Sun, May 07, 2017 - Page 7 News List

The century-old US-Australian alliance faces a new reality

Australia has developed a deep economic relationship with China that at times puts it at odds with the US, while fears about US President Trump’s policies abound

By Damien Cave  /  NY Times News Service, DARWIN, Australia

South Korea, Japan and the US have grown accustomed to North Korea’s diatribes, but Pyongyang recently threatened a new target with a nuclear strike: Australia.

During a visit by US Vice President Mike Pence to Sydney, the North warned Australia to think twice about “blindly and zealously toeing the US line” and acting as “a shock brigade of the US master.”

Australian and US troops have fought side by side in every major conflict since World War I, and there are few militaries in the world with closer relations: 1,250 US Marines recently arrived in Darwin for six months of joint exercises; the two countries share intelligence from land, sea and even outer space; and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is to meet US President Donald Trump on Thursday on an aircraft carrier in New York.

However, North Korea’s threat, far-fetched as it might seem, is an example of how Australia’s most important military alliance faces a new challenge: The risk that Trump will draw the nation into a conflict or other unexpected crisis that destabilizes the region, angers its trading partners or forces it to side with either the US or China.

“The question is: What might America drag Australia into?” said Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney. “That’s a very scary thought for Australians, many of whom perceive Donald Trump to be an erratic and highly self-interested commander in chief.”

Trump has already embarrassed Australia once, with an abrupt phone call to Turnbull that seemed to dismiss Australia’s historic role as a friend who often gives more than it gets. Now his unpredictable approach is fueling a national debate about Australia’s relationship with the world, and especially the US.

Last week, fomer Australian prime minister Paul Keating, who served during former US president Bill Clinton’s years, reignited discussion by arguing that Australia must end its status as a “client state.”

Australia is essentially caught between two powers: China, its largest trading partner, and the US, its faithful ally, with a military connection that has been strengthened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more recent agreements to gradually expand the US footprint in Darwin.

What Australia and the US are now trying to work out is how to manage that military momentum in an increasingly tense part of the world. If the military is a hammer in the Trump era, at what point does every dispute start to look like a nail?

“It’s always important that there’s a balance between the military and the diplomatic — because of the scale of the military,” Keating said in an interview. “In both economic terms and in strategic terms, they squeeze diplomacy out.”

Darwin, a humid, crocodile-infested coastal city at the northern end of Australia, captures the past, present and future of the nation’s alliance with the US.

Japan attacked the city on Feb. 19, 1942, killing 235 people, and residents are quick to point out that the raids were led by the same commander responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor 10 weeks earlier.

Within a few months, Darwin became a hub for counterstrikes from bombers flown by Americans. A pocket guide for arriving US troops set the tone: “You’re going to meet a people who like Americans and whom you will like.”

During the Cold War, the relationship expanded.

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