Australia’s relationship with the United States has unusual longevity, adapting through successive wars and terror threats.
The Australia-US alliance is formally rooted in the 1951 ANZUS Treaty, with its well-known limitations of US obligation towards Australia compared with what the parallel treaties between the US and the NATO countries and the US with Japan and South Korea. But even if these limited treaty obligations are acknowledged, the alliance has come to have a remarkably enduring many sided-character, penetrating deep into Australian political, military and social institutions.
The Australian alliance with the United States needs to be understood as having multiple facets:
- as a treaty;
- as a politico-military regime and institutional structure;
- as a powerful ideological element in both US hegemony and Australian society and politics;
- as a facilitator of US military basing presence;
- as an element in transnational intelligence community;
- as complement to a hierarchically organised global economic and political order; and
- as the key to Australian identity as part of the Anglosphere and its viral variant, the Five Eyes intelligence and military alliance.
The Australia-United States alliance (with or without New Zealand) has shown an unusual longevity, in part because of its capacity to shape-shift in the face of changing in response to quite different successive threat identities:
- The treaty originated at the time of the Korean War in response to a US need to “normalise” occupied post-defeat Japan through a peace treaty accompanied by an Australian demand that the US guarantee its security against a possible remilitarised Japan’;
- For four decades of the global Cold War the alliance framed Australia as the southern bastion of the Free World against Communist Soviet Union/Red China;
- During the decade of Australian support for the US war in Vietnam, the alliance was presented as the foundation of regional defence through the domino theory of communist expansion;
- In the decade leading up to 1966, the alliance was presented as a guarantee against unruly Asian nationalism in Australia’s immediate region;
- ANZUS was formally invoked for the first time in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, with the initial Afghanistan deployment framed as part of Australia’s commitment to the global War on Terror;
- The War on Terror threat quickly morphed into the threat of weapons of mass destruction proliferation by the Axis of Evil; and
- After two decades of failed wars of choice in the Middle East, the alliance threat scenario shifted to perhaps its most serious and threatening object in countering “rising totalitarian China”.
Over the 70 years of the alliance, successive Australian governments have responded to these threat identities by offering what by the beginning of this century was a persisting set of rationales for the alliance in terms of benefits to Australia.
- The Australian commitment to the alliance is of such value to the United States that the US will come to Australia’s assistance in face of military threat, and most certainly if Australia is attacked. This claimed assurance is most clearly stated by Australian governments in the case of prospective threat of nuclear attack;
- Australia preferential access to advanced and highly sensitive military technologies that the United States does not offer to other US allies, including those as important as Japan and South Korea;
- Australian commitment to the alliance, and in particular, Australia’s willingness to host major US intelligence and military facilities (aka joint facilities) and accept the consequential risks, results in the US providing Australia with intelligence crucial to Australian strategic objectives which would not otherwise be available to Australia;
- Australia’s alliance commitment, including willingness to contribute forces to US military operations, results in Australian access to the “highest strategic councils in Washington”, or at least, as Stephan Fruhling recently put it, the possibility to “gain and maintain influence, and even mere insight into the policy and operational planning of its major ally.”
The alliance has developed in a complex multi-layered story over seven decades. Today it has a distinctive character and framework best described as “networked” to indicate the deepening and expansion of institutional and strategic and material linkages between the two countries and their militaries.
In comparison to the situation even two decades ago, under today’s networked alliance Australian military forces have become as much a niche auxiliary force ready for deployment for global operations according to US requirements as they are defenders of Australian territory. At the same time the joint facilities have a greatly increased role in
- US nuclear and conventional global conventional military operations;
- US counterterrorism and military drone assassinations;
- US and Japanese missile defence; and
- US planning and operations for space dominance.
Both the Australian Defence Force and the joint facilities are key elements in the transformation of Australia’s relationship with China both in long-term outlook and in short- and medium-term preparations for war. This shift is epitomised by the trilateral agreement between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom to build long-range nuclear-powered submarines.
This is part three of an edited extract of Richard Tanter’s submission to the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network People’s Inquiry in US-Australia Alliance, September 2021. Read part one here and part two here. Next: Australia’s strategic dependence on the United States.