Australia’s strategic environment is undergoing the most rapid and far-reaching change since World War Two. For the first time in Australia’s history, the world’s largest economic power will be located in Asia. Despite this, Australia’s defence policy continues along old assumptions. Specifically, Australia continues to assume that the ANZUS treaty, its military alliance with the United States, is the best way to guarantee Australia’s ongoing security.
Securing and preserving the alliance has been the bedrock of Australian security policy since the 1950’s. When Singapore fell to Imperial Japan in World War II, it became clear that Britain could no longer guarantee Australia’s security. In 1941, Prime Minister John Curtain announced that Australia “looks to America.” Ten years later, the Australia, New Zealand, and United States Security (ANZUS) Treaty was signed, formally establishing an alliance. Unlike NATO or the US-Japanese alliance, ANZUS provides no mutual defence obligation. The treaty simply states that in the event of an armed attack, both parties must “consult together” and act “in accordance with [their] constitutional processes.” Such loose wording is a perennial source of anxiety for Australian defence planners. Nonetheless, ANZUS provided a baseline from which Australian governments could work to deepen their security cooperation with the US.
During the Cold War, Australians feared communist expansionism throughout Asia. Australia adopted a “forward defence” policy, supporting American military forward deployments in Asia. The logic of forward defence held that as long as the Asian balance of power was in America’s favour, Australian interests were secure. It was under this framework that Australia committed troops to the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and later, Iraq and Afghanistan. Arguably, American military presence in Asia did underwrite regional stability, which in turn facilitated economic growth and demand for Australian resources. In that regard, the alliance had served its original purpose.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US enjoyed an unprecedented “unipolar” moment as the world’s sole superpower. China’s rise is bringing the unipolar moment to a close, dramatically changing Australia’s strategic outlook. China buys one third of Australia’s exports, making it Australia’s largest trading partner by far. On the one hand, Australia wants China to continue growing and buying Australian exports. On the other hand, Australia wants it security ally, the United States, to remain the world’s strongest power. Managing this tension is Australia’s primary geopolitical challenge.
On current trends, China’s economy will overtake the United States within a few years. And we are already witnessing the gradual transformation of Chinese economic power into military power. China’s paramount strategic interest is limiting the US Navy’s ability to operate unencumbered in maritime Asia. Why? Because China has learnt the lessons of history. US warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait evokes memories of China’s “century of humiliation,” during which China was subjugated by colonial powers from the sea. During the Opium War, the British Navy sailed along China’s coast, inland through rivers, and burnt the Emperor’s Summer Palace to the ground. China knows the cost of not having an effective navy.
Unsurprisingly, China is now set on undermining America’s naval presence in Asia. Investment in nuclear submarines, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and deep-water ports in the South China Sea all form part of China’s strategy to gain control of maritime Asia. In response, the US announced its “pivot” to Asia. A stated goal of the so-called pivot is to deploy a majority of US Naval forces to the Indo-Pacific. China has labelled the pivot “containment” and begun deploying missiles capable of hitting US bases and aircraft carriers within the region. Recently, Congress introduced a $6 billion defence fund explicitly for deterring China in the Pacific. Clearly, the US will not give up primacy in Asia without competition.
America’s refusal to accommodate China’s growing power threatens regional stability. Increased American military expenditure is likely to cause a security dilemma, triggering China to accelerate its military strategy in Asia. In the event of a stand-off in the South China Sea, neither the US nor China will be willing to deescalate first. America knows that acquiescing to China in such an event would undermine allies’ faith in its commitment to the region. A game of chicken between two warships could unintentionally escalate into major conflict.
Australia thus faces a dilemma. In tying itself closer to the US militarily, Australia is gambling that Washington’s strategy will succeed. This is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. If successful, Australia can continue to enjoy US protection and the benefits of Chinese trade. If unsuccessful, Australia could find itself dragged into conflict with its largest trading partner. Rather than take this risk, some suggest Australia should exit ANZUS entirely, opting instead for a more neutral foreign policy.
This is overkill. Australia can and should retain the benefits of the alliance without going all the way with the USA. Nothing in the ANZUS treaty stipulates that Australia must support every aspect of US foreign policy. Australia was under no obligation to invade Iraq or Afghanistan. Australia is also under no obligation to host US marines in Darwin or to purchase 100 American Joint Strike Fighters. Australia’s foreign policy actions are conscious choices, and they shouldn’t be excused from scrutiny by hiding behind a treaty. Australia can retain the intelligence and technological benefits from the alliance without succumbing to American pressure to contain China. Calling for Australian independence within the alliance has become a cliché, but that doesn’t make it impossible.
A more independent foreign policy will still speak up against China when it is in Australia’s interests to do so. Australia’s current proposal for an independent inquiry on the origins of COVID-19 is in the global interest and has merit regardless of what the White House wants. Chinese political interference, where present, should be exposed and countered. Australia should not however, continue to purchase military equipment designed to assist the US in a high-intensity maritime conflict, such as the Air Warfare Destroyers and Amphibious Carriers. America’s trade war with China is not in Australia’s interest, and a more independent stance should make that clear.
As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. Similarly, if all you have is a military designed to support the US, then American interests begin to look like Australian interests. Changing circumstances offer the opportunity for a strategic reset. Australia need not leave the alliance, but it must become more independent within it. As Former Prime Minister Paul Keating says, ANZUS should not be regarded as “sacramental.”