SYDNEY – U.S. President Barack Obama's just-concluded trip to Australia proved far more than a chance to swap notes with an embattled prime minister on antipodean vernacular or the frustrations of democracy, although he did learn that Australian political discourse involves a great deal of "ear-bashing."
The visit was historic on two counts.
It marked a tangibly strengthened alliance, with announcements of much-enhanced access for U.S. forces in Australia's north: a first step toward possible basing arrangements on the territory of an ally that for 60 years has hosted only visits, exercises, and intelligence facilities.
But even more profound was the message that the American president conveyed about U.S. strategy in Asia. In a forthright, only slightly sentimental address to the Australian parliament in Canberra, Obama gave the world the starkest signal yet that, whatever its budgetary woes, the United States is in Asia for good -- in both senses of the word. Obama laid plain the contours of a balancing strategy to deal with a rising China, tempered by renewed efforts at engagement.
"As we end today's wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority," he said. "As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not -- I repeat, will not -- come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific."
An overwhelming majority of Australians support the alliance with Washington, and many are becoming worried about what China's rise will mean for their nation's security. One poll by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute suggests that 55 percent of Australians would accept a U.S. base on Australian territory. Still, some Australians would have been surprised to learn that at the core of Obama's speech in their neat little bush capital was a message aimed not so much at them as at all the powers of Asia, most notably Beijing.
It was, said Obama, "a deliberate and strategic decision -- as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping the region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with allies and friends."
Most Australians live in big multicultural cities and urban corridors along the country's southeastern coastline. The all-too-brief visit -- it was just 28 hours -- skipped what they think of as real Australia. All they saw of the leader of the free world when he came to their country was televised images from places that most of them consider too dull or distant to visit.