The US Relationship to the Asia-Pacific

In November 2011, President Obama made a nine-day trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia.

The President repeatedly emphasized that “the United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay”. He painted the fast-growing Asia-Pacific as the driver of the global economy, and positioned the United States as a key player in this development. Opening the first session of APEC, the President noted that the Asia-Pacific was “absolutely critical to America’s economic growth”, and that a prosperous region would help put Americans back to work.

The President’s vision of the US relationship to the Asia-Pacific attracted plenty of discussion from foreign policy experts and in news media coverage. But what I found most striking was how clearly the President’s ‘Pacific turn’ echoed themes that have resonated in Australian political language throughout the nation’s history.

Narratives of threat and opportunity have long characterized Australia’s ambivalent relationship to the Asia-Pacific region. One the one hand, engaging with the region has been seen as presenting opportunities for growth. On the other, political leaders have worried about Australia’s geographical proximity to the Asia-Pacific and its cultural isolation from the ‘Western’ nations traditionally seen as Australia’s friends and allies. Over more than a century, political leaders have tried to reassure voters that they can safely manage these conflicting imperatives.

The President’s recent language similarly reflects a dual feeling of regional threat and opportunity. While promoting trade and investment partnerships, the United States will also manage perceived security threats – calibrating its relationships through the prism of the perceived ‘rise of China’. This is an image of an economic partner that remains competitive and vigilant. The President promised, for example, that if the ‘rules’ of regional trade were broken he would take action to protect American interests.

Economic and geopolitical imperatives are requiring the US to grapple more concretely with a cultural and political ambivalence about China and the Asia-Pacific region, something geography forced onto Australia long ago.

Dr. Stephanie Brookes is Lecturer in the Media and Communications Program at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is currently at Visiting Researcher in the School of Culture, Communication and Technology at Georgetown.