The role of alliances in Australia’s national security strategy

Feb 9, 2023
Map of the world background of the flag of Australia.

While alliances and treaties offer some protection against an aggressor, they cannot be counted upon. Australia needs to maintain an independent military capability to deter possible future threats to our independence – not least because we cannot rely on the US in all possible future circumstances.

Today Part 2 of this series on Australia’s national security strategy considers the role of alliances with other countries to deter military aggression.

Yesterday in Part 1 of this series we focussed on how the deployment of ‘soft power’ through diplomacy can help avoid conflict and achieve preferred outcomes through attraction rather than coercion.

The Role of Alliances

It is fair to say that currently Australia’s military alliances and capability are primarily directed to deterring a threat from China. Nevertheless, as Defence procurement requires the planners to look more than a couple of decades ahead, they need to provide for the possibility of a threat from other potentially powerful neighbours in this region. One possibility, for example, is that at some time in the future Indonesia might reject both democracy and the largely secular nature of its polity. Given the fact that Indonesia is our third closest neighbour (after PNG and Timor Leste) and has a population more than ten times ours, this could potentially provide an existential threat to Australia.

But China is considered by our defence planners as providing a potential threat right here and now. China’s rise as a great power, and its concern about the vulnerability of its access to foreign resources and markets, coupled with a more assertive leadership are widely viewed as increasing the risk of future conflict.

On the other hand, the clear message from the series of articles commenting on the Defence Strategic Review in past issues of Pearls & Irritations, is that China has neither the intent nor the capability to attack us.

As far as China’s intent goes, the so-called 14 demands China made of Australia during its Wolf Warrior period were not the action of a friendly power. If accepted, we may have become a vassal state.

The other part of that conclusion is clearly wrong as China certainly has the capability to attack us. China has undertaken a massive build-up of military capability in recent years at a time when it was under no obvious threat. Unlike the early years of the Cold War when senior figures in the US military were calling for a first nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, China faces no such existential threat. And while we don’t want to sleepwalk into a conflict with China, we cannot totally rule out the possibility of such a war.

Indeed, as the Government has insisted, we will not change our values and will continue to speak out when necessary to defend those values. The Government has also made it very clear that the alliance with America will continue based on our shared identities and values and the desire for a peaceful way of life for the Australian community in the future without the fear of aggression.

The most likely immediate source of a war would be if China used force to exercise its sovereignty over Taiwan, which it has not ruled out. Australia has recognised China’s sovereignty but maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity about its response to an attempted Chinese invasion. We have also strongly supported the status quo, opposing both a declaration of independence by Taiwan and a military solution to the situation on the part of China.

That policy should continue, but we agree with Paul Keating that Australia has no strategic interest in entering any such conflict. This is consistent with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s statement that he has “never accepted the view that an alliance with the United States mandates automatic compliance with every element of American foreign and security policy”.

From a national security perspective, perhaps the most significant group with which Australia is engaged is the Five Eyes intelligence group of the leading Anglophone countries. Importantly, because Australia participated in the invasion of Iraq, unlike Canada, and did not reject visits by warships possibly carrying nuclear weapons, unlike New Zealand, we are now one of the three core members of the club. It is notable that these three key nations in Five Eyes came together to form the AUKUS group.

We know little of what Five Eyes does in any detail. According to Richard Kerbaj, in his Secret History of the Five Eyes, although the group was not made public until 2010, Australia has been a member for over 60 years. “Together the Five Eyes,” Kerbaj writes, “have weaponised hacking and agent running in an intelligence arms race which has spanned the Cold War, rendition and torture of Guantanamo detainees, the battle against Isis, the attempt to disrupt Moscow’s and Beijing’s meddling in western democracies and supporting Ukraine in its fight against the 2022 Russian invasion.” Five Eyes must be doing something right, however, because there are several countries – Japan, France and Germany included – that are eager to be invited to join the club.

