Australia’s new government and vital US ties

Australia has just formed a shaky new government, after two weeks of uncertainty following an indecisive national election. Alliance with the small Greens Party plus some independent members has given the Labor Party the narrowest working majority in Parliament.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard therefore continues in office, after ousting predecessor Kevin Rudd in a coup within the party less than three months ago. The Liberal Party remains the principal opposition.

The ongoing turmoil should be receiving more media attention.

Australia continues to be a vital, valuable ally of the United States.

The Aussie-American special relationship dates from the crucible of World War II, and military security is the most crucial dimension, along with others. In that war, the enormous Japanese military drive south was finally blunted just short of Australia. Jungle-savvy veteran Australian troops provided vital support to generally inexperienced Americans.

The Vietnam War strengthened the Australia-U.S. partnership even while straining U.S. relations with Britain and other allies. A total of 50,000 Australian military personnel served in Vietnam, with 520 killed and 2,400 wounded. Reflecting regional pressures, Australia reintroduced military conscription in 1964.

In October 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson became the first U.S. president to visit Australia, underscoring cooperation with the government of Prime Minister Harold Holt. This characteristically very dramatic LBJ expedition also was undertaken to cast the Vietnam War in global terms, as a Cold War strategic centerpiece.

Australian military professionals gained very useful guerrilla-war experience during the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960. The colonial government there actively employed forces from throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth against the Malayan National Liberation Army. The insurgency was finally successfully suppressed, confirming in this case the value of long-term patience in employing sustained, carefully directed ­military force.

President Richard M. Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger made a special effort to apply Malaya insights to Vietnam. Robert Thompson, a highly respected British guerrilla-warfare expert, was consulted and provided an encouraging estimate of the prospects of the South Vietnamese military.

Gen. Creighton Abrams, after succeeding Gen. William Westmoreland as Vietnam commander, redirected U.S. forces away from massive search-and-destroy operations to small unit actions, reflecting the Malaya-style strategy already being employed by Australian and New Zealand troops. While the Vietnam War ultimately was won by Hanoi, the very long-term conflict nevertheless further strengthened ties between Australia and the U.S.

The history of military cooperation is directly germane to the current struggle against international­ terrorist threats, including but not limited to al-Qaida. Terrorist groups of various sorts continue to be a major menace. Australians were targets in the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali. In 2004, the Australian Embassy in Jakarta was attacked.

The insurgency in Afghanistan has been growing stronger. President Barack Obama’s very public emphasis on a multilateral approach could further reinforce the Australia-America relationship. David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer, advises the U.S. State Department.

Australians engage in humanitarian work in Pakistan.

The global financial uncertainty and recent devastating recession understandably dominate international headlines. In this regard, Australia provides a useful bridge between developed and developing nations, reflecting the history as well as geographic location of the nation.

Australia’s economy has been greatly aided by proximity to China. That bilateral tie could help mitigate Beijing-Washington, D.C., friction.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.

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