epa06055344 A member of the Australian Army sits in the audience alongside a US flag as the backdrop of a ceremony marking the start of Talisman Saber 2017, a biennial joint military exercise between the United States and Australia aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship on the the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 29 June 2017. EPA/JASON REED / POOL AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT
A ceremony on board a US Navy ship off the coast of Sydney earlier this year marking the start of joint military exercises between Australia and the US © EPA

US troops taking part in the biggest training exercises with their Australian counterparts say they are prepared for battle should they be called upon amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

“Based on the acts of certain players in the region, if we were called to go, we would be ready,” says Brian Middleton, commander of the US rotational marine force in the northern Australian city of Darwin. “We will fight and win wherever we go.” 

For the next quarter-century Darwin will host 1,250 US marines for six months of each year as part of America’s “pivot” to Asia announced in 2011 by Barack Obama, former US president. The programme underscores the depth of Australia’s strategic alliance with the US, which was formalised in the 1951 Anzus treaty, and comes amid a dramatic escalation in provocations by Pyongyang, most recently its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.

But the election of Donald Trump, who recently threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on an increasingly belligerent North Korea, is prompting a debate in Australia about the nation’s responsibilities to its US ally and the direction of its foreign policy. 

“America stands by its allies, including Australia of course, and we stand by the US . . . We are joined at the hip,” Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister, said last month when he pledged to invoke the Anzus treaty if Pyongyang attacked the US. The commitment has alarmed some analysts, who warn that it diminishes Canberra’s freedom of manoeuvre in any future crisis involving North Korea. 

“John Howard gave President Bush a blank cheque on Iraq,” says Kevin Rudd, a predecessor of Mr Turnbull’s. “You never as an Australian prime minister, as an ally of the US, give the Americans, before the event, a blank cheque." 

Paul Keating, another former prime minister, warns that Australia needs to be more self-reliant as the days of US-led multilateralism wane. 

Australia is among America’s closest allies, contributing troops to every major conflict in which the US has taken part since the first world war. But relations between Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull soured when the US president cut short their first phone call after the Australian prime minister raised an Obama-era deal under which1,250 refugees would be resettled from camps on remote Pacific islands run by Australia. 

Some analysts worry Mr Turnbull’s insistence on getting Mr Trump to honour the deal is tying his administration too closely to the US. 

“I think the refugee deal and the rocky start to the relationship is a factor in Turnbull being very quick to line up behind US policy,” says James Curran, professor of history at the University of Sydney. 

He warns that Mr Turnbull’s pledge to invoke Anzus over North Korea is “premature and unnecessary”. He also points to a recent toughening of Australia’s China policy as a sign Canberra is aligning itself more publicly behind the US in Asia. 

AT SEA - JUNE 29: A crewman aboard a U.S. Marine MV-22B Osprey Aircraft looks out as it lifts off the deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship off the coast of Sydney, Australia, June 29, 2017 after a ceremony on board the ship marking the start of Talisman Saber 2017, a biennial joint military exercise between the United States and Australia. (Photo by Jason Reed - Pool/Getty Images)
A US serviceman is lifted off the deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard during military exercises off Sydney this year © Getty

Mr Turnbull warned about a “coercive China” in a June speech on security, referencing rising tensions on the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea, while Canberra this year refused to ratify an extradition treaty with Beijing or formally align itself with China’s Belt and Road strategy. 

“The China speech was a very significant step,” says Hugh White, professor at Australian National University. “It suggests Turnbull has concluded Australia must take a more direct role in pushing back against China if it expects the US to stay engaged in Asia.” 

Most Australians support the US military alliance, according to a poll by the Lowy Institute. Australian institutions, particularly the military, have deep relationships that go beyond the personality of one president. 

“The US-Australian alliance has been the cornerstone of Australia’s strategic defence position for many, many years and it will continue to be so,” says Bryan Parker, deputy commander of Australia’s northern command, who is co-ordinating training with US troops in Darwin. 

But some analysts warn of limits to the patience of America’s allies. 

Mr Trump is deeply unpopular in Australia, with six out of 10 respondents to Lowy’s poll saying he causes them to have an unfavourable opinion of the US. And while the US alliance has traditionally retained bipartisan support, the opposition Labor party recently described the election of Mr Trump as a “change point” requiring careful consideration. 

“It’s not even a question of whether pursuing a more independent foreign policy is good in itself,” says Mr White. “The real problem with the direction Turnbull is headed is that it is less and less clear the US has any coherent strategy for North Korea or China.”

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