US Vice President Joe Biden visited the Asia-Pacific in mid-July, where he met with South Korean and Japanese officials in Hawai‘i before continuing on to Australia and New Zealand. The visit was Biden’s third to the Asia-Pacific as Vice President, but his first that included stops outside East Asia. During the visit, Biden participated in political meetings with high-level officials and paid a visit to Australian troops. Regional military engagement was a top priority on his agenda in both Australia and New Zealand.
Vice President Biden’s meetings in Hawai‘i focused on reassuring Japanese and Korean officials of US commitment to regional security in the face of continuing North Korean aggression. He echoed that message in Australia in remarks delivered after meetings with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten. After asserting that the alliance between the US and Australia, both Pacific nations, was stronger than ever, he discussed military and intelligence cooperation and the US goal to place 60% of its navy in the Pacific by 2020.
Defense issues remained at center stage as Biden traveled on to New Zealand. The nation’s nature as a nuclear-free zone, a policy established in 1987, has caused a rift with the US military since 1985. However, Biden’s visit came with the announcement that the US would send a non-nuclear ship to the archipelago in November to celebrate the New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary. Although the announcement was largely symbolic, the move signaled not only US commitment to the region but also that the US takes its allies’ priorities seriously, whether or not they align directly with its own.
This choice of the military arena as a focus for Biden’s visit to Australia and New Zealand is rooted in the nature of US ties with both countries. The United States, New Zealand, and Australia have been formal allies since the signature of ANZUS, the Australia-New Zealand-United States Security Treaty in 1951. Australia purchases more than two thirds of its military equipment from the United States, making military cooperation a cornerstone of the two countries’ bilateral alliance. The three nations’ military forces also participated in joint military exercises focused on disaster relief in 2015. The exercise is organized annually by the United States and Australia, and 2015 was the first year that New Zealand elected to participate.
Other stops during the week-long visit demonstrated the multifaceted nature of US-Pacific ties. Biden spoke with locals during a layover in American Samoa, and in Australia he visited a cancer treatment research center to announce increased cooperation in the search for a cure, attended an Australian Rules Football game, and visited a Boeing factory. These events allowed the Vice President to reaffirm US economic and cultural ties to the region as well as a commitment to innovation and research, and complemented the emphasis on the role of the military in relations with the Pacific.
Andrea Moneton is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.