Publicly at least, the cornerstone of Australia’s security policy remains the ANZUS alliance, entered into by the US, somewhat reluctantly, in 1951. The main objective of Australia’s post-war diplomacy in Washington, first under Evatt and then Spender, had been to negotiate a treaty with the US that provided a security guarantee along the lines of Article V of the NATO alliance, which mandates that an attack on one signatory represents an attack on all. But while Australia was concerned about a possible resurgent Japan in the future, the US felt the general level of threat in the Asia Pacific at that time was insufficient to require a security guarantee. Dulles, the chief negotiator on the American side, was willing to conclude a treaty with Australia and New Zealand in order to induce them to agree to a soft peace treaty with Japan, but he was only willing to go as far as to copy Article IV of NATO. This provides for consultation between the allies in the event of an attack and does not provide a security guarantee.

The omission of a security guarantee from the treaty has always been a substantial difficulty for Australia. It has meant in practice that our governments have been willing to pay a very high insurance premium for the treaty seemingly in order to try to ensure that America really would come to Australia’s assistance if attacked.

As a result of this, Australia has become perhaps the most bellicose country in our region in terms of sending our forces to war, at times when the national interest case was weak or non-existent. While Vietnam was the most important of these conflicts in terms of Australia’s commitments, we also deployed our forces to two wars in Iraq and a long conflict in Afghanistan, which achieved very little and from which we have only recently emerged. Although John Howard invoked ANZUS at the time of 9/11, none of these commitments resulted from an attack on America by any state actor and so would not formally have triggered ANZUS.

All these conflicts have cost Australia a great deal in blood, treasure and the mental health of service personnel who may have been uncertain as to what they were fighting for. In the one instance when Australia was threatened with a possible attack, at the time of the INTERFET operations in East Timor, the US made it very clear that should we get into trouble, we could not rely on American boots on the ground. The US did, however, provide valuable intelligence to their Five Eyes partner, just as they did to the UK during the Falklands war.

It is also notable that the lack of a security guarantee under ANZUS stands in stark contrast with America’s treaties with Japan and South Korea. While the peace treaty with Japan, signed in the same year as ANZUS, did not contain a security guarantee, following anti-American protests in Japan a revised treaty was signed in 1960. Article V of the new treaty commits the United States to defend Japan if it is attacked by a third party. The Mutual Defence Treaty signed with South Korea in 1953 commits each party to come to the aid of the other in case of an “external armed attack”.

Yet Australia now has a great deal of agency in the relationship with America, much more so than we had in 1951 and also since the Asian pivot. As Professor Michael Wesley says, currently “Australia has a position of influence with the United States as never before”.

Pine Gap and the other joint facilities provide considerable value to America’s national security. But they also make us a nuclear target, as we have known for nearly 50 years. A request to amend ANZUS so as to provide Australia with a similar security guarantee to those enjoyed by Japan and Korea for the last 63 and 70 years respectively would seem to be entirely reasonable and long overdue. This should also include a guarantee of extended nuclear deterrence. It is difficult to see an unwillingness to act on this in past decades, certainly in the period since the end of the Vietnam war, as anything other than a failure of Australia’s foreign policy.

Other important security arrangements to which Australia is a party include an important treaty with Japan, the QUAD, and AUKUS.

The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between Australia and Japan, signed by the Albanese government but building on earlier agreements, commits both sides to increased cooperation on a range of issues including military interoperability, intelligence, cyber security, space cooperation, logistics, law enforcement, and energy security. One result is to make Australia Japan’s closest security partner next to the United States.

In addition, Japan and Australia provide the regional cornerstones of the QUAD group, which also includes the US and India. Although India remains non-aligned, its population is now greater than China’s and it is a very important nascent great power in the Indo Pacific. From Australia’s perspective, the QUAD provides a forum that at least does no harm and may become increasingly important in regional affairs over time, especially if it enlarges its economic focus on helping other countries in the region.

AUKUS is a very recent treaty, which has provoked some controversy. Ironically, while one of Dulles’ concerns about ANZUS was that it would look like a white man’s club, 70 years later AUKUS reinforces that imagery in spades. Realistically, however, AUKUS asks no more of Australia than previously under ANZUS, and the UK is never again going to be a major strategic partner in the Indo Pacific. The main benefit of AUKUS is its potential to give us access to advanced military technologies that we need to allow Australia to become more self-reliant in our own defence.

In sum, although Australia’s treaties offer some protection against an aggressor, they cannot be counted upon. Australia does need to maintain an independent military capability to deter possible future threats to our independence – not least because we cannot rely on the US in all possible future circumstances.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends Part 1 of this series of articles:

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