APEC—Howard and Bush Connect

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APEC—Howard and Bush Connect

Australia may well be the U.S.’s strongest ally in the war on terror.

Last week, the strength of the bond between Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard and the American president became most apparent.

On September 5, during apec Leaders Week—a summit in Sydney of the leaders of 21 nations spread throughout Asia and the Pacific region comprising the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group—President Bush and the Australian prime minister signed a Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty. This sent a strong signal to national leaders and their various entourages that, geopolitically, Canberra has grown substantially in importance to Washington.

The fact is, next to Britain, Australia is now the closest ally of the United States. Indeed, should Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown, begin withdrawing British troops from Iraq (a prospect hinted at by the recent British troop withdrawal from Basra), Australia could well emerge as America’s closest ally in the war on terror. Prime Minister Howard has strongly indicated that Australian forces in Iraq are there for the long haul.

Apart from showcasing the transition of major world trade from historic dominance by the Atlantic to the Pacific Rim nations, apec has headlined the growing geopolitical influence of countries extending from Russia through Japan, China, Southeast Asia to Australasia comprising the globe’s far eastern quadrant. The apec region is now responsible for almost 60 percent of the total world economy. apec nations export over half of the world’s internationally traded goods, with the proportion of consumer goods made in the region for consumption by Western nations being massive.

With media attention blindly focused on the U.S. and the Middle East (out of all proportion to what is going on in the rest of the world), the huge transfer of wealth from West to East that has taken place over the past 15 years, by comparison, gets little press coverage. But that must soon change as the effect of this huge movement of industry, assets and wealth begins to hit the pocket of Atlanticists, not to mention those Anglo-Saxons resident in the eastern Pacific Rim’s white enclave—Australasia (Australia and New Zealand).

The dominant nation within Australasia, Australia, has enjoyed a marvelous economic turnaround since the mid-1990s.

Toward the end of the 20th century, following a series of socialist government debacles, Australia was, technically, broke. Today, the Aussie economy is booming, this despite endemic drought that holds the globe’s largest island (and its smallest continent) in its grip.

Much of the credit for Australia’s present positive economic outlook must go to the steady hand with which its present conservative government has led the nation, under the prime ministership of John Howard, for the past 11 years. Yet there exists a danger in the fact that a substantial reason for the turnaround in Australia’s economy has been the commodity price rise that has resulted from China’s and the associated East Asian bloc’s economic acceleration.

Australia’s economy has always been raw-materials-based. Agriculture, mining and the minerals processing industries have been the source of this country’s First World status since the gold rush of the mid-1800s, and its premium position in the world’s wool and wheat markets during a good portion of the 20th century.

The emergence of Japan as a post-World War ii economic dynamo sent its representatives to Australia, a former enemy, seeking coal, iron ore, bauxite, alumina and various heavy minerals to feed its furnaces and build its mills of industry. Subsequently, Japan became Australia’s major trading partner. Though that relationship continues, it has been significantly challenged by China—a nation experiencing a huge burst of economic energy.

China’s demand for Australian raw materials, its iron and steel, its uranium and natural gas accelerates yearly. But, a player from the northernmost quarter of the Pacific Rim, Russia, has more recently entered the competition for Australia’s raw materials. Iron ore and uranium are high on Russia’s order list. Russia’s entry as a customer for Australia’s uranium nets the Aussies the trifecta of currently booming eastern economies—China, India and Russia—as prime customers for the country’s uranium deposits.

With such a huge dependence on raw materials contracts to propel its economy forward, and drought literally rendering increasing swaths of land dedicated to its other major economic stream, agriculture, inactive, Australia is dangerously close to placing most of its eggs in one basket. If a major hiccup were to arrest the accelerating growth of its Eastern trading partners (such as happened in the ’90s with the great East Asian meltdown), much of the great gains that Australia has experienced economically over the past decade could be wiped away overnight.

Australia simply lacks a fall-back position in the event of a commodity slump.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Howard faces a federal election during the Australian spring. His poll numbers have slumped severely, and the high-profile publicity given to the Bush-Howard relationship during the apec conference, based on Howard’s support for President Bush in the war on terror, is likely to do Howard’s campaign for re-election more harm than good.

Prime Minister Howard was deeply affected by having met with President Bush in Washington just one day before 9/11. His reaction of instant support for the American president, given his proximity to the center of disaster when the Islamic extremists slaughtered 3,000 citizens in America on that infamous day, was to be expected. What places John Howard in a category different from the American president’s group of diminishing supporters in the war on terror is the rarity of his “ringing endorsement of Bush and the Iraq mission … among foreign leaders, even those who have openly supported the war” (Christian Science Monitor, September 6).

Yet John Howard is a man of conviction, as he has proven in his stand against Islamic fanaticism within Australia. He may yet prove to be more than just a politician, being prepared to sacrifice his political prospects for his deeply held conviction that his stance in support of America is what is right for his country.

Such a stance fits the definition not of a politician, but of a true statesman.