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Military ties that bind us

By Peter Jennings

The Australian, p10

Late last month the Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, announced two senior defence positions at the US Pacific Command Headquarters (PACOM) in Hawaii would be filled by Australians.

This is important. PACOM commands more than 328,000 service personnel, six times the size of the Australian Defence Force, and runs US military relations from California to India, an area central to its prosperity and security.

That Australian personnel will be entrusted with two critical leadership positions in PACOM is testimony to the growing closeness of our alliance with the US.

We are valued as an ally because we took on serious combat roles in Afghanistan and boosted our co-operation with a growing US marine corps in northern Australia.

These developments benefit both countries and the Asia-Pacific because they sustain a reassuring US military presence at a time of increasing regional concern about the growth of Chinese military power and growing regional tensions. That explains why Singapore, The Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and India are rapidly strengthening defence co-operation with the US, and why Washington is investing heavily in building better channels of military communication with Beijing.

Australia is well placed to play a more influential role shaping regional stability, a by-product of our closeness with the US.

That said, warning bells should be ringing in Canberra. Our very closeness means increasing expectations are being placed on Australia by Washington about our roles and responsibilities. These must be handled with care.

A first point of concern is that assessments of strategic developments in the region seem to be diverging. This may be a superficial difference but contrast recent statements on regional security. Australia's recent National Security Strategy is relentlessly "glass half full" in describing what Julia Gillard called a "largely positive" and "relatively benign" strategic outlook. This contrasts sharply with testimony provided on March 5 by Admiral Samuel Locklear, the PACOM commander to the powerful House Armed Services Committee.

Locklear characterised the "Indo-Asia-Pacific region" to congress as "the world's most militarised region", stressing its "unique strategic complexity", which magnified "a wide, diverse, group of challenges that can significantly stress the security environment".

Challenges ranged from North Korea's third nuclear test to the expansive proliferation of submarines, growing concerns about aggressive cyber intrusions and a remarkable increase in the use of improvised explosive devices in South and Southeast Asia. Although Locklear did identify positive strategic trends -- Myanmar's partial liberalisation high among them -- the view from PACOM is much more cautious than Canberra's.

This will be a challenge for our new deputy of intelligence at PACOM. More important, Canberra and Washington can't afford to drift apart. At a political level we need to be certain we are on the same page.

Locklear's congressional testimony points to another potential problem: cuts in defence funding. He warned that cuts to PACOM military exercises and regional engagement could slow the US policy of rebalancing its forces to the Asia-Pacific. Although the Australian government struggles to make a similar public acknowledgment, our defence funding cuts could likewise slow enhanced co-operation with the US in northern Australia.

It would be nothing short of a disaster if a slowing momentum in support for the enhanced defence co-operation with the US meant that planned co-operation was delayed or cut.

Senior US officials in Washington have been puzzled by a perceived cooling of Australian support for enhanced co-operation. At last November's AUSMIN meeting in Perth the effect was comical as Bob Carr and Stephen Smith stressed the "business as usual" nature of the meeting while Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta enthused about new defence and space cooperation.

The next AUSMIN, likely to be in the US towards the end of this year, needs to clarify what priority the allies put on expanded co-operation in northern Australia. Both countries should find the resources to speed up, not slow down, co-operation.

US policymakers understand that the debate about the supposed need to choose between our economic interests with China and strategic engagement with the US does not, and will not, have traction in policy circles.

But the penny has still to drop in Canberra that the price of closeness with the US is higher American expectations of what capacities we will bring to the defence table.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary in the Department of Defence.

Originally published by: External link on 02 Apr 2013