Obama, Turnbull, and America's Increasing Engagement in Asia in 2016

US President Barack Obama and Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White Hous
US President Barack Obama and Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House January 19, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Today marks the first visit to Washington by Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's new Prime Minister, since taking office in September. Australia is one of America's closest allies in Asia, and a central part of the administration's rebalance strategy. For example, President Obama gave two of his major speeches on Asia in Australia, and Australia is a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Turnbull's visit is significant for the pressing global and regional issues the two leaders likely discussed. But the meeting is also an illustration of the intense engagement with allies and key partners in Asia by the Obama administration in the first month of 2016 -- a reflection of the progress the administration has made in bolstering these partnerships and the increasing importance of them for tackling today's headline-grabbing events.

The battle against ISIS and terrorism was certainly at the top of the list when the two leaders met. Australia is a major partner in the anti-ISIS coalition. As such, the two leaders focused on the recent ISIS terrorist attack in Indonesia -- one of Australia's most important regional partners -- as well as the potential for an increasing threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia and how the two allies can work together to prevent it.

But much of the focus of the alliance is on Asia. It's likely that Obama and Turnbull discussed the threats to regional stability posed by tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in the South China Sea, as well as the topic du jour in the region these days: how to deal with the rise of China. Of course, these issues are not unique to the U.S.-Australia relationship -- they are some of the top reasons why the United States has been boosting its alliances and partnerships in recent years. That fast-paced engagement with partners in Asia has been on full display this month.

First, North Korea's most recent nuclear test kicked into high gear America's coordination with its northeast Asian allies Japan and South Korea. The U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy immediately traveled to the region, paving the way for Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken to visit Seoul and Tokyo this week to coordinate the region's response to North Korea's latest provocation. While relations between Japan and South Korea are strained, it is often North Korea's actions that remind both of the importance of their partnership, and the U.S. role that helps bring them together. Solid trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea coordination now is strengthening the world's response to North Korea, as well as the U.S. position in Asia.

Second, the U.S.-Philippines "2+2" ministerial between Secretary Kerry and Secretary Carter and their counterparts last week was focused squarely on China's assertive actions in the South China Sea. China's landing of a civilian aircraft on its new runway on Fiery Cross Reef--one of China's brand new man-made islands in the South China Sea--early this month was a timely reminder of the importance of the U.S.-Philippines alliance and the US role in Southeast Asia in deterring assertive Chinese actions in the region. Last week, the Philippines Supreme Court also provided its thumbs up to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which will allow U.S. troops to station equipment and build facilities on bases in the Philippines, a huge step forward in an alliance that only 25 years ago saw the Philippines eject the U.S. military presence.

Finally, the Obama administration has continued the critical U.S. role in supporting peaceful cross-Strait relations, a challenge not likely to get easier with this weekend's election in Taiwan. The election of the new Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen represents only the second time a candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party -- which is typically associated with more pro-independence policies -- has won, and the last time that happened cross-Strait relations saw heightened tension. As part of its stabilizing role, this week the U.S. dispatched former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to Taiwan, a traditional trip by a former senior U.S. official to Taipei following a presidential election in Taiwan.

The thread running through many of these partnerships is China, and questions over its role in the region as it rises. America recognizes that while it must continue to strengthen alliances and partnerships to deter destabilizing behavior by anyone -- North Korea on the peninsula, China in the South China Sea, or others -- it also must build a strong relationship with China to ensure that actions by both sides to do not engender a self-fulfilling prophecy of the security dilemma in Asia that many worry about. That's why both Secretary Kerry and Deputy Secretary Blinken are visiting Beijing this month, to keep momentum going on areas of cooperation and to engage on key problem areas like North Korea and the South China Sea.

Getting back to the Turnbull visit, how does Australia view its alliance with Washington and its role in this evolving landscape in Asia?

Canberra is watching the region go through truly historic changes, with the rise of new powers and economic and demographic trends that are shifting power dynamics and raising the specter of new challenges -- from maritime disputes to terrorism -- reaching its shores. The alliance with the United States is not only a bedrock of Australian security, but a force multiplier for Australia's role in Asia and beyond, bolstering its voice and influence not only in tackling key security threats in Asia but also in the Middle East. But like every country in the region, these new dynamics are sparking new debates in Australia about the country's role in the region, how to balance its cooperation with Beijing with its concerns, whether to focus more on Asia or in other hotspots like the Middle East, and how best it can continue to play a vital role in upholding regional peace.

And so, while Turnbull's visit may look like a relatively routine trip marking the importance of the U.S.-Australia alliance, it's merely the tip of the iceberg of a concreted American strategy to continue supporting peace and prosperity in Asia in the face of growing tensions, a strategy kicking into high gear as Obama enters his final year in office.

Michael H. Fuchs is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. foreign policy priorities and U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific.