Monday, 21 May 2012

Rising Australia, marginalised Pakistan, and the US strategic realignment

Alongside the Group of Eight (G8), the United States hosted the NATO Summit over the weekend. Both are two important gatherings of the world’s most powerful leaders, bringing them together to focus on critical global issues such as the global Economic Crisis and the military operations in South Asia. The NATO Summit will be especially important as the Afghanistan departure timeline for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will be discussed.

The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is among the notable major non-NATO ally invitations to the Summit in Chicago. Ms Gillard’s attendance reflects the Australian Defence Forces contribution to the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. Given the recent positive political overtures between Washington and Canberra in 2012, it is not surprising the Australian leader was invited.

Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari, seen in May 2011
Washington has created an agreement with Canberra for 2,500 Marines to deploy in the Australian Northern Territory by 2016-17, with the first 250 already arrived near the Australian city of Darwin.

The US government is also discussing leasing arrangements with Canberra to potentially base troops on the Cocos Islands, a small archipelago located almost 3000 kilometres (1800 miles) from Perth in the Indian Ocean.

Because the islands are too far from any economically important waterways, such as the Strait of Malacca, to be strategically convenient there is some speculation the islands could be used for US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance of ocean transit routes. UAVs flying from the Cocos Islands will broaden the coverage of the Indian Ocean currently being surveilled from Diego Garcia, the US airbase and listening station.

Japan and Australia on May 18 also signed an intelligence-sharing agreement, Japan Today reported. Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba met in Tokyo to sign the agreement. The two nations are strategic partners and need to increase the strength of their security relationship, Mr Gemba said.

This and other agreements are increasing Australian confidence in the Asia-Pacific region. Canberra is also re-engaging its near-abroad and assisting in security in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, long considered by successive Australian governments as marginal threats. But as Chinese economic power in the Melanesian Island chain rises, Canberra's continuing sanctions of the Fiji junta will do nothing to counteract Chinese influence and fails to meaningfully advance diplomatic relations between Suva and Canberra.

Australia is not threatened by Fiji, but it does have interests there. The small island nation is governed by a military junta which plans to draft a constitution by early 2013. Australia has diplomatically maligned Fiji because of the junta but the re-focusing of US strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region, and the changing dynamics of Australia-US and Fiji-US bilateral relations, is encouraging Canberra to at least demonstrate that it is working on improving security in the region by finding agreement with Suva.

NATO supply convoy en route to Afghanistan 
Canberra is rethinking its strategy towards Suva as a policy of self-preservation. Australia does not have the resources to design a defence force to confront the growing Chinese naval influence, and must rely on US protection.

However, Australia has plenty of experience in the Melanesian Island chain to assist Washington as it escalates its presence there in the coming years. But aside from leasing geographically important real-estate to the US government and supplying cultural knowledge and intelligence, Canberra can do little else to effectively assist the US.

This leaves Australia in the awkward position of needing US protection for its interests yet without the ability to reciprocate effectively outside its own economic zones, leaving it largely dependent on the Washington’s strategic focus.

Canberra is trying to offset this dependency by purchasing advanced military hardware to bolster its force projection and is starting to advance relations with neighbouring island nations like Fiji. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s inclusion in the recent NATO Summit can be viewed as a reflection of Canberra’s increasing importance in the global community, especially to Washington.

Perhaps the most notable event in Chicago’s NATO Summit is the US refusal to initially invite Pakistan to the talks. While NATO eventually rescinded and invited Islamabad, US-Pakistan tensions were distastefully apparent. US President Barack Obama refused to see Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, during the talks because Mr Zardari arrived without intention to discuss the closed NATO supply route through Pakistan, The Guardian reported May 21.

The locked supply routes have forced US Central Command (CENTCOM) and ISAF forces to rely on the expensive Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that runs mostly overland through Russia and Central Asian states from ports in the Baltic and Black Seas.

Mr Obama attended the NATO Summit but Mr Zardari had to meet on the sidelines with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, an indication of US frustration with Pakistan. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said May 20, that NATO cannot solve the Afghanistan problem without Islamabad, and that the reopening of the supply route was crucial. Mr Zardari rejoined briefly that US drone strikes inside Pakistan are a serious compounding factor to the route remaining closed

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Islamabad closed the Pakistan Supply Route on November 26, 2011 after a border skirmish resulted in 26 Pakistani troops killed by US gunfire. Pakistan also called for the cessation of UAV flights from Pakistani airbases in retaliation to the border strikes, backtracking later after intense US pressure. Focused diplomacy between the US and Pakistani governments are currently trying to reopen the supply route.

Pakistan is unlikely to remain so immovable on this issue, but if the behaviour of and tensions between NATO and Islamabad on the weekend are indicative of anything, it is that Pakistan holds the advantage geographically over ISAF. Ultimately it will be poverty and government deficits in Pakistan that will force Pakistani leaders to open the route once more. But it is a good bet that Islamabad will use their power of closure to squeeze more beneficial concessions from Washington. 

Australia and Pakistan are two nations separated by both culture and distance, yet they share a common interaction with the world’s only superpower. Pakistan has more control over its predicament than Australia, as shown by the recent supply route spat, but it is still only a temporarily useful country for Washington. Once the Afghan theatre closes in late 2014, US military aid should drop significantly.

However, Australia is a politically mature country and has some of the resources to become a significant regional player. Likewise, Pakistan has used the US distraction in Afghanistan to attract billions of dollars of US aid to build up an effective military-intelligence apparatus poised to dominate Afghanistan once the US end combat operations in 2014.

But that is where the similarities end. Canberra and Islamabad are treated very differently by Washington, and ultimately it will be Australia that receives long-term meaningful US support. While Pakistan will probably fade into a power-balance with India, effectively locking it up for the future. Just as Washington intends.

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