LOUIS DEVINE. Australia Should Re-imagine Its Alliance With the United States (AIIA 7.5.20)

ANZUS was established in geopolitical circumstances that no longer exist. A changing environment doesn’t mean Australia should exit the alliance, but in light of a rising China, it must rethink how ANZUS determines policy.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visits the ANZUS Corridor that commemorates the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Sept. 20, 2019. Source: DoD/Lisa Ferdinando https://bit.ly/3dnZkOX

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.”


Louis Devine holds an Honours degree from the University of Melbourne in International Relations and Philosophy. His thesis looked at the geostrategic ambitions and maritime strategy driving China’s naval modernisation. He currently sits on the national committee of the Australian Republic Movement. Follow him on twitter @LouisDevine13

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6 Responses to LOUIS DEVINE. Australia Should Re-imagine Its Alliance With the United States (AIIA 7.5.20)

  1. Andrew Smith says:

    Australian government and media maybe supportive of Trump’s White House regarding the PRC, but appears that some of our publicly owned mining companies have other ideas:

    ‘BEIJING (Reuters) – The world’s top listed miner BHP Group said on Tuesday it had made its first yuan-denominated sale of iron ore to China Baoshan Iron & Steel Co Ltd (Baosteel)… ….Baowu noted it had now struck yuan-based deals with the “three giants” of iron ore – BHP, Rio Tinto and Vale.

    The fourth-biggest iron ore miner, Australia’s Fortescue Metals Group, is also selling in yuan after setting up a trading entity in China in April 2019.’


  2. Ken Oliver says:

    I take issue with your claim that Australian calls for an independent inquiry into COVID19’s origins represents our being more independent within ANZUS.

    This call originated with Trump for the the purest of domestic political reasons (it’s called finding a scapegoat, and foreigners are always a great candidate) and echoed by Morrison partly for the same domestic reason and partly because Morrison listens to the US-sourced right wing parallel universe where WHO is part of the one-world government of the UN.

    If Trump or Morrison really wanted a fair dinkum inquiry they’d not be using megaphone diplomacy for it; it would have been a matter of quiet lobbying. The megaphone was aimed at domestic audiences but the Chinese naturally see it as designed to humiliate them and are reacting accordingly. Not a problem for Trump, but purest idiocy on our part.

  3. It was Machiavelli, a man with much experience of inter-state treaties, who strongly advised a Prince not to enter into any alliance with a state much stronger than his own. On entering the alliance the Prince would immediately inherit all the enemies of the more powerful partner, of which there were likely to be many. When the point was reached that the Prince had to call on his partner for assistance, his partner would do so – if it was considered to be in its national interest and would not do so, if it considered that it wasn’t – in either case irrespective of whether or not there was a pre-existing alliance.

  4. Louis Devine says:

    Thanks for your comment Mike. You’re quite right. I worried that my article implied I thought this process would be easy – I don’t. Unfortunately word limits are the enemy of detail. As you’d know better than me, the US has invested heavily in cultivating a pro-US consensus in both major parties. There would surely be consequences if Australia attempted a less subservient relationship. Nonetheless, all things considered, I believe the benefits would be worth it, especially as China’s power continues to grow.

  5. Mike Scrafton Mike Scrafton says:

    Louis, your analysis and the conclusion it leads to will be agreed by many.
    The path to get there far is more difficult than you imply. Extracting Australia from the subordinate relationship with the US, in which ANZUS is emblematic but not the only factor by far, will be difficult politically and in practice.
    It has to be done in Australia’s interests. But there will be adverse consequences if Australia goes this route and it will result in less access to intelligence and high tech military equipment. It will affect the opportunities to exercise with the US and build skills. It will affect Australia’s access to and heft in international forums. Australia’s leaders and the public will have to be primed to accept the costs.

  6. Philip Bond says:

    ANZUS has taken Australia into every US inspired incursion (except South America) since Korea. Vietnam Iraq Afghanistan (and currently the Philippines) is only to give credence the internal US political environment. The short attention span of the current US president could very well take us into confrontations with Iran and China.

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