NEWS ANALYSIS: Australia Set to Play Crucial Role in Asia-Pacific

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By Devinder Kumar

As the world's axis pivots from West to East, and concerns grow over China, Australia is emerging as "a highly attractive partner" of the United States, says a new report, adding that due to its strong ties with rising powers such as India and Indonesia, and its positioning at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Canberra will have an immensely positive influence on regional developments and stability in Asia.

Authored by Iskander Rehman, a research fellow with the Transatlantic Academy (TA) in Washington, the paper says: "For many years Australia floated on the edge of much of the western world's mental map. All this is changing now however, in large part due to Australia's new centrality in an Asia-Pacific Century."

Titled 'From Down Under to Top Center', the report outlines the reasons behind Australia's transition from the edge to the centre and delves into the history of Australian strategic culture in order to assess current trends in Canberra's geopolitical positioning and defence reforms. Building on the Pentagon's new AirSea Battle Concept (ASBC), it attempts to outline what kind of war-fighting role Australia could have in the event of a conflict with China.

The U.S. strategy entitled 'AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept' was first released by the 'Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments' in May 2010, and it is currently being red-teamed and integrated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force "in an attempt to reconcile two hard truths: the relative stagnation of the U.S. naval force level in Asia, and the great strides China has made in the field of anti-access and area denial," writes Rehman.

ASBC states that "Australia would provide strategic depth and capable forces for peripheral campaigns, perhaps involving sea control and support operations in the eastern Indian Ocean, Oceania and the South China Sea."

The report's author points to some important areas of potential cooperation that are laid out in the ASBC:
- Partner with the United States and Japan in developing the next-generation anti-ship/anti-surface cruise missile;
- Support its fielding a fifth-generation fighter force to support combined air superiority and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations;
- Join the U.S. space surveillance system and build an S-Band radar (used by communications satellites, especially those used by NASA to communicate with the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station) to improve southern hemisphere Space Situational Awareness; and
- Establish an offshore node for the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center to create a Combined Space Operations Center, thereby improving operational integration and enhancing C2 (command and control) survivability.

Rehman writes: "These are broad brush stokes, that lay out valid and interesting ideas for an Australian involvement in a regionalized AirSea Battle framework."

The proposed military cooperation with the U.S. will be facilitated by the fact that "shedding antiquated paradigms, Australia has emerged as a maritime nation in the making, an important actor at the heart of the Asia-Pacific Century rather than an isolated hinterland clinging onto its edge."

He adds: "The vast continent's western shore booms with the echoes of the forgotten ocean, and Australia, by tearing its gaze away from its traditional Pacific horizon, has reacquainted itself with its Asian centrality."

It is this same centrality, when combined with its strategic depth and growing concerns over China's rise that ensures its emergence as the United States' strongest ally in the Asia-Pacific region, says the paper.

Rehman says that Australia's efforts to develop a 21st century force structure emphasize both the virtues of self-reliance and the need for greater synergy with United States and allied forces operating under the mantle of an enlarged AirSea battle framework.

"Canberra’s warfighting prowess and operational flexibility will guarantee both its survivability in the face of strategic uncertainty, and its continued value as a major U.S. ally," he adds.

"This solidifying strategic convergence between both English-speaking nations will have an immensely positive influence on regional developments and global stability. Australia's deep enmeshment in Asia, and increasingly close ties with countries such as Indonesia, may well prove to be its greatest asset. At the intersection of two worlds, Australia will also be their bridge, linking the West with an Asian hemisphere slowly pulling away from the Middle Kingdom's orbit," says Rehman referring to China.

Canberra's new special relationship with Washington is one that will both be attuned to the realities of an Asia-Pacific century and help define it, he adds. "This will not necessarily happen at the expense of the U.S.-UK relationship, but rather will form the Asian wing of the Democratic Anglosphere, which has formed the inner core of the U.S. system of alliances since its inception."

This will in time lead to the emergence of a form of division of labour, or geographical differentiation between both strategic relationships. The U.S.-UK special relationship will still be highly invested in issues pertaining to the more traditional Atlantic and Mediterranean regions, while the area 'East of Suez' will be the focus of the strengthened U.S.- Australia alliance, predicts the report.

The report sees in the recent U.S. decision to let Great Britain and France spearhead the intervention in Libya the first glimpse into this new division of labour which will, by virtue of necessity, come to characterise Western action in a multi-polar world.

"At the time of the Raj, the British Viceroy would preside over the future of Asia from the small Indian hilltop town of Simla and the bustling streets of Delhi or Calcutta, while far to the West, the intricacies of European and Mediterranean geopolitics would be unravelled in the gilded halls of Westminster," Rehman recalls.

"In a similar fashion, the United States will only remain a global power if its strategic vision is buttressed by a transpacific, as well as by a transatlantic special relationship," states the report published in May 2011 by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a non-partisan American public policy and grant making institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues.

In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has six offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

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