Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 13:44 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 13:44 | SYDNEY

War talk could boomerang on Australia


Nick Bryant


18 November 2011 12:25

The thunder of the 21-gun salute. The solemnity of a wreath-laying ceremony at the Australian War Memorial. The quiet poignancy of the visit to the USS Peary memorial in Darwin. The campaign-style pep rally for diggers who had recently returned from Afghanistan. And, of course, the potentially provocative announcement of a permanent American troop presence at the Top End.

I am struggling to recall a presidential visit to a peaceful nation in recent times that has had a more determinedly martial look and feel.

Then there was the rhetoric. The touchstone for all the speeches from Barack Obama, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott was the unique experience of shared combat in every major US conflict of the past 100 years.

All this was leavened by a trip to a Canberra high school, a playful, ocker-rich speech in the Great Hall of Parliament House, and the Governor General's speedy costume changes. But there is a precision and intent to the intricate choreography of a presidential visit. Though this one only lasted 30 hours, it was intended to demonstrate the tightness, historical underpinnings and shared sacrifice of a 60-year old military alliance; and also that China should take note.

Blood is more binding than ore. Values, too. Or, as the president put it in one of the most pointed lines of his speech to parliament: 'partnerships can't just be about one nation extracting another's resources.'

When Barack Obama made his way into the entrance hall of Parliament House on Wednesday afternoon and took an inordinately long time to sign the visitors' book, I confess that a mischievous thought crossed my mind: that he was penning a response to Hugh White's Quarterly Essay, Power Shift. But of course Julia Gillard had already done that for him.

This trip confirms what had already been widely trailed: that she has emphatically rejected the notion that Australia should reposition itself so that it is somehow equidistant between America and China. From their hugs to their kisses on both cheeks, the tactile body language of the president and prime minister also conveyed that Australia and America have joined in an even tighter embrace.

On the eve of the president's visit, Julia also went significantly further by reaching out to India, thus fueling talk of a strategy of encirclement. The overturning of the uranium ban would also pave the way for a new triangular frame in which Australia relies for its security on America, its prosperity on China and looks to India for a combination of the two. There's the commercial aspect to the potential Delhi deal and, of course, India's US-backed role as an emerging economic and geopolitical counterweight to China. Might historians of Australian diplomacy one day come to regard the announcement on uranium exports to India as just as significant, if not more so, than the rotational Marine deployment in Darwin? Economists surely will.

The timing of Julia Gillard's India move, a day before Air Force One touched down in Canberra, was a diplomatic inversion of the Howard Government's approach to George W Bush's visit in 2003. Then, the vapour trails of the president's 747 had only just disappeared when Chinese President Hu Jintao took his place in the well of the House of Representatives, the highpoint of John Howard's engagement with the Chinese.

So if this was the trip that Barack Obama tried to present himself as the Pacific president, it was also the week in which Julia Gillard tried to cast herself as a truly Indo-Pacific prime minister. What makes Gillard's initiative all the more remarkable is that Kevin Rudd was not even consulted on the biggest foreign policy turnaround since Labor came to office. It's staggering — a slight and a slap.

Beijing has already signaled its displeasure that up to 2500 US Marines will be stationed in Darwin by 2017. 'It may not be appropriate to strengthen and extend this military alliance,' noted its foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, 'and may not be in the interest of countries within this region.' China's People's Daily was even more blunt, warning that Australia risked being 'caught in the crossfire.'

Barack Obama is not the first US president to use a speech in Canberra to signal an intensified US commitment to Asia – or to 'pivot', to deploy the diplomatic word of the week. When he became the first president to address a joint sitting of parliament in January 1992, George Herbert Walker Bush produced a similar kind of pirouette and delivered his very own 'Pacific Pledge'. (Alas, Bush's 1992 Asian tour lives in the memory for his visit to Tokyo, when he threw up over the Japanese prime minister – a clip played, well, ad nauseam, on the late-night comedy shows.)

Bush 41, who was beaten in that November's presidential election by Bill Clinton, never got the opportunity to make good on his Pacific promise, largely because his successes in the foreign realm, from the first Gulf War to the reunification of Germany, were overwhelmed by his failure to revive an ailing American economy. Barack Obama, whose foreign record is also arguably stronger than his domestic one, will be hoping that the historical parallel ends there.

Obama seemed in campaign mode again in his final appearance at that aircraft hanger in Darwin draped with giant Australian and American flags. 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie', he shouted, continuing his exploration of the local vernacular. 'Ear-bashing' was his undoubted favourite. But there is another Australian word that Australian critics of the enhanced American presence might themselves come to deploy: boomerang.

Photo courtesy of the White House.