When US officials talk about the US-Australia alliance, they almost always highlight, as President Obama did in hisNovember 2011 speech in Canberra, that Australians have fought alongside Americans 'in every single major conflict of the past hundred years.' This is a fact to be celebrated, but statements on both sides of the Pacific that Australia is America’s 'deputy sheriff' in Asia, compounded by the enduring concept of US-led 'hub-and-spoke' alliances in the region, have only reinforced perceptions of Australia as a dependable junior partner.
Australia’s own actions in recent years have portrayed a country reluctant to step out on its own. Canberra has often appeared unwilling to take a leadership role in the region or on the world stage, much less help to manage the US-China security competition in Asia. When Canberra does lead, it is too often on niche issues deemed more appropriate for a 'middle power.'
Through American eyes, this appears to be driven by a combination of factors, including an overly-modest self-assessment of Australia’s power and influence, the perception that Australia’s real national security challenges do not extend far beyond its periphery, and the belief that there is little to be gained by inserting itself politically between the world’s two largest economies, both of which have an outsized effect on Australia’s economic wellbeing.
But in recent weeks, Australia has taken steps that suggest these assumptions may no longer be predominant in Canberra. Even if driven by domestic politics, Australia has played a leading role in marshaling the international community’s response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. Capitalising on Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop quickly traveled to New York to introduce a binding resolution calling for a 'full, thorough and independent international investigation.' It passed unanimously. Back in Canberra, Prime Minister Abbott went so far as to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be welcome to attend November’s G20 summit in Brisbane if Russia proves complicit in the attack.