Australia's old ties with U.S. deepened in the past decade

Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin but hasn't shown China favor.
Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin but hasn't shown China favor. (Jay Mallin/bloomberg News)
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By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA -- On succeeding days in October 2003, then-President George W. Bush was heckled in Australia's Parliament and China's president, Hu Jintao, received a standing ovation. The events were widely seen as a crystallization of the slide in American influence over its longtime ally in the Pacific.

But behind the scenes, the United States and Australia were working to strengthen their security and intelligence ties with a view to countering a rising China.

Canberra's ties to Washington have always been close. U.S. troops served under an Australian commander in World War I. Australians have fought on the U.S. side in every war since World War II. But the past decade has seen, in the words of Michael Thawley, the former Australian ambassador to the United States, "a dramatic upgrading of defense and intelligence relations."

Soon after the two countries celebrated the 50th anniversary of their alliance in 2001, they began to bolster their military alliance and started negotiations on a free-trade agreement. Australia sent its vaunted special forces to fight in Iraq, and they continue to do battle in Afghanistan. Bush and Howard became not only partners but close friends. Howard was dubbed, not always flatteringly, Bush's "deputy sheriff."

Australia in 2005 became one of the few countries to have a special U.S. immigration category of its own -- the E-3 visa that grants 10,500 young Australians the right to work in the United States for at least two years.

The Bush administration also made it easier for Australian defense companies to obtain American military technology. The United States provided Australia's navy with equipment to make its submarines run quieter. The two countries expanded their satellite intelligence gathering operation, the Joint Defense Space Research Facility, in central Australia, and the United States granted Australia -- along with Britain -- almost unfettered access to real-time military intelligence.

In September 2007, Bush and Howard signed the U.S.-Australia Treaty on Defense Trade Cooperation although it awaits ratification in the U.S. Senate.

When Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007, "the Chinese thought they had a golden strategic opportunity to pluck Australia from the U.S. embrace," said Andrew Shearer, a former national security official in Australia now of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. But China bet wrong.

In April of last year, Rudd's government announced a massive military expansion, including 100 new F-35 fighters, a doubling of the submarine fleet, cruise missiles and powerful new surface warships. U.S. defense contractors will provide much of the equipment or the designs.

"China will also be the strongest Asian military power, by a considerable margin," the Defense Ministry said in a report. "But the pace, scope and structure of China's military modernization have the potential to give its neighbors cause for concern if not carefully explained."

Polling by the Lowy Institute over the past five years has documented a significant shift in Australia's mood away from China. In last year's poll, more than half of the respondents said they were uncomfortable with China's rise. By way of comparison, the poll indicated that support for the alliance with the United States was the highest since the think-tank began asking the question in 2006. President Obama is scheduled to visit Australia in March.

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