Airforce One will touch down in Canberra today, carrying US President Barack Obama on his much-awaited visit to Australia. It’s his first trip as president, after two previous trips were delayed due to US domestic issues, and the Australian media is beside itself with anticipation.
All week the media fawned over photos showing just what great mates Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Obama are:
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
But Obama’s 27-hour whirlwind visit to Canberra and Darwin isn’t just all jokes and hugs. An increased military presence in Australia’s Top End Australia is expected to be announced by Obama, as part of the US strengthening its military showing in the Asia-Pacific region. A US military base in Darwin is expected to receive more troops, joint training exercises and increased use of US military ships and planes.
Australia is perfectly situated geographically to be more and more important to the US, something that it couldn’t do during the Cold War, noted Australia’s ambassador to the US Kim Beazley. “We are the southern pier of the focal point of the global political system which, for the foreseeable future, will be the Asia-Pacific region,” said Beazley.
But will it affect Australia’s relationship with China? “Defence analysts and the Greens have been warning that the move will antagonise China as it will be perceived as a direct response to China’s emerging power in the region,” report Phillip Dorling and Dylan Welch in The Age.
Gillard doesn’t agree, telling a press conference yesterday: “It is well and truly possible for us in this growing region of the world to have an ally in the US and to have deep friendships in our region including with China.”
Further military resources in Australia would increase the US military’s response time to natural disasters in Asia, say White House officials.
Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at ANU, argues in The Age that Australia shouldn’t just accept Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership aimed at curbing China’s power:
“A new Asia could evolve in which China exercises more power and influence than it has before, but does not dominate, and in which America no longer exercises primacy, but still plays a large and vital role. In short, an Asia in which the US and China share power.
This should be Australia’s vision of Asia’s future. We do not want to live under Chinse domination, but nor do we want to be squeezed by US-China rivalry. That is why, having given Obama a respectful hearing, we should explain why we take a different view. That is what good allies do.”
Obama’s visit is a boon to Gillard at a time that she needs it, even if US presidents usually avoid getting involved in other nation’s partisan debates, writes Jack Waterford in the Canberra Times:
“And if Obama is broadly too polite to play Australian politics, he is unlikely to forget that John Howard attempted to play American politics against him four years ago, and that he is, politically, a lot closer to the things that Julia Gillard stands for than he is to Tony Abbott. “
It’s embarassing how much Australian prime ministers grovel to US presidents, says Neil Mitchell in the Herald Sun. He writes of Gillard’s behaviour at APEC last week:
“One image that came immediately to mind was that of a puppy wanting its tummy tickled. Then there was the unavoidable thought that a 14-year-old girl meeting Justin Bieber would have had more dignity about them.
“Either way, our PM fawned, rubbing Obama’s back in that touch-feely way she has and suggesting that she and the most powerful man in the world had some type of cosmic understanding because they were born in the same year, 1961.”
Journos have been thoroughly enjoying all the little details of the Obama visit — from whether the Secret Service will carry guns to the piles of sugar-covered doughnuts ready and waiting for hungry US press corps to chow down.
All non-essential staff will be removed from Parliament House as part of the security crackdown, reports James Massola in The Australian.
In fact, much of Canberra will be shut down during Obama’s 22-hour visit, says Dylan Welch in The Age:
“The public will be forbidden from entering Parliament House and roads will be closed and areas sanitised when the presidential motorcade — comprising up to 45 vehicles as well as US Black Hawks — moves through town.
Up to a dozen Australian F-18 Hornet fighter jets will also patrol Canberra’s skies, with US snipers dotted across roofs. It is also likely Australian special forces will be nearby.”
Obama’s Secret Service agents are also likely to be be armed inside parliament, defying a ban on weapons, explains Welch.
But despite all the security measures, sensitive details about the trip are easily available to find, write Steve Lewis and Gemma Jones in The Daily Telegraph: “… timesheets detailing travel of US agents and officials have been left in the white Mazda parked at the rear of the Hyatt hotel.”
Doughnuts, soda and lots of power points await the huge taxpayer-funded US media contingent which travels with the president, reports Emma Macdonald in the Canberra Times:
“Housing enough electronic cable to stretch to Washington DC and back and enough doughnuts to give a small nation diabetes, the National Press Club is all but ready to host the American media contingent covering the visit of President Barack Obama.
“The normally sedate surrounds of the Press Club have been transformed into a media command centre for the 100 journalists and technicians who will make it their collective home for the 23-hour visit.
“About 40 of the media pack are newspaper journalists, another 40 are television journalists and technical support and the final 20 are White House press.”
It looks just like The West Wing in the Press Club, with new signs pointing out the “washrooms” and giant screens streaming CNN, writes Jacqueline Maley in The Sydney Morning Herald. But despite all the excitement, it’s highly unlikely any members of the public will even see the president, let alone meet him, notes Maley:
“Parliament House will be in virtual lockdown once he arrives, so if any member of the public does see him, it will be as he is but passing by.”