IT is a sign of the times that the reigning monarch of what was, 100 years ago, the most powerful country on Earth, came and went to and from Australia this year with relatively little fuss.
Nanjing Night Net

In the 21st century the president of the United States of America is the more important visitor.

The visit of President Barack Obama has come at a crucial time, when the familiar economic order appears shaky and new powers are staking their claims.

For a variety of reasons, Australia matters more to America now than it has for decades.

An immense source of minerals and energy on the doorsteps of the rising new Asia-Pacific nations of India and China, Australia’s strategic importance is impossible to overlook.

Since World War II Australia has made no secret of its strong desire to shelter under America’s defence umbrella and it has repeatedly shown its willingness to be a dependable ally to the United States in matters both military and mercantile.

It is significant that, at a time when China is visibly increasing its military capacity, Australia has chosen to invite America to boost its own already marked military presence on Australian soil. Australia will host greater numbers of US troops and will permit them greater autonomy in training here than at any time since the war.

More US aircraft, ships and submarines will be permitted to use Australia as a staging point for patrols and operations in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

This military expression of solidarity is mirrored in proposed new trade arrangements across the Pacific region.

The China message

And while the rhetoric is carefully designed to skirt the suggestion that this is all about containing and influencing China, there is no doubt that most observers – China especially – will get that message.

Mr Obama made it clear at the recent meeting in Hawaii of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum that the United States is increasingly impatient with China’s insistence on keeping its currency pegged below the US dollar.

Chinese President Hu Jintao made it equally clear that China expected the US to recognise his country’s legitimate interests in the Asia Pacific region – a wish that Mr Obama readily conceded.

Meanwhile, the global game of strategy continues. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard surprised many this week when she announced her support for dropping the ban on selling uranium to India.

India is not only hungry for energy, it is also seen by the United States as a natural counterweight to China, and America has for some years been carefully cultivating its Indian alliance. Australian uranium sales to India would please the US almost as much as they would please India itself.

In the speech he made on arriving in Australia, President Obama spoke of America’s “enduring and unwavering commitment” to its Pacific ally.

By its actions Australia has demonstrated that its commitment in return is every bit as durable and steady.