Australian Ambassador Kim Beazley on the Asia Pivot


As the center of gravity in the global economy moves increasingly toward the Asia-Pacific region, security-related tensions there have also grown. As a key U.S. ally in Asia, Australia has both an important perspective and valuable contributions to make in managing these and other changes in Asia. On April 2, Ambassador Kim Beazley discussed Australia’s views of the evolving Asia-Pacific region and assessed trends and policy responses.

Click here to watch the event.

Event Summary

“When we look at things like the rebalance and we look at American commitments in the region, we, in Australia, are definitely ‘the glass is half-full’ people,” remarked Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley, pointing to Australia’s general optimism about the U.S. rebalance to Asia. On April 2, at the Center for the National Interest, Ambassador Beazley shared his perspective on rebalancing to Southeast Asia, the role both the United States and Australia play in the Asia-Pacific, the effect of the Ukraine crisis on Sino-Russo relations, and the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. General Charles G. Boyd, the Center’s chairman, moderated the event.

In order to understand the significance of Australian optimism towards rebalancing, Ambassador Beazely said, it is important to look at Australia’s history with global powers. In the early 20th century, the six colonies of Australia joined in a federation for the purpose of increasing their defense capabilities, also operating under the assumption that Britain would lend its imperial defense to Australia. Instead, Britain largely withdrew from Southeast Asia, leaving the security of the region to Japan. Australia felt slighted, but its faith was renewed in the role of great powers in 1941 when the United States supported Australia during World War II. While Australia’s optimism about rebalancing stems from this history with the United States, Australia’s centrality in the rebalance stems from its own influence in Southeast Asia.

Ambassador Beazley explained the depth of Australian engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. For example, Australia has led the search for the missing Malaysian aircraft and has trained the Singaporean Air Force. It continues to patrol the eastern part of the Indian Ocean and maintains the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Stirling base on Australia’s west coast. Australia also cooperates with Malaysia in joint-patrols and in the transport of Australian troops through the Butterworth air base in Malaysia. Furthermore, it is part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), a military alliance between Australia, Britain, New Zealand, Singapore, and Malaysia. In addition, the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, will make his first tour of the region this month, making his way through Japan, South Korea, and China, signifying that Australian interest in Asia has by no means dwindled. With regard to the United States’ interest in Asia, Ambassador Beazley stated, “We actually want to believe the best of very good intentions in the area.” However, President Obama’s announcement of the “pivot” produced mixed feelings about U.S. aims. General Boyd commented that U.S. national narcissism often does not take into account the international perception or opinion of the United States and its actions, making it difficult to assess the world’s opinions of the “pivot” to Asia. For example, the European Union was worried that the United States would begin to focus more on Asia at the expense of European security. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Israel were worried that the United States was redirecting its attention away from the Middle East.

And within the region itself, there competing views of America’s intentions. There are those in the region who are enthusiastic about U.S. involvement, but others are apprehensive and do not believe America is truly committed to engagement in the region. Ambassador Beazley argued that Asia should be interested in America’s commitment to the region for two main reasons. First, he stated, “the United States is a global power, and it’s the only global power [East Asia and Southeast Asia] get to have a relationship with.” Second, the United States is the only country that will ever be able to guarantee the safe transport of goods through the Persian Gulf. Since about 70% of the Middle Eastern oil market is in Asia, he noted, and since the Persian Gulf is the transport region, the United States is indispensable for Asian trade.

Ambassador Beazley suggested ways in which the United States could be more effective in its rebalancing efforts. For example, the ambassador called for more frequent visits by senior diplomatic officials, increased assessments of the needs of the region, and the enhancement and building of capabilities in the region. General Boyd asserted that our inability to uphold fiscal responsibilities has severely affected our defense mechanisms, preventing us from successfully implementing the plan’s building blocks. Ambassador Beazley stressed that it is important for the U.S. to spend its money wisely and effectively.

However, what no one foresaw was the impact the crisis in Ukraine would have on China and other countries in Asia. Given the region’s history with Japanese occupation and Western colonialism, Ambassador Beazley remarked that sovereignty is a sensitive issue in Asia, causing many in the region to view Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a worrisome infringement upon Ukrainian sovereignty. China opposes what Russia did in Crimea, he said, but for a different reason. China does not wish for Chinese people to rise up and decide, through a Crimea-esque referendum, not to be a part of China, he noted.

One participant asked whether or not Russia might align closer with China in response to the crisis over Ukraine and confrontation with the West. Ambassador Beazley emphasized that since the 1990s, Russia and China have been content with their treaty and trade agreements. However, the situation in Ukraine has forced both countries to think about the cost of those agreements. Due to potentially crippling sanctions, Russia may appeal to China for economic support. However, Ambassador Beazley stated that Russia will want to think carefully about how much it will depend on an economic relationship with China. Furthermore, China is not convinced that its financial systems can survive the amount of economic support it might be obligated to give to Russia. Ambassador Beazley noted that China values its relationship with Russia, but that this “relationship is now starting to cost.” According to Ambassador Beazley, the best thing Russia can do is to focus on being a reliable, well-behaved power to Europe. It is not rational for Moscow to place all its eggs in China’s basket.

Ambassador Beazley also commented on the Chinese reaction to Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP):

“When this started as a smaller entity, the Chinese response to it was, this is an effort to contain us and effort by the [United States] to incorporate small powers against us…nobody’s actually looking for a brawl with China. What everybody is trying to do is to get China’s rise associated with an acceptable set of practices and arrangements in the region that China inhabits…What’s going through is an effort to incorporate on terms.”

Regarding the TPP’s importance for the United States, Ambassador Beazley stated, “There are plenty of options for Australia…plenty of options for China, one for the United States. So if United States deals itself out of the TPP, United States will do itself extraordinary damage.”

Despite, the difficulties presented by the TPP, China’s relationship with Russia, and global perception of the U.S. rebalance, Beazley remains optimistic about the United States’ efforts in Asia. He also recognizes that the United States cannot be expected to do everything, given its involvement with current issues regarding Russia and China, for example. This is partly why Australia has been so diligent in its interactions with the region. To stress why Asia matters to the United States and the international community, Ambassador Beazley stated, “…when you’re operating in Southeast Asia, you’re operating in the last bastion of the Treaty of Westphalia. These are the last group of people on earth who believe passionately and profoundly the idea of the sovereignty of the nation-state.”