Quo vadis – Australian foreign policy and ANZUS.
Summary. Trump has the potential to mark an inflection point in the evolution of Australia as a self-confident and independent Indo-Pacific actor.
The imminent prospect of a Donald Trump presidency has generated restiveness among America’s European and Pacific allies about the costs, risks and constraints of the alliance alongside the undoubted security, diplomatic and economic benefits. Japan, without abandoning the alliance, is reportedly considering a more self-reliant diplomacy to cope with the ‘America First’ Trump presidency.
Trump has the potential to mark an inflection point in the evolution of Australia too as a self-confident and independent Indo–Pacific actor. Two critical examples illustrate the constraints on Australia of a lickspittle ‘deputy sheriff’ role to Washington: nuclear disarmament initiatives and China–US relations.
Although the global stockpile of nuclear warheads has fallen significantly from more than 64,000 at peak in 1986 to fewer than 15,000 today, the prospects of their use have grown. More countries possess the bomb in more volatile regions with a history of armed confrontations and a tight timeframe within which to make the high-pressure decision to use the bomb. For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time. For nuclear Armageddon to break out, deterrence or fail safe mechanisms need to break down only once. Deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being always in office on all sides: a dubious and not very reassuring precondition (think North Korea and the US from January onwards). It depends equally critically on there being no rogue launch, human error or system malfunction. This is an impossibly high bar for the maintenance of nuclear peace.
There is no indication in Trump’s previous musings of any interest in pursuing nuclear arms control and disarmament, either unilaterally, bilaterally through negotiations with Russia, or by means of a multilateral treaty. Given all we know about his erratic and volatile temperament, President Trump should motivate Australia to elevate nuclear disarmament to the very top of its foreign policy priority. In the 1980s, New Zealand split from ANZUS because its core value of opposing the nuclear dimensions of the alliance could not be accommodated. On 27 October Australia found itself on the wrong side of history, geography and humanity on a UN General Assembly first committee resolution to negotiate a legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons next year. Resolution A/C.1/71/L.41 was adopted by a landslide 123-38 (16 abstentions) vote. US allies Australia, Japan and South Korea were the only Asia–Pacific countries to vote against it.
The ban movement is inspired by three sentiments. Many countries are disenchanted with the glacially slow pace of movement towards disarmament by the nuclear-weapons states, notwithstanding their legal obligation under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Because the NPT obligation is a general responsibility of all States Parties, they are fully justified in pressing ahead with a ban treaty ahead of the nuclear powers’ willingness to join them. The treaty will remove the last remaining normative justification for any country to possess the bomb.
The effort has gained added momentum from the growing consciousness of the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear war. No country individually, nor the international system collectively, has the physical and administrative capacity to cope with the consequences. It is in the interests of the very survival of humanity, therefore, that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances. The only guarantee of their non-use is total abolition. Resolution L.41 fulfils the 127-nation humanitarian pledge – which also was opposed by Australia – ‘to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons’.
Of the five NPT-licit nuclear weapons states, four voted against Resolution L.41: France, Russia, UK, and US; China abstained. Among the four non-NPT nuclear-armed states, Israel voted against, India and Pakistan abstained and North Korea (!) voted yes. Australia’s negative vote betrayed its own activist tradition on nuclear arms control but affirmed solidarity with Washington.
Regional geopolitical tensions
Although the historical origins and cultural roots of most Australians lie in Europe and its primary strategic alliance is with the US, Australia’s primary security focus is on the Indo–Pacific and its major trading partners are in Northeast Asia. Australia is located in the Indo-Pacific, has to survive economically and strategically in this region and must define its international role at least in part through this immutable gravitational pull of geography.
Our security policy has been framed historically by the belief that the Western Pacific must be dominated by an Anglo-Saxon maritime power. Now the US is engaged for strategic primacy in the Pacific with China as the latter morphs from a continental to a maritime power, with increasing power projection capability. While Trump has indicated a preference for cooling tensions with Russia in Europe, which is welcome, he has also threatened to escalate trade and possibly strategic tensions with China, which is high risk. A posture of appeasement could set the stage for conflict down the road. The bigger risk of falling into the Thucydides trap of war during power transitions will come from the US trying to thwart China’s legitimate aspirations and attacking its interests, particularly in the context of two centuries of slights, injustices and humiliations inflicted on China by the West and Japan.
In Chinese eyes, Australia appears to have joined the US in a de facto containment strategy. What Americans portray as ‘rebalancing’ can be (mis)read as ‘overbalancing’ or even an attempted ‘counterbalancing’ against China’s growing presence and clout in the region, with Australia constituting the southern bastion of the containment strategy. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was not alone in worrying that, under the rhetorical rubric of a strategic pivot to Asia and with Australian collusion, Washington was turning China into an enemy that China does not wish to be and Australia does not need. On balance, he argued shortly before his death, the US, its decision making deeply flawed, its judgment increasingly suspect and its interests and values diverging significantly from Australia’s, had become a dangerous ally.
Charting an independent Australian foreign policy according to a Canberra-based calculation of national values and interests does not require a rupture of ANZUS. However, as with New Zealand in the 1980s, if the alliance is seen to require a total subordination of Australian voice, vote and interests to US demands on all international policy priorities, then calls for cutting the security umbilical cord will gain currency. Thus a visibly independent foreign policy on matters important to us may well prove to be the most effective strategy for preserving the core of the alliance.
Professor Ramesh Thakur is in the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.