WHEN US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell told The Australian in an exclusive interview this week that US foreign policy needed to pivot away from the Middle East and towards Asia, he was giving rare public voice to a widespread view across the Obama administration.
Neither Dr Campbell, nor anyone else in the Obama administration, wants the US to shirk its continuing responsibilities to the Middle East. Nor, indeed, does Asia, not least because of the pivotal role of the Persian Gulf in Asian energy supplies. But the Obama administration understands that in the 21st century, the most important forces of global history will play out in what might now best be termed the Indo-Pacific region, that is, in the great fulcrum encompassing the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.
The US has enormous interests at stake throughout this region, and is essential to its wellbeing, in economic and security terms. A deep realisation of this lay behind the high-level US attendance at the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Perth at the weekend. This dialogue has become a unique and important private initiative in Australian diplomacy that brings together leaders, beyond the scope of government, from both nations.
For Australia, there is an overriding interest in maximising the US position in Asia. This helps ensure the peaceful and constructive integration of China, and also helps the region take full advantage of the emergence of India, the re-entry of Vietnam into mainstream global economic activity, and the continuing success of Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Mainstream Australian policymakers have no interest in the foolish suggestions of some academic commentators that we should ask the US to diminish its position in Asia. Nor does the US budget deficit debate suggest the US will be unable to fill the central role of balancer and stabiliser that it has long played in Asia. In all of this, the relationship between Australia and the US becomes more important, and more intimate. The danger is that too many will take it for granted, whereas such a complex relationship across security, economic, trade, cultural and political fields requires more, not less, attention. The dialogue, and the leadership of officials such as Dr Campbell, suggest this reality is widely understood.