish a permanent US military base on Australian soil. And it will only be the beginning.

Comments welcome below.