US President George Bush's recent announcement about US Military Forces based overseas consolidates the most far-reaching changes to American military strategy in a generation.
Foreshadowed in 2002, this new military posture raises Washington's expectations of its allies. Over the next decade, the shape and overseas positioning of US military forces will change fundamentally. Heavy combat forces will be withdrawn from Europe, while the US will enhance long-range strike weapons and expeditionary maritime forces in the Asia-Pacific region.
The US will build more flexible, rapidly deployable forces to deal with unexpected crises but US forces based abroad will be cut by 60,000 to 70,000 and hundreds of smaller American overseas facilities will be closed. The Cold War strategy of defending Europe from a Soviet attack has been abandoned. Two US heavy combat divisions will be withdrawn from Germany, to be replaced with a 5000-person "Stryker Division" using light, air-transportable armoured vehicles.
In coming years, Washington expects it will need to mount more expeditionary military operations of the type seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, the US wants the capacity to perform such operations within its own resources and from its own territory. Bush's strategy puts more emphasis on US combat capability and flexibility in Asia. American strike forces will be built up on the strategically important hub of Guam and the military exercises and deployments will be increased.
US perceptions about China's rising power are clearly a factor in these changes. Sino-American relations are currently very positive. But Washington knows that Beijing is the only Asia-Pacific power with the potential to become a peer military competitor in the next generation.
It is not surprising that Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, in Beijing this week, should tread carefully around the issue of Australia's military obligations under Anzus as they might relate to a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan. No strategic issue is more important to Australia than how China and the US manage their relations in the coming decade. Moreover, Australia is uniquely placed to help both countries understand each other better.
Australia is one of the closest military allies of the US and is building (in Downer's words) a "much stronger and much fuller relationship" with China. Canberra needs to find ways that help to promote a closer US-China dialogue on strategic issues. The key to Asia-Pacific stability will be for the US and China to manage their relationship peacefully. A strong American military presence in Asia helps to balance this relationship.
In this context, Japan's role is crucial and in this new strategy there is no suggestion US forces will be reduced there, although Pentagon officials have hinted at plans that may lead to a smaller Marine presence at Okinawa, relocating these troops to other bases in Japan.
There will be a reduction of US troops in South Korea. About 13,000 of 40,000 US troops will be withdrawn, and the bulk of American forces are relocating to bases south of Seoul.
The US is, in effect, telling its allies to carry more of their own defence burdens.
What do these changes mean for Australia? On a grander scale, Bush's strategy mirrors recent changes in Australian defence thinking. We, too, are making our forces more deployable and mobile. Australian-led military operations in East Timor and the Solomon Islands are seen by many to be the model of what our forces will most probably do in the coming decade. These shared but not identical approaches mean there is scope for our forces to help each other address new strategic challenges.
Defence exercises at the planned US-Australian facilities in Queensland and the Northern Territory will test new military concepts. At a broader strategic level, though, Washington's defence thinking raises both potential problems and opportunities for Australia.
The potential problem is that the new strategy can play to the worst isolationist instincts of the US. It will strengthen the ability of the US to operate alone on the battlefield and challenge the capacity of allies to build military forces fast and flexible enough to operate with the US. In the words of a Pentagon spokesman, the US strategy is designed to enable their forces to "leave when you want to, how you want to, and go where you want to".
Politically, however, the US needs its allies now more than ever, so that there is a collective approach to global stability, rather than a world order shaped unilaterally by Washington. The potential opportunity for Australia is that we can maximise our influence in Washington by encouraging the US to act in concert with other countries. The US sees the value of co-operating with Australia because we are prepared to take responsibility for our own defence and for building stability in our region and because we are prepared to act on the wider world stage to promote common interests.
The price of a close alliance relationship under this new strategic approach will be higher US expectations of what Australia is prepared to contribute to security, in our nearer region and further a field.