While not yet the majority view, a consensus is growing that the US alliance is no longer in Australia’s national interest and that the AUKUS partnership should be abandoned. The argument for distancing Australian foreign policy from that of America is strong in theory, but its practical implementation would be inordinately difficult and risky. That’s not to deny that greater independence is preferable, just that the scope of the policy challenge cannot be ignored.
Michael Keating captures the dilemma well, “Australia cannot be an effective intermediary in promoting a multipolar governance system in our region while it remains an unswerving disciple of America”. According to the Congressional Research Service, “It has been a long-standing goal of U.S. grand strategy to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in one part of Eurasia or another”. Essentially, Australia’s freedom to manoeuvre is constrained by the immovable strategic policy of its ally.
The connections and dependencies underpinning Australia’s relationship with America are extremely dense and pervasive and no-one has anything like a full picture of them; and they extend beyond security and foreign affairs. The most overt and formal element of the relationship is the ANZUS Treaty but that has simply provided a framework and entry point for subservience and ingratiation. Over the decades the dependence on the US and the identification by politicians of Australia’s interests with those of America has intensified.
Michael Keating believes “Australia can and should play an important role in establishing a true multipolar system of governance”, while recognising this “will first require Australia to resolve the present contradiction between our foreign and defence policies”. He is right. The first challenge in that process is to have a vision of what an alternative relationship with America might look like from Canberra’s perspective.
Part of the problem for those of us who agree with Keating that Australian should identify its own interests clearly and that “all actions should be determined accordingly”, is that many Australians are convinced that it is deeply in the nation’s interests to be conjoined with the Americans. Amid the relentless ramping up of the China threat by politicians, officials, and the media, Australians will not be easily persuaded otherwise.
The consequences of detaching from the American defence relationship would be significant. Over time Defence could incrementally diversify its procurement to reduce reliance on the American military-industrial complex, and incrementally withdraw from exercises and intelligence-sharing, and gradually reduce US troop rotations. None of which would be simple to manage.
At best a gradual extraction from bilateral defence relations would be awkward and result in remonstrations by the Pentagon. The ADF would no longer have access to cutting-edge technology and military capability would likely decline. At worst ANZUS could be abrogated and the US nuclear umbrella be withdrawn.
Making the public case for such a move would be very hard in current circumstances.
Americans would undoubtedly see an abrupt withdrawing from AUKUS before binding legal commitments were entered into as a betrayal of trust and a clear disengagement from their Indo-Pacific strategy. The reaction could be expected to be furious in Washington and the responses swift and impactful. The track that the Morrison and Albanese governments have taken Australian down on AUKUS make a painless exit impossible and would see serious short to medium term costs.
To step out of the inner circle of American allies, an inevitable consequence of unravelling the American relationship, would also affect Australia’s regional relationships. Downgrading the alliance would not necessarily see “Australia’s standing with other countries in the region” improved as Keating predicts. Australia assuming a leading role in “influencing America to accept the reality of a multipolar region” would be seen by Japan and South Korea as undermining their existential security interests that are inseparably enmeshed with those of the US. An Australian defection would be regarded as weakening their strategic positions. ASEAN countries could be confused by Australia’s switch.
Any hope of Australia influencing US policy post-AUKUS, or in some watered-down version of the alliance, is fanciful. While Keating is absolutely right to say “that America does not seem to recognise the change in its position in Asia”, the reality is that it can’t.
It would not be impossible for Australia to separate from America’s strategic policy and to disengage from American war-planning in East Asia. That said, to do so would be the most difficult policy challenge Canberra has ever attempted. America would not look benignly on an exercise of sovereignty that took Australia out of its sphere-of-influence, and would regard it as a major strategic setback. Considerable coercion and pressure would come on Australia to abandon such a course.
America would be concerned if, as Keating advocates, Australia sought to “play an important role in establishing a true multipolar system of governance” in the region. That would be contrary to America’s perception of its vital interests in Asia. America has to lead and set the rules, and to work toward anything else is to pit yourself against America and its interests. A defection by an ally would be perceived as a loss.
In short, to remain in a formal alliance arrangement with America following withdrawal from AUKUS is inconceivable, and to incrementally withdraw from the alliance is impractical. If Australia pursued a “strategic equilibrium where no country dominates and no country is dominated” it would undermine America’s fundamental strategic premise. Any alliance or partnership would be precluded. It is not possible to support multipolarity in the region or promote a major leadership role for China in rule-making and to have close relations with America.
In sum, resolution of the contradiction between foreign and defence policy can only come by exiting the alliance now by withdrawing from the AUKUS arrangements. However, many Australians would feel vulnerable and exposed following an alliance break-up. It would take a courageous government indeed to do that. But it is in Australia’s national interest.