Alumnus and Former Ambassador to Australia Speaks to Students on America’s Rebalancing to Asia

March 18, 2014
By Daniel Severson JD/MPP 2016

When the Obama Administration thought about the friends in the region who could help the United States enhance its presence in the Asia-Pacific, Australia was a natural and key partner, says Jeffrey Bleich MPP 1986 and U.S. ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013.

In fact, in November 2011, President Obama outlined major elements of America’s rebalancing policy in a speech to the Australian Parliament. With a favorable geographic location that bridges the Indian and Pacific Oceans, a robust economy that has avoided recession, a diplomatic corps that punches above its weight, and strong cultural and security ties with the U.S. – Australia is a close friend and indispensable partner, said Bleich, when he spoke at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) on March 13.

America’s “rebalancing” policy recognizes that the center of world economic growth and demographic change is shifting to Asia and that U.S. foreign policy, economic, and national security priorities must realign accordingly. Ambassador Bleich highlighted some of the Administration’s early policy successes. On the diplomatic front, the U.S. seeks to expand and upgrade American participation in the alphabet soup of multilateral Asian institutions. To that end, the U.S. signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN, and President Obama attended the East Asia Summit, a first for a U.S. president.

The U.S. is also working to increase economic opportunities, including signing a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea, bringing the U.S. into the Trans-Pacific Partnership FTA negotiations, and making Asian nations central to the National Export Initiative. Greater trade flows through the Asia-Pacific mean the U.S. has an interest in preserving free navigation, and Asia’s rapid addition of people to the middle class increases the risk of conflicts over resources. As a result, America seeks to move toward a broader, more flexible and sustainable security presence in Asia. The rotation of U.S. Marines to Darwin, Australia was one of the most visible elements of the rebalancing effort. Bleich noted the deployment is not meant to contain China but rather to increase military cooperation and training with Australia for a range of missions, including disaster relief.

With the rebalance, America aims to help shape the norms and rules of the Asia-Pacific. Bleich acknowledged that leading by example can be challenging, however. For example, by not ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – the common legal framework for managing the world’s oceans that is endorsed by 162 countries, including China and Japan – the U.S. undermines both its claims to specific navigational rights and its calls for dispute settlement over contested waters such as the South China Sea. Bleich also made the case to Australia that passing an Internet filtering law would undercut Australia’s efforts to convince other countries not to restrict freedom of expression.

When asked about his proudest moment as ambassador, Bleich replied that if he could name one achievement, then he would have failed in his duty as Chief of Mission. He described the U.S.-Australian alliance like a marriage; its success is measured not by one achievement, but by the strength of the entire relationship. At the same time, Bleich said one signature event during his tenure came in 2011 in response to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Working around the clock, the American and Australian air forces diverted C17 transport planes intended for Afghanistan to deliver water cannons to help stabilize Fukushima’s nuclear power plant.

Bleich spoke to the Kennedy School’s Diplomacy Professional Interest Council, a student group. Having worked on improving higher education in California, reducing youth violence nationally, and promoting trade and investment internationally, Bleich jokingly described himself as a man with an “undisciplined set of passions.” He credits his time at HKS with encouraging him to think broadly about a career in public service.

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Jeffrey Bleich MPP 1986, U.S. ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013

Jeffrey Bleich MPP 1986, U.S. ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013, tells the story of a signature event during his tenure, which came in 2011 in response to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

Bleich jokingly described himself as a man with an “undisciplined set of passions.”