For 60 years the ANZUS alliance has been the holy grail of Australian security policy. It is the alliance on which Australia ultimately relies for national survival in the event of an armed attack that it can’t repel alone.
But questions are emerging about the long-term value of ANZUS to Australia as economic malaise continues to plague the United States and Chinese economic and military power continues to grow in an increasingly multi-polar world. The key questions, perhaps, are whether ANZUS is approaching its use-by date and whether abandoning the treaty would substantially affect Australia’s long-run strategic circumstances.
There would most likely be a balance of gains and losses — gains in terms of national autonomy and losses in terms of access to high-end US intelligence and to some US military technologies — with the exact impact on Australia’s regional influence harder to gauge. Obviously it would be better for Australia to plan for and manage these contingencies rather than confront them unprepared.
Judging by the recent visits by prime minister Julia Gillard to Washington and Beijing, the Australian government is not ready to address the issues publicly. It wants the security benefits of the ANZUS treaty and the economic benefits of the lucrative and growing relationship with China, and it thinks it can have them both.
This might be increasingly difficult if, as the latest defence white paper estimated in 2009, the strategic primacy of the United States declines after 2030 — only nineteen years in the future. Even if the United States manages to remain the world’s greatest superpower after 2030, its approach to the ANZUS treaty could be affected profoundly if it finds itself in strategic competition with an increasingly powerful China. The United States might become unwilling or unable to deliver on even qualified security guarantees to Australia. China might seek to put pressure on Australia to put its economic relationship with Beijing ahead of its ANZUS commitments.
In these circumstances Australia might be unable to maintain a Washington–Beijing balance. It might find itself increasingly alone in a hostile world, surrounded by Asian giants – one of the deepest and most abiding fears in the Australian political consciousness. Australia might also, as the 2009 white paper suggests, find itself faced with a hard-pressed American ally seeking Australian assistance in handling more regional crises and a belligerent China demanding that it desist.
How then to avoid snubbing the United States or kowtowing to China? One way would be to decide now to depart the ANZUS alliance on good terms with the United States and without Chinese pressure. Australia would then be able to calculate its vital national security interests and act as an entirely independent agent. In some ways this might enhance regional respect for Australia.
Departing ANZUS would, in fact, have limited security consequences for Australia. The most basic fact about the treaty is that it does not provide unqualified security guarantees. ANZUS obliges the Australian, New Zealand and US governments only to consult with each other if there is an armed attack on any one of them.
As J.G. Starke, QC, noted in his magisterial 1965 study, The ANZUS Treaty Alliance, “there is no pledge of American support to Australia and New Zealand in all circumstances. Unlike the old-fashioned types of military alliances there are no automatic commitments to go to war… nor obligations to aid and assist each other on all occasions and in all places.”
The questions therefore arise: What are the limits of the alliance security guarantees and what is their value in a changing world? Have successive Australian governments been right to pay the ANZUS treaty insurance premium in Australian blood and treasure in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan? Under what circumstances can Australia rely on US military assistance if it comes under armed attack?
The 2009 defence white paper says that “Australia would only expect the United States to come to our aid in circumstances where we were under threat from a major power whose military capabilities were simply beyond our capacity to resist.” It acknowledges that the treaty does not commit Australia or the United States to specific types of actions, but “it does provide a clear expectation of support.”
The white paper leaves no doubt that the “major power” of concern to Australia is China.
“[T]he pace, scope and structure of China’s military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained, and if China does not reach out to others to build confidence regarding its military plans,” the white paper says.
But how is Australia’s “capacity to resist” to be judged? And how is the level of “support” to be defined and assessed? The only clue in the white paper is the confident assertion that “for so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are able to rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia.” That might be an optimistic assessment in the event of a major global emergency involving confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
Yet the benefits of ANZUS to Australia have been important. They were summed up ten years ago by Gary Brown and Laura Rayner in a paper for the Parliamentary Library, “Upside, Downside: ANZUS After Fifty Years.” Brown and Rayner argued that the treaty had contributed to Australia’s sense of security in its region, given pause to possible aggressors, and provided Australia with regular access to the US military and government at senior levels.
They also noted that the treaty gave Australia preferential access to US military equipment and technology and allowed Australia to maintain a technological edge in its region. It also enabled Australia to receive valuable intelligence and to train and exercise with US forces and to develop interoperability with them. Being an ally of the United States allowed Australia to project its influence further and wider, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, than its size would otherwise warrant and helped to keep the United States engaged in the Western Pacific region.
Similar benefits are detailed in the 2009 white paper, which says the alliance “gives us significant access to materiel, intelligence, research and development, communications and systems and skills and expertise that substantially strengthen the ADF. Without access to US capabilities, technology and training, the ADF simply could not be the advanced force that it is today…”