SYDNEY—Odd things keep catching my eye here, simply because they look familiar. The small fortress island in the center of Sydney Harbour makes me think of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay; the Harbour Bridge reminds me of Golden Gate. Txhat San Francisco impression is reinforced by the city's Victorian houses, though the billboard-lined airport road reminded me for an instant of Houston. There is an echo of Chicago in some of the 1930s apartment buildings, as well as something very San Diego about all of the landscaping. But when I see a row of cockatoos on a fence—lovely white birds with bright yellow crests and hooked beaks—I know I'm in Australia.
Antipodean flora and fauna, Coca-Cola advertising, split-level housing, and yoga studios: Sydney feels, in my instant and impressionistic assessment, like an outpost of northern California that somehow floated into the South Pacific. It isn't, of course: It's the edge of a vast continent, with a history of its own. In the botanical gardens, a monumental aboriginal sculpture stands not far from the statue of an 18th-century British aristocrat. Both look like they own the place, and in different senses both once did. Still, even if Sydney's resemblance to an American city is superficial, the cultural links between our two countries are strong, as are the political ties—or so we have both assumed until now.
Certainly the United States has been Australia's most important strategic and military partner since Britain's de facto withdrawal from the region after World War II. The Australia New Zealand United States Security Treaty (ANZUS)—a pact discussed a lot more here than in Washington—sealed the arrangement more than 60 years ago. And certainly Australians think they need some alliances: Their "neighborhood" includes North Korea and its missiles, while China rattles sabers in the South China Sea. As a result, some Australians—like so many U.S. allies in so much of the world—are wondering aloud whether our hoary old relationship will last. "China's rise and its subsequent military modernization is changing the strategic order of our region," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Friday. "We have to be prepared."
In Australia there is a lot more underlying unease about the U.S. role in the region than the proliferation of Starbucks here would suggest. A large share of immigration into this country is now Asian; China has become Australia's biggest trading partner. Speaking privately, a politician here told me he was recently lobbied by a constituent who does an enormous amount of business with China: Why couldn't Australia pick an occasional fight with the United States—just a little, symbolic one—to show the Chinese that Australians aren't entirely in the American pocket? A bit of strategic distance from the United States might be good for trade, after all.
Nobody in mainstream politics takes that sort of thing seriously, or so I am assured. But the world of writers and scholars already includes people who think that Australia will eventually have to choose, in some form or another, between China and the United States. A much-discussed book published last year, The China Choice, argued that the United States should cede the role of "superpower" in Asia and strike a deal with China to co-manage the region. Some here think the book was meant to lay the ground for a new Australian "pivot" toward China. At the very least, the conversation reflects a fear that the United States might not be here forever and that a managed exit might be better than an abrupt one.
The Obama administration, as part of its own "pivot" toward Asia, has already tried to stem the tide, announcing a plan to create a de facto base in northern Australia. About 2,500 Marines are to be regularly rotated through. From there, in theory, they could mobilize quickly if trouble arose in Southeast Asia. But in practice, it's a tiny force with lukewarm congressional support and zero public awareness. Who would back them up if the Marines got in trouble? Who will keep the force funded? Australia doesn't feature in U.S. news coverage, except in sports, and isn't on anybody's political radar.
In this sense, Australia is a test case, not so much of American willpower but of the U.S. ability to think strategically, plan ahead, and keep allies on board. I've written about how short-term thinking and carelessness have weakened our traditional alliances in Europe, but Europe is closer; it took a trip here to teach me that the same could happen in the Pacific. Britain is said to have acquired its empire in a fit of absent-mindedness. Is it possible that the United States could lose its "empire," or at least its historic web of alliances, in a fit of absent-mindedness as well?