When President Barack Obama embarks on a two day visit to Australia next week, he should read geostrategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Problem of Asia (1900) underway.
Those unfamiliar with geopolitics may wonder what the president could possibly learn from a century-old volume, but no matter tremendous improvements in science and technology, the geography of nations hasn’t changed.
The crux of the issue is simple. Mahan predicted the rise of China and India even when those nations were controlled by European colonial powers. He in fact expected that China’s resurgence as a great power would hinder the United States’ ability to control the West and South Pacific.
Mahan proposed to form an alliance of nations in the Pacific to counter China’s rise. He advocated active cooperation between the navies of Britain, Japan and the United States. The Royal Navy at the time was entrusted with the defense of Australia, a role it would continue to fulfill until World War II.
Australia joined the Allies during both world wars because it security interests are tied to whichever power controls the world oceans. That is why it had to side against Imperial Japan and against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Cut back to 2011 and many of Mahan’s predictions have come true. China is increasing its presence in the South Pacific, where it is competing with the United States for spheres of influence. Australia and its junior partner New Zealand wish to maintain American preponderance in the region and are prepared to cooperate actively within the existing security architecture to strengthen the Pacific Command based in Hawaii.
The president’s trip to Australia comes in the wake of the sixtieth anniversary of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty which helped keep the Soviets out of the West and South Pacific. The nation hopes to welcome the first American “Pacific” president. Obama, who was born in Hawaii, will go on to visit Indonesia for an East Asia Summit later this month, the nation where he grew up. It’s here that the president meets a challenge to a containment strategy of China, because Australian and Indonesian security interests do not align. If the United States rearm Indonesia to balance against Chinese power, they risk alienating Australians who regard Jakarta’s military buildup warily.
This is one conflict that Mahan didn’t see coming and it will require careful diplomacy and tact on the part of the United States to manage relations with two potential allies in maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Pacific realm.