Obama, Gillard and the ‘Special Relationship’ across the Pacific

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair and George W. Bush: these defining relationships between the leaders of the United Kingdom and the United States have, in recent history, drastically shaped major foreign policy outcomes and fostered close-knit ties between the US and Europe.


Photo courtesy of White House, public domain.

Bonded by their Anglo-Saxon heritage, unwavering economic ties, and often dependable war alliances, the US and the UK have always maintained a ‘special relationship’ in global affairs. Recently, however, that relationship has been tested by President Obama’s so-called ‘pivot’ towards Asia. For the UK, and Europe as a whole, the US geopolitical pivot towards the Pacific has been viewed with some concern and trepidation.  The historically steadfast relationship between Europe and the US has been marred by the inability to stem the burgeoning global debt crisis due to a planned drawdown of US military bases throughout Western Europe by the US Department of Defence and diverging economic philosophies regarding government austerity measures.

Both the tenebrous global economic outlook and China’s rising military strength have prompted the Obama administration to look to the Pacific not only to protect and seek out greater business ties in emerging Asian markets, but also to contain China’s military actions in the region. Indeed, several recent naval spats between the Chinese navy and its neighbouring states over disputed islands in the South China and East China Seas have garnered greater US attention in the area.

Rooted in nationalist sentiments and recent geological studies showing significant oil and natural gas deposits around the various disputed islands, regional allies such as Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan have tepidly welcomed renewed US interest in the region as a way to both mediate and contain Chinese military ambitions.

With major established military bases in Guam, Japan, and South Korea, the US has continued to build up its Pacific presence with a 2011 security agreement between the US and Australia. Much to the chagrin of Chinese officials, both states agreed to allow pre-positioning of US military personnel, aircraft, and vessels in and around Australian ports in Northern Australia. The agreement includes an initial phase of 250 US marines being stationed at an Australian base in the port-city of Darwin, eventually building up to a 2,500-person Marine Air Ground Task Force. The new marines will join the thousands already stationed throughout the Asia-Pacific region, home to two-thirds of all US marines stationed abroad.

Building on the 61 year old Australia, New Zealand, US Security (ANZUS) Treaty, the Obama administration has sought to use existing American military ties to Australia as a way of reasserting US influence in Asia. President Obama has also reinforced this strategic geopolitical shift by cultivating a close working relationship with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The working relationship between the two leaders was exemplified in a much-anticipated and twice-postponed trip by President Obama to Australia in November 2011, where he outlined the new security agreement between the two countries and addressed a joint-session of parliament in Canberra.

Both leaders share similar backgrounds as political pioneers- Prime Minister Gillard as the first Australian female Prime Minister, Barack Obama as the first African-American president. Both leaders are also the same age and have similar centre-left political viewpoints.  Their personal relationship builds on the close, albeit politically opposite, relationship seen between former Prime Minister John Howard and President George W Bush during the early 2000s.

For the Obama administration, Australia remains a vital strategic ally with similar Anglo-Saxon and ideological roots in a region that will not only shape major foreign policy issues in the decades to come, but may also seem unfamiliar to an America that has traditionally sought out closer ties across the Atlantic.

Given that China has recently become Australia’s top trading partner, Prime Minister Gillard and President Obama are both managing to walk a fine line in maintaining strong business ties with China, while also attempting to limit a growing Chinese military.

Prime Minister Gillard’s strategic rationale in signing the security cooperation agreement with the US may lie in the fear that China’s military capacity may destabilise maritime trade routes that Australian and American trade rely so heavily on. As Prime Minister Gillard noted in the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Hawaii, “It’s possible for us to have an ally in Washington and a friend in Beijing.”

As Peter Kenyon, professor of economic policy at Curtin University’s Graduate School of Business, similarly noted in a recent Bloomberg article, “Australia can act as a conduit for ideas from the US and China, and discretely report back to each side through diplomatic relationships.”

President Obama too has been careful to avoid labelling the security agreement as an attempt to contain China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific region. Knowing the vital role China plays in sustaining Australia’s vast mining industry, President Obama was quoted as saying that “the notion we are looking to exclude China is mistaken.” He added, however, that “China must play by the rules of the road.”

It is clear that both President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard find in each other a sense of ideological congruency and strategic friendship. What remains unclear is the action China may take in the face of such growing security cooperation and whether this budding working relationship can weather upcoming elections in both countries that may end their political lives.

US-Australian ties may not supplant the deep-seeded relationship between that of the US and the UK, but President Obama has continued to work closely with Prime Minister Gillard to adjust US foreign policy toward the Pacific. As Obama stated on his 2011 visit to Canberra, “We are here to stay. This is a region of huge strategic importance to us…We will make sure we are able to fulfil our leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region.”