Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Gillard and Obama's mutual exploitation

  • 18 November 2011

This was the most historically significant visit ever by a US President to Australia. It was serendipitously bookended by a preceding APEC meeting in Hawaii and a subsequent East Asia Summit in Indonesia.

Obama used his address to Australia's Parliament to set out a comprehensive strategic vision for a reinvigorated US presence in the India-Pacific region, in every sense: politico-military, economic, and on human rights. He spoke from Canberra to the whole region. His carefully nuanced words will be pondered closely in Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo and Jakarta.

His firm messages to China were: The US will stay a major Pacific power. He can be very tough when challenged (Obama used North Korea as proxy example). Our global military pullback will not affect our great power in the Pacific. We are legitimately involved in issues of freedom of international commerce and navigation in the South China Sea. But we are not trying to contain China's growth as a major world power. We welcome China as a partner and friend, but we insist China must play by international rules — in foreign relations, trade relations, and even (with noteworthy boldness here) in observance of universal human rights.

All these messages would have broad bipartisan support in Australia, and the President's reception in Parliament House was warm and exuberant.  

For Julia Gillard, the visit marks a turning point: she now has a better chance of leading Labor to re-election in 2013. The Obama visit could be a circuit-breaker from some of the infernal dead-weights besetting Labor as a party, and Gillard as leader.

These two somewhat embattled leaders at home were clearly very comfortable with one another. It is electorally good for Gillard to draw strength and dignity from their close contacts over many days. Not good for Tony Abbott, or for Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd (students of political symbolism will have noted Obama's short courtesy greeting with Rudd, followed immediately by his longish chat with Tanya Plibersek.)

Both leaders would have been glad to forget the European sovereign debt imbroglio. The EU is out of either leader's control, as the unproductive G20 meeting showed. The good news is all in the India-Pacific region now.

More important in the longer term is the visit's impact on Australia's search for our correct balance in the crucial US-China relationship, and, indeed, the impact on the region's perception of Australia. The visit locks in Australia and the US as best allies, partners and friends.