The Defence Strategic Review: The Hollywood version of ANZUS

Sep 17, 2022
ANZUS Logo cropped
Image: Flickr / Archives New Zealand

It is highly unlikely that China would threaten Australian territory unless we become enmeshed in containment by the US.

The ANZUS Treaty between Australia and the US operates at two levels. Mostly it’s the Hollywood version which Australians are told of, even though it is more dangerous and less productive than the real version. Many, even professional commentators, assume that Australia is obliged to support any conflict which involves US forces in the Pacific. And America will always come to our aid. This fallacy, if not recognised, has the potential to take Australia into perilous waters, needlessly. When the real alliance is thoughtfully pursued, both parties can benefit without jeopardising the interests of either.

The mechanism by which Australia has chosen to deliver its national security has an overarching influence on important elements of this Review. In the beginning there was no choice. Australia was born into dependence. Voluminous writings exist on this theme. It is worth placing this Review in the evolutionary context of Australia’s defence policy. Helpful insights unfold as history repeats itself.

European settlement here naturally bestowed Britain as our security benefactor. Unscripted faith that Australian territory would always be secured by British power effectively meant that Australia’s defence resources, manpower mainly, were at London’s disposal to allocate for the “greater good”. That was mutually understood. Until the struggle which Australia experienced in recalling its troops from North Africa in 1941/2, as Japanese forces moved through South- East Asia. This clash in priorities with Britain for our troops and resources, in defending our territory directly, required and saw some independence enter Australia’s stance for the first time. And led to a nascent security relationship with America in the Pacific.

After the war benefaction again was pursued, this time under the US. But Australia’s objective of a security guarantee was sidestepped. The Americans met us halfway, undertaking to assist us along a road to becoming independently secure. That in a nutshell was the ANZUS deal of 1951. A timely call for Australia to grow up.

ANZUS brought advantages, through mutual objectives, contingent courses of action to consult and implied boundaries for each side. Parties would know where they stand as generations unfold. An undoubted advance for Australia after the blind-faith model, while also advantageous for the US.

Hollywood vs Real ANZUS

But, to the many dependency-minded Australians, ANZUS had a hollowness. It contained no security guarantee, evident by comparing it with NATO ie Article 5 of NATO vs ANZUS Article 4. That hole was easy fixed, by pretending it wasn’t there. This key distinction has been ignored in the public persona of ANZUS for all of its existence. What people know, love and vote for in ANZUS is best termed the Hollywood version. Here ANZUS offers the promise that Australia and the US will forevermore be willing to protect each other with arms. The best known episodes of Hollywood ANZUS are “All the way with LBJ” (which went swimmingly) and “ Joined at the Hip” ( a victim of fossil fuel profits).

The real version of ANZUS is baldly different. The truth is that neither party is required to come to the aid of the other militarily, if either is attacked. The reverse of the Hollywood gloss. Australia has frequently entered conflicts tangential to our security at US bidding. In no case has ANZUS been invoked validly, despite what former PM Howard might say.

The first ”test” of ANZUS came little more than ten years on from its signing. Australia was caught up militarily in Malaysia and Borneo with the British. Indonesia was hostile to us through Konfontasi. At the same time, in 1964, the US pressed Australia to provide military support for South Vietnam. So military resource allocation stemming from an ally’s competing interests again became a biting issue.

Cabinet papers of the time show the Menzies government decided that “Australia should respond immediately as a prompt offer would undoubtedly be appreciated”. Then Cabinet considered the Strategic Basis for Defence Policy which “raised the possibility of Australian forces being required to act without the assistance of the United States armed forces against Indonesian activities”, and being not “sufficiently provided for in military planning”.

Two consequential influences collided here. First, US refusal to assist Australia against a perceived Indonesian threat, And second, disarray across the fractured Defence and military administrations in dealing with that threat. Our army had seriously underestimated the forces required to deal with both the US demands and our own priorities. As the nation endured nine years of the Vietnam war, policy makers were thinking beyond that conflict.

Dumping Dependency

Even before Australia’s withdrawal from Vietnam an extraordinary turnaround surfaced in defence policy. “Dependency’ was consigned to history with the first ever Defence Review tabled in Parliament in 1972. That review incisively resolved any future clash of priorities by proposing:

the underlying requirement is that we be capable of vigorous action unaided, to defend our interests and our territory, whatever these other involvements. It would follow that Australia should not allow its expectation of external support for its defence against potentially overwhelming challenges to overshadow its obligation to assume, within the limit of its resources, the primary responsibility for its own conventional defence “

The first ever Defence White paper followed four years later, thematically centred on independent defence, with further definition:

For practical purposes, the requirements and scope for Australian defence activity are limited essentially to the areas closer to home—areas in which the deployment of military capabilities by a power potentially unfriendly to Australia could permit that power to attack or harass Australia and its territories, maritime resources zone and near lines of communication. These are our adjacent maritime areas; the South West Pacific countries and territories; Papua New Guinea; Indonesia; and the South East Asian region.

