America's new mate down under

Australia's new leader is an ally but won't follow the US blindly.

We Australians don't kid ourselves that Americans follow our politics as closely as we follow theirs.

The results of the Australian election last month, however, might give pause to some in Washington: A social conservative, once described by President Bush as a "man of steel," was thrown out of office (and his own parliamentary seat) by a former diplomat who speaks Mandarin.

On such issues as climate change and the war on terrorism, ousted Prime Minister John Howard was Bush's most faithful international supporter. After the inglorious departures of Britain's Tony Blair and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, Bush and Mr. Howard were the last men standing of the Western leaders who invaded Iraq.

Now Howard, too, is gone. It's as if the Sundance Kid charged alone into the rifles of the Bolivian army, leaving Butch Cassidy fiddling with his six-shooter.

The good news for the United States is that under the new Labor government, Australia will remain a close ally. Historically speaking, Australia is actually Washington's most reliable ally – the only country to fight alongside the US in every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, is a strong supporter of the alliance – unlike Labor's leader at the last election, who called it "a funnel that draws us into unnecessary wars" and "another form of neocolonialism."

Mr. Rudd understands that if Washington is to value its alliance with Australia, we need to be a valuable ally. So far he has pledged to withdraw some troops from Iraq – but not all – and continue Australia's deployment to dangerous southern Afghanistan.

But Australian support for American military operations, while historically consistent, is not unlimited. If Bush were to revert to the muscular foreign policy of his first term and initiate another risky unilateral military operation without wide international support, the new government might be less willing to join the coalition.

Canberra also will be less sympathetic on some other global issues. One of Rudd's first acts in office, for instance, has been to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the United States as the only developed country not to sign on to this plan to reduce global warming.

Shattering the Bush-Howard mind-meld might turn out to be a good thing for the alliance, however. The previous Australian government was in danger of loving it to death. With his record of emphasizing Australian ideas and independence, Rudd will be better placed than his predecessor was to win the public argument at home about the value of the US alliance.

The elevation of a China wonk to prime minister also should serve to remind the US of the new strategic geometry in Asia and the Pacific. As China's diplomatic influence rises with its economic success, countries throughout the region are having to triangulate between the two behemoths.

Just a few months ago, for example, China overtook Japan as Australia's largest trading partner. Our leading economic partner, therefore, is no longer our ally's ally but our ally's rival.

Rudd was not elected prime minister because he speaks Mandarin – but neither did anyone accuse him of being the Manchurian candidate. Given China's regional clout and its appetite for Australian resources, most here regard China expertise as a good thing.

How should American policymakers react to the emergence throughout Asia of strategic triangles like the one formed by Washington, Beijing, and Canberra? The answer is not to be more demanding of allies and friends.

Rather, the US needs to match the concentration and subtlety of Beijing's regional soft-power offensive. The recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney was a case in point. Australians laughed off Bush's references to the "OPEC" meeting and the "Austrian" troops in Iraq. However, his performance contrasted with the diplomatic tour de force by Chinese President Hu Jintao, who stayed in Australia for a week, closed a major energy deal and presented two giant pandas to the Adelaide Zoo.

Washington should also remind Asians of the public goods it provides to the region – in the form of leadership and security – compared with China. In recent years, America's sins in Iraq have obscured the flaws in China's international behavior. Beijing has been helpful on North Korea, but it has not yet internalized its new global responsibilities. It persists in shielding regimes, such as Burma's junta, from international scrutiny. In the southwest Pacific, China indulges in a bidding war with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition that is as destructive as it unnecessary.

In the final scene of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," Butch suggests that the duo decamp to Australia – where "they speak English ... they've got horses" and the banks are "easy, ripe, and luscious."

After last month's election, Australia will remain a robust and familiar ally to America, but it no longer might be the best redoubt for outlaws.

Michael Fullilove directs the global issues program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. ©2007 Los Angeles Times.

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