- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Australia: Allied in Transition

Rory Medcalf


This chapter examines how Australia's strategic objectives have been affected by security challenges from 2000 to 2008, how Australian and U.S. responses to these challenges have interacted, and how the alliance is adjusting.

Main Argument

Although the U.S. and Australia have strengthened the alliance since 2000, especially on the military and intelligence fronts, the limits are starting to show: Australia is less concerned by China’s rising power than the U.S., the Australian public has mixed feelings over aspects of the alliance, and a new Labor government in Canberra, though committed to the alliance, wants to present a relatively independent face. Leadership transitions in both countries amount to an opportunity for alliance consolidation and renewal.

Policy Implications

  • The new U.S. administration would benefit from close attention to the alliance and seeking to renew it in tandem with a multi-dimensional and balanced set of policies in Asia, including maintaining a strategic presence, sustaining an emphasis on engagement with China, pursuing greater participation in regional institutions, and ensuring that policy toward Asia is not overshadowed by terrorism and the Middle East.
  • A demonstrable willingness to hear Australian advice, especially on Asian issues, will help remind Australia that the alliance is working.
  • Realistic expectations on Australia as an ally would flow from a recognition of the limits of the country’s defense capabilities and the multiplicity of Australia’s regional security challenges.
  • Prolonged inattention to Australia would risk turning the alliance’s limits—such as differing views of China—into vulnerabilities for U.S. positions in Asia and globally.