Half a century of political consensus on the primacy of self- reliant defence stands to this day. Why is this background important for today’s Defence Review? Because it authenticates certain practical boundaries mutually agreed in dealing with our great ally, which are fundamental to the Review.

It has long been understood with the US that Australia alone would fund the long path to its defence independence. And any forces we contribute in support of US operations elsewhere would drawn from those acquired for our primary objective of defending Australia. That is, to be equitable, each party would fund its own priorities. It would be inequitable for Australia to incur costly expenditures specifically for US objectives. And vice-versa. Neither party would seek to breach that principle. It is in both parties’ interest that we preserve this stance. If discarded what equitable discipline would take its place?

However, an extraordinary departure from this principle arises in the AUKUS device, through the proposal for Australia to construct nuclear submarines at a cost estimate of $170 billion. A financially absurd imposition for a highly specialised attack capability. Apparently its purpose is to remain on station in Asian waters coordinated with US operations against China. It’s not as if this is just bending the ANZUS boundaries – a few million dollars here or there. The project is insanely distorting, with grave downstream consequences yet to be made public. Its contribution to defending Australia is minor as most of its roles are carried out effectively by our existing land-based aircraft. The AUKUS submarines would serve US objectives primarily, in countering China’s second nuclear strike capacity.


Which leads us to China. A US foreign policy analyst points out:

China’s military spending as a percentage of GDP has been decreasing since 2010, and the country has never spent more than 1.9 percent of GDP on national defence. (The United States spent 3.7 percent of GDP on defence in 2020.) For the last three decades, China’s military spending has been a third of the United States’. And yet, largely because it has focused on acquiring asymmetric capabilities and limited its military ambitions to Asia, it has built a military that can now defeat the United States in a conflict over Taiwan.

Over the next ten years, China’s ability to project power throughout Asia will grow from a low base. By 2030, it could have four aircraft carriers, and space infrastructure that enhances the connectivity of its forces, ground- and space-based weaponry- perhaps threatening U.S. military and civilian satellite constellations. Its air force will challenge U.S. air superiority in proximate Asia. China has invested in antisubmarine warfare, including helicopter and ship-based systems that will be operational in the next ten years.

Largely China’s defence program has been, and continues to be, directed at obvious vulnerabilities, especially on territorial issues such as Taiwan.

On the other hand, the US Defence priorities centre on containing China’s military reach within geographical boundaries off its eastern seaboard. Public writings by an author of this “denial strategy” from the Trump Pentagon describe containment at the first Island Chain off Japan (see map below, condensed from “The Strategy of Denial”, Colby, Yale University Press, 2021). Here the US plans to deny China maritime free movement into the Pacific. No doubt the plans have been refined since, but something resembling this picture now underpins Pentagon spending, overtly.

The US has plans to move ballistic missiles to the Indo-Pacific, as Washington is no longer bound by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Pentagon’s “Pacific Deterrence Initiative”, in its inaugural year, allocates $6 billion for new integrated command-and-control systems, drone capabilities, electronic warfare, F-35 fighters, equipment for U.S. Marines and hardening of bases in Guam.

Obviously, risk of conflict between the US and China will grow with these force developments. Without entering the merits of each side’s strategic reasoning, the fact is that the US seeks Australia as a close partner in containing China. Which presents Australia with a dilemma eerily reminiscent of the Vietnam quandary discussed above. Costly and risky American demands insensitive to, and detracting from, our own strategic interest.

The longer- term objective of containing China’s expanding maritime forces will be progressively risky for the US. China will be focussed on this contest in its near surrounds whilst ever denying forces are there. But it is improbable that US military power would be forced to depart, other than through political change. For Japan, parallels with Ukraine are inescapable. The danger of Japan becoming the key proxy in a US conflict with China is obvious.

Nothing that Australia can do militarily will change these prospects.

It is highly unlikely that China would threaten Australian territory in the meantime unless we become enmeshed in containment. But if we do join, Australia will be considered a target in some way. These simple truths have eluded public commentary. Hollywood ANZUS acts to diminish legitimate concerns which Australia should hold for its security in joining the US strategy.

A critical question then is can we afford not to participate? More directly, how capable are our existing defences should China threaten us? The next part will show that Australia’s defences have matured to the point where we should no longer feel inadequately defended against conventional military pressure from anyone. Achieving such capability has been the long- sighted objective of the real ANZUS treaty since Vietnam. So Australia is now in a quite different position from the Menzies Vietnam decision, when that government felt exposed in not yielding to US pressure against our own interests, with the egregious consequences now almost forgotten.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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