General Richard Myers's recent visit to Australia gave us a glimpse into US thinking about its long-term strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific. The plan for a US-Australian military training facility on our territory is good news for a number of reasons
First, it points to a US desire to work with like-minded countries rather than to act unilaterally. It underlines Washington's engagement in Asia-Pacific security at a time when the region needs that stabilising force. Used cleverly, Australia can build on this idea to increase our leverage in Washington, and help shape US policies in Asia.
Why should a joint training facility be so important? The answer is that we are seeing a rapid shift in US thinking about its military posture in Asia – away from large bases and towards more quickly deployable forces projected from US soil. Overseas bases are costly and, as we see in Japan and South Korea, they can give rise to local tensions. Washington's ability to project power over huge distances, moreover, reduces the need for forward basing.
But US forces still need in-theatre training and to practise operating with friends and allies. US soldiers may be best kept at home, but pre-positioning equipment overseas makes it easier and less costly to do military exercises and to rapidly deploy forces. Although the details have yet to be worked out, one outcome is that Australia might agree to the US pre-positioning a brigade's worth of equipment – enough for 5000 troops. Shoalwater Bay in Queensland would be a sensible location from where US forces could exercise with our 3rd Brigade in Townsville.
America's Asia-Pacific allies are quietly concerned that US troop reductions don't signal a lessening of interest in the region's security. The US assuages the region's worries about China's growing power, about Japan's latent military capability and about rogue states and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Occasional bursts of rhetoric notwithstanding, no country in the region wants to see the US stop playing this stabilising role in Asia-Pacific security.
True, Washington's preoccupation with Iraq might distract attention from other areas. From North Korea to the South Pacific, our region is in a period of strategic uncertainty. But the joint training proposal is a timely indication that the US is still focused on Asian security. We may see a newspaper editorial or two expressing concern, but the region will generally be pleased at this sign of continued US commitment.
This proposal underlines a US interest in working co-operatively with friends and allies. Even though it has the military power to act alone, the US and the world benefits if the US builds and works with coalitions of like-minded states. Like its growing relationship with Singapore, a joint exercise facility with Australia signals a US commitment to working in coalitions and, by extension, to engaging with Australian policy makers on security issues. That's more desirable than self-contained US bases, whether in Asia or the US.
For Australia, it is valuable that the US wants to include us as an early and close partner in reshaping the American strategic posture in Asia. This proposal says much that is positive about the alliance relationship. It also points to opportunities that, with some clever diplomacy from Canberra, could help us to shape the alliance in ways that even more effectively help our interests.
For example, Canberra has for years argued that the US needs to take a much closer interest in South-East Asia in general and Indonesia in particular. A closer training relationship bringing larger numbers of US forces to Australia can only strengthen this argument with Washington.
So Canberra should use this development to engage with the US policy establishment on a broader front, thinking through the challenges we both face – from terrorism to failed states and the rise of new powers. We often claim to have special access and influence in Washington, and that is true. But do we use that access well enough? Here we have a chance to break some new ground.
Of course, America's usual detractors will say that our relationship is too close, that we should be more "independent" and focus more on Asia. These are threadbare arguments. For decades, Australian governments on both sides of the political divide have successfully worked to avoid having to choose between Asia and the US. No one says our independence is compromised because we allow the Singaporeans to maintain jet aircraft and other combat gear here.
Far from reducing our influence in Asia, Australia's strong military alliance with the US underpins our weight in the region. We have closer and more comprehensive security links with many regional countries than they do with each other. Many see our military ties with the US as a good reason for exercising with our defence force.
Overall, the idea for a joint military training facility shows that we are keeping our alliance with the US in good order and looking to the demands of the future rather than the successes of the past.