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Obama Visit to Australia Seen as Part of US Shift toward Asia

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President Obama will address a joint sitting of the Australian parliament this week on a visit that marks the 60th anniversary of the military alliance between Canberra and Washington.  The ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) treaty was signed in San Francisco in September 1951, at the height of the Cold War.

Successive governments in Canberra have insisted that the alliance is fundamental to Australia’s long-term security.

In September, Hillary Clinton led the official celebrations of a treaty that has underwritten the security of Australia, which has become one of America’s most loyal allies.

“We have come to San Francisco to celebrate 60 years of the U.S.-Australia alliance in the place where it was born back in 1951,” she said.

No other country has contributed troops to fight alongside the United States in each of its major conflicts since World War I.

Although President Obama’s visit to Canberra and Darwin is expected to strengthen this long friendship, Geoffrey Garrett, the head of the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, says it is also likely to mark a decisive shift in U.S. diplomacy.

“I think what this trip is going to signify is a strategic pivot in U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East and the war on terrorism and towards the Asia Pacific,” he said.

Garrett believes that Australia is assuming a greater role in regional trade and security.

“American leaders often say that the U.S. has no better friend in the world than Australia," he stated. "I think that is true because Australia is the most important U.S. partner in putting the trans-Pacific free trade agreement together and military collaboration and cooperation between Australia and the U.S. is more open and at a higher level than I believe with any other country in the world, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom.”

President Obama is expected to announce plans to station U.S. Marines in northern Australia, a move that will raise concerns in China.

Tom Switzer from the University of Sydney believes that delicate Australian diplomacy is needed to balance its military and economic goals.

“The rise of China really does present different issues for American and Australia. For America it is the rise of a geopolitical rival but for Australia it is our largest trading partner. But Australia nevertheless is faced with the choice of riding two horses simultaneously, if you like: the whole idea of accommodating the U.S. security umbrella but at the same time expanding trade relations with China," said Switzer. "That can be very difficult down the road if there is tension in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straits. That cannot be ruled out.”   

Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan will also be scrutinized during President Obama’s brief visit. Recent casualties have not dented Canberra’s determination to see the mission through, although anti-war campaigner Pip Hinman wants Australian troops brought home immediately.

“This war is using up so much money, apart from lives. Enormous sums are being spent on a war that seriously is destroying Afghanistan, going into Pakistan and starting to destroy that country as well, destroying the lives of soldiers being sent to fight in this war," said Hinman. "I mean, this is why I think the polls are showing that people cannot see the point and also they know that it is immoral and unjust.”  

Although the war in Afghanistan is unpopular with many Australians, opinion polls suggest that the alliance with the United States has broad support here.

“I treasure it. I think going back to World War II but for the Americans we wouldn’t have done it on our own," said one woman. "We need some help. We are 22  million people, a tiny little dot in the South Pacific. Really want them here, [the] Americans, any base they want [they are] welcome to it.”    

“I think it is more than a little bit over-rated," said one man. "We align ourselves far too strongly with the U.S. I do not know that it is really of any benefit to Australia.”

Australia retains close cultural ties with Britain and its wealth increasingly depends on China, but successive leaders have said that the country’s most valuable asset is the security alliance with the United States.

Barack Obama will become the fifth serving U.S. president to visit Australia.

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