In this new era of uncertainty, the security alliance has never been more important to Australia’s security
By James Wilson
For most Australians, our close relationship with the United States is part of the diplomatic furniture. The alliance has endured for so long that few understand its history and depth, and even fewer seem to care about its future. Its benefits, many and disperse, are easy to forget alongside its concentrated costs. Australia’s diplomats and politicians are forced to grapple with poorly comprehended terms like “collective security,” and “middle-power” when justifying the alliance’s existence, against an opposition who need merely utter the words “Vietnam” and “Iraq.”
Even to ask the question “Should the US alliance remain a cornerstone of Australian foreign policy?” is to acknowledge that Australians have lived in peace and prosperity for so long that they have taken the status quo for granted. Yet when considering the alternatives, few ask what would replace said status quo. Diplomatic tensions in Asia are high. China is beginning to throw its weight around, unilaterally grabbing land and deliberately treading on the toes of its neighbours. A collection of uninhabited rocks off the coast of Taiwan has thrown China and Japan into a bitter territorial dispute that could boil over in an instant. In this new era of uncertainty, it is clear that Australia’s alliance to the United States has never been more important to the nation’s security.
The signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951 came less than a decade after the shock of British abandonment at Singapore during the Second World War. The forces driving the US alliance in its infancy, from Australia’s perspective, were obvious: a perpetual fear of isolation and a need for a protector in a region that has, until recently, harboured few friends. Compounding these factors, the gathering momentum of the Cold War made Australia’s awkward position as part of the Global North, while being geographically located in the Global South, all the more precarious. In the words of then–Minister for External Affairs Percy Spender: “It was an asset to be considered like-minded by a powerful ally” in such a tumultuous time.
Over the years, the costs of the alliance have been searingly obvious. Australia has followed the United States into every major conflict since the Second World War: Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Moral judgments about any of these wars aside, Australia’s willing participation has, by Charles Sturt University lecturer David McLean’s account, represented the “payment of insurance premiums” in exchange for the promise of US protection. Australian soldiers, it seems, fight not only to defend their country in the present, but unknowingly to provide for the country’s defence into the future.
While the costs of the ANZUS treaty have been paid in blood, its benefits have been far less obvious, yet no less significant. The ANZUS treaty was only the beginning of Australia’s security relationship with Washington. In 1955, Australia became party to the UKUSA Agreement, an intelligence cooperation treaty whose existence wasn’t officially confirmed until 2005, and that has been described by Edward Snowden as a “supra-national intelligence organisation.” The UKUSA Agreement was followed by interoperability agreements between the same five nations’ militaries and their defence organisations. Combined, these agreements have ensured, according to The Economist, “the near absolute interoperability and co-ordination” of the Australian and US militaries. While some academics question Australia’s obsession with interoperability, the desire for further integration of the Australian and American armed forces remains firmly in the mainstream.
The benefits of the US alliance have not only been borne out in times of war. The unsung achievement of the ANZUS treaty was the establishment in 1985 of annual meetings — the AUSMIN talks — between the US secretaries of state and defense and Australia’s ministers for foreign affairs and defence. For a middle-power, this sort of intimate access to those at the top of the global superpower is invaluable. Whereas Canada has the convenience of a common border with the United States, and Europeans the benefit of the collective weight of the European Union, Australia has to work hard to maintain the attention of Washington.
It has certainly managed to hold its own. Australia was an important influence in elevating the G20 to a leader-level summit following the 2008 financial crisis. Meanwhile, the Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004 — rightly or wrongly seen by some as a “reward” for Australia’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — has boosted two-way trade by US$8.22 billion a year.
Costs and benefits aside, the question of whether the US alliance should remain at the centre of Australian foreign policy really comes down to its alternatives. Those who question the logic of the US alliance need only think back to the Second World War and the fear created by the “Brisbane Line,” the alleged proposal to abandon northern Australia in the event of a Japanese invasion. The idea that Australia can defend its expansive north is as laughable now as it was then. Should war break out in the Asia–Pacific, it would present the greatest threat to Australian national security in almost a century. With so much at stake, Australia would inevitably be drawn into the conflict, US alliance or not — its most recent Defence White Paper identifies its interests as lying in the “Indo-Pacific Strategic Arc.”
With this in mind, the alternatives to the US alliance are unpalatable: either we relegate the alliance to a rung of lesser importance in our foreign policy, or we cut ourselves adrift entirely. Many who would seek to sideline American influence are convinced that it has been a barrier to Australia making new friends around the world, but a dichotomy that insists Australia must weaken its relationship with the United States in order to strengthen new ones is a false one. For a start, the group of countries with which Australia does not have growing ties includes the likes of Syria, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Russia — for good reason. Secondly, in the past year Australia has negotiated free-trade agreements with Japan and Korea, and helped establish MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, Australia), an informal group of middle-powers aimed at enhancing their global cooperation.
The US alliance is not a concrete block around Australia’s neck — quite the opposite. Without the need to constantly be reevaluating national security priorities, the alliance (as the description “cornerstone” suggests) provides the stability on which Australia’s foreign policy can build.
The second alternative is the isolationist path of tearing up the ANZUS treaty — an alternative with precedence. The United States suspended its ANZUS treaty obligations to New Zealand in 1986 following a decision by New Zealand to refuse port access to a US nuclear-capable warship. By 2012, however, two separate declarations had been signed by both countries agreeing to reestablish much of the abandoned security cooperation, minus ANZUS’s collective defence clauses. If New Zealand felt going it alone was ultimately futile, why would Australia’s experience be any different?
The isolationist argument is a nihilistic one at its core. It surrenders agency over Australia’s own defence and places it in the hands of our future enemy. It poses simplistic hypotheticals such as, Why would anyone invade Australia? Why would anyone bomb us? Why indeed, but would we really be so foolish as to be drawn in by such fallacies of ambiguity? As a nation we have lived for decades with the capacity to fight alongside the global superpower, amplifying our deterrence whilst remaining self-reliant. To give that up through our own shortsightedness would be a grave mistake. As diplomatic relations across Asia decay, due mostly to brazen Chinese aggression, now is possibly the worst time to abandon the US alliance to such folly. It may be the case that the only thing preventing further aggression in the region is the network of treaty alliances the United States has created.
For sixty years the US alliance has been the foundation of Australia’s foreign policy. Our shared culture and histories, shared legal systems, common language, and national identities as open, liberal, free market nation-states have made the alliance feel natural, as if it were a foregone conclusion. The alliance hasn’t forced Australia into protracted internal debates over national values, or what we stand for on the international stage, but we should not mistake the status quo for an immutable world order.
On the back of the US alliance Australia has prospered in a system of global governance it actively helped shape and defend. The halcyon days of American-led Western dominance are fast slipping away. Uncertainty appears to be the only certainty in the Asia–Pacific in the near future. To deliberately add to that uncertainty would be the wicked work of our own complacency. Now, more than ever, we should be reminding ourselves of why we embarked on this alliance in the first place. Australia has greatly benefited from the US alliance, and it can continue to do so well into the future.