WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States expects smooth relations with Australia’s Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, but it remains to be seen if he can match his predecessor’s pally rapport with President Barack Obama.
Abbott, a conservative who was born in London and has spoken of the importance of the “Anglosphere,” led his coalition to victory over the Labor Party of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat and China expert.
Rudd, who faced criticism at home over his style and his party’s internecine fighting, was arguably one of the foreign leaders closest to the usually reserved Obama.
Kurt Campbell, who was the State Department’s top official on East Asia during Obama’s first term, said that Rudd left “almost ocean-vessel-size shoes to be filled” in helping the United States think strategically.
“Despite personal foibles and a complex relationship in Australia, I think in many respects Kevin Rudd has been the most important strategic thinker in Asia in the last generation,” said Campbell, a key force in Obama’s “pivot” of putting a greater US focus on Asia.
Rudd may have had more influence in shaping Washington’s policies in Asia than any foreigner since modern Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew during the Vietnam War era, Campbell told a conference.
“He helped us join the East Asia Summit, he helped us think about the fact that the defining feature of modern international relations is China’s arrival on the global scene and every aspect of our diplomacy has to be recreated and re-crafted with that in mind,” Campbell said.
Campbell was quick to say that the United States expected to work well with Abbott. Australia is one of the oldest US allies and has joined Washington in every major war including the controversial conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam.
Obama and Abbott, in a telephone call after the election, shared concerns about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Officials said that Obama and Abbott also discussed moving ahead with a 2011 plan for the United States to move more than 2,500 Marines to the northern city of Darwin by 2016-17, perhaps the most visible Australian support for the US pivot to Asia.
A State Department official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said that the United States had worked well with Australian leaders across the political spectrum.
“Our assessment is that Australia’s fundamental national interests haven’t changed, regardless of who’s in power. Obviously there will be differences in the way they approach policy,” the official said.
“I don’t expect there to be any significant challenges to continuing to work very closely with Australia on the way we approach both bilateral (relations) and global issues, things like Syria, energy and climate change,” he said.
Climate change is one area where, at least in the abstract, Obama and Abbott do not agree.
Abbott has pledged to scrap a carbon tax imposed by the previous government and, like many US conservatives, has voiced doubt about the science behind climate change.
The last prime minister from Abbott’s Liberal Party, John Howard, had been then US president George W. Bush’s primary ally in opposing the Kyoto Protocol that required rich countries to curb emissions.
Satu Limaye, director of the East-West Center in Washington, noted that Obama faces strong political obstacles to taking action on climate change.
Even if Obama makes good on his promises to do more on climate change, “I simply don’t think it will derail the overarching US-Australia alliance relationship,” Limaye said.
“It might make it a little uncomfortable, maybe a little testy, but it’s not going to affect Marine rotational deployments through Darwin,” Limaye said.
Ernie Bower, the Southeast Asia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was possible that the United States and Australia would expand the Darwin troop plan as it enjoys widespread support.
“The honest assessment is that Rudd and Obama were much more alike in terms of worldview and I think they shared an understanding of the importance of Asia,” Bower said.
“We’re just not going to have the chemistry we had with Rudd and Obama or with Howard and Bush. But fundamentally if you look at polling numbers in Australia, support for the alliance is at all-time highs,” he said.