Is the US a reliable ally?

May 24, 2021

Australia has put almost all its defence eggs in the American basket at the cost of further weakening relations with China. We are betting that in our hour of need, the US will come to our aid. But will it? It is worth looking at the American record of supporting its allies of one kind or another. It is important to remember that ANZUS doesn’t commit the US to anything if Australia is attacked except to think about what it wants to do.

If our government thinks the US will support Australia when it is not in US interests to do so just because we are mates, then it is very naïve. If, As Penny Wong suggests, it is all about domestic fear-mongering, then it is irresponsible. Our ally is more likely to get us into trouble with China than out of it.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was fulsome in his promises to Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne when she went to Washington in mid-May. He said that the US “has Australia’s back” and would support us against Chinese bullying.  I’m not sure if he was stroking our tummy to keep us obedient or patting us on the back for past favours. Given that the US has filled the gap left by Chinese sanctions on Australia by selling barley and other things to China perhaps it was more like a stab in the back?

The distinguished American scholar Alfred McCoy recently wrote:

The many Afghans who believed in America’s democratic promises will join a growing line of abandoned allies, stretching back to the Vietnam era and including, more recently, Kurds, Iraqis, and Somalis, among others. Once the full costs of Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan become apparent, the debacle may, not surprisingly, discourage potential future allies from trusting Washington’s word or judgment”.

Given that our faith has remained strong despite these events we will probably remain steadfast despite some rumblings of independence. On the other side of the coin, the US has continued to support military dictators it put in place to replace democracies that posed a threat to perceived US commercial of strategic interests, e.g. Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua and many others. It supported the Taliban against the USSR but then dumped them to install a government which it is about to dump thus leading to a return of the Taliban.

If we try to find some correlation between who the US supports and who it abandons, we will find that it is all about what suits American interests rather than democracy versus autocracy or rules-based orders. Australia’s somewhat naïve faith in 100 years of mateship doesn’t stand up to analysis. It has all been one-sided. We have supported the US in a series of spectacular failures but in terms of them doing something for us it is more like one hundred years of solitude. (In the one case where we asked for American support over West New guinea, President Kennedy backed Indonesia instead of us because he saw that as being in US interests.) To understand Chinese attitudes, we must always take into account the hundred years of humiliation inflicted on China by Western countries. The Chinese have not forgotten so sanctions are simply seen as a return of the old aggressors. There is nothing wrong in putting your own interests first but Australians are very naïve if they think the US will do anything different. We judge the US by different standards from China. We criticise China for ignoring an International Court decision on the South China Sea but ignore a similar decision against the UK and USA over Diego Garcia. The USA and its people have many virtues and much to be admired but this should not blind us to that nation’s flaws.

So what happens next? President Biden has made it clear that he sees his task as restoring American leadership, hopefully not through military means although this is not ruled out. Much ink is being spilt over Taiwan as the next danger point because of both Chinese and American posturing. Xi talks about ending the civil war by reintegrating the lost province while the US talks of protecting democracy and the freedom of Taiwan. Australia has jumped on the US bandwagon and seems to be going even further to needlessly upset China. This is probably mainly for domestic purposes although no doubt we hope it will gain us brownie points in Washington. While Xi may not be as aggressive as some make out, he has certainly made noises about reintegrating Taiwan to the Motherland. The current formula which marries reality and face worked well. There may well be domestic pressures on Xi from some to invade and from others not to. Previously, the USA deterred the PRC from finishing the civil war but things have changed considerably since 1950. For a start, Taiwan is a thriving democracy with the support of a majority of its people instead of a resented dictatorship run by KMT thugs. More importantly perhaps, the military situation is very different. China is much more powerful. Any US military action would face the problem that it is easier to defend than attack especially when your opponent has to supply its forces over a distance. We can but hope that neither side sees nuclear warfare as an option.

Chinese aggression is probably exaggerated but there can be no doubt that Xi has taken a much stronger and more authoritarian approach than Deng. There is a case for wanting the US and China to cancel each other out in our region rather than having one or other dominate. This is the view of many in Southeast Asia. While the rhetoric is wrapped up in ideology, the reality is that both powers want to dominate so it is in our interests to have a counter weight to China in the region and perhaps also a counter weight to the US.  But is it in our interests to be fixed in one camp?

The crystal ball remains cloudy but we can be sure that the US would only intervene to protect Australia if American interests were involved. It is also hard to imagine a situation in which Australia was threatened and the US was not but there may be threats to US interests which do not threaten Australia. Our military is so entwined with the US military and we are so dependent on the US that the danger of being drawn into another American failure is real. If the US goes to war with China Australia will automatically be involved if only because we host important American bases like Pine Gap which would be targets. We have not given away our sovereignty to China as some hawks like Mr Hastie would have us believe, but we have given it away to the USA which has a veto on the use of some of our military equipemt. There is a difference between good friends, which we should be, and client states.

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