At Large

A Deal Down Under

Australia's Prime Minister has been an ally. Will his successor be?

By 7.19.06

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There has been much speculation in Australia about a secret deal to transfer power from current Prime Minister John Howard to his deputy, Peter Costello, before next year's parliamentary elections. On July 6, the Associated Press reported that Howard now denies that such a deal has been struck. Whether a deal is in the works or not depends on who you ask, but one thing is clear: whoever sits as Prime Minister after the 2007 elections must continue to be an instrumental ally of the United States in both the region, and increasingly on a global scale.

Costello, who since the mid-1990s has acted as both Treasurer of Australia and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, has refused to repudiate talk that he is slated to replace the prime minister. Indeed, it is no secret that Costello was disappointed when Howard decided to run again in 2004, and the deputy is widely seen in Australia as the leading contender to fill the job. This should provide encouragement for Washington as Costello is likely to continue the current policy that has resulted in Canberra being labeled America's "deputy sheriff" of the Pacific.

Australia has traditionally been a vital U.S. partner in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. With the United States' entry into World War II and the British preoccupied with defeating the Nazis, Australia found the Americans to be the only guarantor of its security. This de facto arrangement was largely codified with the 1951 ANZUS Treaty between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, and Canberra proved loyal throughout the Cold War deploying, troops abroad in both Korea and Vietnam. Australia also sent forces to join the British in Malaysia in 1965 to defend against the "anti-colonialist" and communist-allied Indonesian President Sukarno's Konfrontasi -- a contribution to the Cold War in its own right.

More recently John Howard's government invoked the ANZUS Treaty to support the U.S. in Afghanistan and joined the American-led coalition in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath. Today there are approximately 1,500 Australian troops in Iraq and nearly 1,300 in Afghanistan. It is imperative that Canberra continue to coalesce with the Bush administration in Iraq and -- though the two certainly are not separate -- the war on terror. In fact, the anti-war media in Australia claim that U.S. Republican use of "cut and run" against Democrats was stolen from Howard's camp. Unfortunately, there are many that wish Australia could cut and run out of Al Muthanna.

The latest polls show Howard's Liberal/National coalition losing popular support. The publication The Australian found that 53 percent of those polled currently support the opposition Labor Party. The prime minister recently noted: "Winning the next election is going to be a very tough assignment for the coalition." Were Labor to emerge victorious in 2007, the coalition would undoubtedly not be the only loser.

Labor has been less enthusiastic about missile defense and, unlike Howard's government, strongly backs the International Criminal Court. More importantly, the opposition has repeatedly called for a withdrawal of Australian forces from Iraq, whereas both the prime minister and his cabinet remain committed to the deployment of troops "until the job is done." An Australian withdrawal from Iraq would not only influence deployments within the country, but also represent a significant political loss for both the Bush administration and the campaign to establish a stable and prosperous democracy in Iraq.

Additionally, should Labor triumph Canberra will likely soften its stance towards radical Islam and abandon the forthright approach adopted by the Howard Administration. Costello has often spoken candidly about what he calls "mushy multiculturalism." In late February, the prime minister defended his deputy's comments calling for Australia's Muslims to assimilate, saying: "What Peter was basically saying is that if people don't like what this country is then they shouldn't come here." Similar words from President Bush would be a welcome surprise. But like much of Europe, Australia does have a demographic problem that could propel radical changes within the country. The danger, as Danna Vale of the Liberal Party has noted, is that Muslims may constitute the majority of Australia's population within fifty years.

THE CONTRASTS IN ASIA ARE also evident. The Sino-Australian relationship has become increasingly important for each country as bilateral trade continues to skyrocket. Last year alone trade expanded by 30 percent to a record level of $27.3 billion. As the Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily stated on July 3, the economies of China and Australia "mesh perfectly," and the hope is that by 2007 a free trade agreement can be successfully negotiated to "push the Sino-Australian economic and strategic interaction to a new level."

It is worth noting that the Labor Party was set to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1949 before it was defeated by conservatives who ensured the recognition of the Republic of China (Taiwan) until 1972. Labor's current views are fundamentally shaped by the economic benefits that are expected to continue to accompany China's rise. As Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Security Kevin Rudd stated, he both foresees and desires the 21st century to be the "Pacific Century." The peril of a Labor victory next year is that it would result in greater economic and strategic interaction with China, and that the partnership would affect the United States' position not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also draw Canberra to increasingly follow Beijing geopolitically.

Howard, for his part, maintains healthy relations with Beijing, but is also willing to challenge the Chinese leadership. During a recent visit with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the Australian prime minister made it clear that he expected China to act responsibly in applying significant pressure on the North Koreans regarding their latest missile activities. On his return home, Howard told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "China has more influence on North Korea than any other country and I hope that China uses that influence and that is the view that I put in very strong terms to the Chinese premier."

In dealing with North Korea, the prime minister and his cabinet have held a position that is both strong and in tune with that of the United States. Meeting with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon in late June, Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson -- who is also considered a candidate, albeit unlikely, to succeed Howard -- proclaimed that "should North Korea launch what proves to be a missile, Australia would strongly support the United States effectively, as it sees fit." These are the allies the United States must maintain to conduct a successful foreign policy in both Asia and in international institutions.

The Bush administration should do all it can to help John Howard's coalition retain its seat in Parliament while avoiding seeming too interested. Australia currently has about 2,000 troops in East Timor acting as peacekeepers and training local forces, and the conflict's proximity to the continent has provided the opposition with additional leverage for pulling Australia's forces out of Iraq. Washington would be wise to cover the mere $3 million that is needed in East Timor under the UN's World Food Program to avoid a local hunger crisis in the near future. The diminutive republic may not receive a great deal of attention in the West, but it is in the spotlight of the Australian media, and the Bush administration should work to ensure that Howard's government is successful there.

The ideal scenario for the United States would be a continued rise in public optimism over Iraq, a stable and recovering East Timor, and a hold on the Howard-Costello deal until after Australia's 2007 elections. The prime minister has traditionally polled better than his deputy, and in what is expected to be such a competitive race, it is best that Costello remains in his position until after the election is won. Any alternative could fundamentally set the United States back and help turn the tides of the 21st century into a Pacific Century indeed.

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About the Author

Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.