It was billed as a major foreign policy address. But while US Vice-President Joe Biden's just-completed remarks at the Paddington Town Hall in Sydney didn't quite live up to that billing, it did have its points of interest. Biden's mood was subdued, stoical and above all reassuring: America was in Asia for the long haul. There was lots of standard-issue uplift ('instead of asking "Why?", Australians and Americans ask "Why not?') and even a rhetorical flourish about refusing to 'worship at the shrine of orthodoxy'. And as you would expect, there was plenty of generous praise for the US-Australia alliance.
My first impression is that Biden didn't say anything particularly novel about the regional security situation or America's commitment to the region. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the speech, as regards Asia Pacific security, was just how emphatic Biden was about America's continuing regional commitment. Again, none of this was new, but it was a point of emphasis that was no doubt aimed at Beijing and other regional capitals. Biden began by talking up America's military capabilities: it's unmatched ability to project naval and air power all over the world, and its intention to maintain a qualitative edge for years to come. And America was planning to move more of its most advanced capabilities to the Pacific, he said.
Biden then talked about America's commitment to maintaining the 'rules-based order' in the region, a phrase that is also popular in Australia. It's worth checking out these two pieces about how the Chinese read this phrase.
As for America's commitment to the region, Biden said several times that the US is a Pacific nation; 'we will maintain that posture as long as we exist', he said. Repeating President Obama's phrase from Canberra in 2011, Biden said 'We are all in' and that the US is 'not going anywhere'... because 'our presence essential to maintaining peace and stability...America is the lynchpin.'
Biden also used a phrase from his grandfather: 'with the Grace of God and goodwill of the neighbours', America's presence in the region would endure. I'm not sure that he intended it, but that oblique reference to the goodwill of the neighbours was as near as Biden got to acknowledging that some countries in the region (OK, just one) might actually object to America's 'lynchpin' status and its promise to stay forever. It would have been fascinating to hear Biden address in detail the tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea and other regional security issues.
A few other stray points of interest: Biden boasted that he had spent more time than any world leader with Chinese President Xi Jinping. And in describing the US-Australia alliance, he mentioned intelligence sharing and referred to the 'Five eyes' community. That's not a term which used to appear in the public utterances of any leader from those five countries. Thank you Edward Snowden.
Also on the alliance, Biden said it was a measure of the closeness of our two militaries that Australian military commanders had been put directly in charge of US troops. 'We don't let that happen very often', he said to chuckles. He emphasised that there was 'no daylight between our fighting forces', which is exactly what worries some people here in Australia who prefer that Australia is not so closely tied to US military decision-making.
Near the end of the speech, Biden turned to domestic matters: 'Don't worry about our election; the better angels will prevail'.
It was a tone of reassurance and comfort which matched the rest of the speech. But to bring comfort is also an acknowledgment that comfort is required. Evidently the Vice-President and his advisers judged that allies and friends in the region needed to be reminded that America's economic and military strength is enduring, and need to be assured that, in its presidential politics, the US is not lurching towards demagoguery. That in itself is a worrying sign.