Quo vadis – Australian foreign policy and ANZUS.
Summary. Dennis Richardson, the Secretary of the Defence Department, recently informed us that the ANZUS Alliance was ongoing, irrespective of who was President of the United States. Of course, this is true, but so what? What was the point of Richardson’s admonition, and what was he hoping to achieve? It would be most unfortunate If Richardson’s comment was a crude attempt to stop the much-needed debate in Australia about how we should adjust to changing circumstances in the Asia-Pacific region and develop a more independent foreign policy as advocated in numerous articles posted on this blog. To my mind it is now more important than ever for Australia to forge an independent foreign policy, given the uncertainties attaching to future American policies and priorities under President Trump.
In one sense Richardson’s avowal that the ANZUS Alliance is ongoing, irrespective of who is President of the United States, is a statement of the obvious. There is no significant support for changing the ANZUS Treaty in the Australian international policy community just because of a change in the American Administration. All involved recognise that Australia has gained enormously from its alliance with the United States – particularly through its access to American intelligence and the latest in weaponry. It is clearly in our interests to continue this alliance whoever is President of America.
However, the interpretation given to the obligations of the respective Treaty partners has clearly varied over time, according to changing circumstances, and especially changing American priorities. In this respect the ANZUS Treaty is not fundamentally different from other military alliances, such as NATO.
In particular, the extent of American support for Australia, and the exigencies and circumstances that it might cover have never been clearly defined under the ANZUS Treaty. For example, in the period of confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia, where Australia sided with Malaysia, America put clear limits on its involvement and support. We have never been able to assume American support on our terms, whatever the issue.
Furthermore, these doubts about how far we can rely on the Americans, are the main reason why successive Australian Governments have so slavishly joined America in its various overseas military adventures, staring with the Vietnam War. In none of these engagements has Australian involvement been based on an adequate consideration of what Australian interests are at stake, what are the exact war aims, and what is the exit strategy from each of the conflicts. Instead what we were hoping by backing America in every foreign conflict, without any questions, was to establish a sense of gratitude and obligation by the Americans that Australia could draw on if necessary in the future.
Now, as numerous writers for this blog have exposed, circumstances in our region – the Asia-Pacific Region – are changing dramatically. Most importantly China is now the number one economic power in the world. It is also by far and away our most important trading partner. The US may still be the strongest military power, but that military power will not succeed in attempts to contain China. Already the other member countries of the SE Asian region are seeking an independent accommodation with China, with the Philippines being the most obvious example.
As Michael McKinley put it in his posting on this blog (24 November): “The conclusion is that the US and its allies will live in a world where shaping a global order the way that they have since the end of the Cold War will be increasingly difficult, perhaps impossible.” And as McKinley then goes on to conclude, “what is good for the United States is not necessarily good for the rest of the world in general, nor for Australia more specifically”.
As Gareth Evans showed in his efforts to bring peace to Cambodia, it is possible for Australia to pursue independent policies in East Asia without damaging our alliance relationship with the US. Given the inevitable shift in the balance of power that is now occurring in our region, it is vital that we re-establish this capacity for independent analysis of our interests immediately. Furthermore, it is inevitable that for some time under President Trump there will be considerable uncertainty about American policy intentions and priorities, and that only heightens the urgency about Australia being clear about its own interests and how best to pursue them.
Australian independence can and should be compatible with preserving the ANZUS Treaty, and the Treaty should not be used as a reason to constrain the necessary reconsideration of Australian foreign policy.
Michael Keating is former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.