Future challenges to the US–Australia alliance will revolve around tensions inherent in what Glenn Snyder identifies as ‘the alliance security dilemma’. Modern alliances are characterised by the dual fears of abandonment and entrapment—the client state simultaneously seeks to avoid abandonment by its major power protector and entrapment when it’s pressured into making commitments it would rather avoid. Three challenges will accentuate the alliance dilemma for Australia over the coming decade.
Alliance burden sharing
America’s military spending is projected to be slashed by at least half a trillion dollars in the next ten years. The consequences for US allies could be profound. No state today has the potential to seriously rival the US as a military power, and that’s unlikely to alter for some time. But China will continue to make rapid inroads into US military ascendancy in Asia, despite President Obama’s intriguing reassurance that ‘reductions in US defence spending will not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific’. China’s ability to impose serious costs on the US in littoral zone conflicts is exemplified by Beijing’s major investment in asymmetric warfare technologies designed to deter US intervention in specific scenarios. Of concern to America’s Asian allies must be the fact that China’s area denial and anti-access capabilities have improved during a period when US defence expenditure was not declining.
What does this mean for Australia? Although the US–Australia alliance has been largely free of the tensions over burden sharing that are characteristic of debates within NATO, this could become an issue sooner than we think. It’s unlikely Australia will face a direct conventional threat to its sovereign territory over the next two decades, and it’s probable that Washington will extend its nuclear deterrent should Australia be threatened with nuclear coercion. A more likely challenge may emerge if Washington expects Canberra to contribute to a coalition operation with a meaningful force commitment. The fiscally straitened environment in Australia has led to a major cut in defence expenditure, which raises concerns about Australia’s future ability to support US-led military operations in Asia and beyond, even at the traditionally modest levels of the past.
China and the risks of containment
The Obama administration has sought to reassure Beijing that it has no intention of containing China. Yet it would be naïve to assume that containment is completely off the menu of US grand strategy options. Dealing with an authoritarian China that’s embarking on an ambitious military modernisation program aimed at raising the costs of US intervention in Asia at a time when the spectre of US declinism is popular in many quarters may make American policymakers more likely to see US–China rivalry as analogous to the US–Soviet relationship. The intersection between assertive US nationalism and anxieties about American decline has produced sometimes sharp rhetoric about the challenge from China. Most in the US may favour the continuation of the Bush–Obama strategy of engagement and hedging towards China, but the influence of pro-containment forces could gain traction rapidly in the event of a downturn in the bilateral relationship.
Any US drift towards containing China would trigger anxiety among Australian policymakers. Of particular concern would be Washington’s expectation that its allies will pitch in to support the strategy. Both Australia and the US have a lot to lose from a deterioration of relations with China, but Australia’s especially vulnerable. Around one quarter of Australia’s two-way trade is with China, and Chinese investment in Australia is increasing rapidly. Australia will become even more dependent on China in coming years as weaknesses in the US, European and Japanese economies begin to bite in earnest. While any US attempt to enlist Australia in containing China probably wouldn’t be explicit, there would be an expectation that traditionally loyal allies will lend their support rhetorically and in more tangible ways.
Credibility and extended nuclear deterrence
The emergence of nuclear disarmament as a goal under the Obama administration, including indications that it intends pursuing that objective more forthrightly during its second term, raises interesting questions for Australia. While Labor governments are more enthusiastic about nuclear disarmament, Coalition governments have traditionally underscored the role of nuclear weapons in promoting strategic stability. Given that we could be on the cusp of a prolonged ascendancy of Democratic administrations in Washington and Coalition governments in Canberra, there’s potential for a widening policy gap on deterrence and disarmament. Australia may become increasingly vigilant about any perceived weakening of the credibility of US extended nuclear deterrence assurances to its Asian allies if the Obama administration pushes ahead with nuclear reductions. Even for the Rudd government, which endorsed the 2009 Prague speech, the credibility of US nuclear commitments to allies was an issue. In its submission to the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Australian Government placed great significance on the nuclear umbrella and its role ‘in assuring very close allies, like Australia, that they do not need to develop their own nuclear weapons’.
None of this is to suggest that the alliance will face a crisis over extended nuclear deterrence. That said, future Australian governments will probably be concerned if US administrations begin to de-emphasise the role of nuclear weapons in security assurances to allies. A return to the late 1960s, when Prime Minister John Gorton and a few close advisers discussed a potential Australian bomb, is unlikely—but, as Stephan Fruehling points out, a potential Australian nuclear weapon has never disappeared completely from the discussions and calculations of Australian strategists. The last government figure to admit raising the topic of a national nuclear option in private conversations with Cabinet colleagues was former foreign minister Bill Hayden, a strong supporter of nuclear disarmament. But Hayden, like Gorton, remained sceptical of the value of the US alliance in the event that Australia found itself directly threatened in its regional neighbourhood.
Andrew O’Neil is director of the Griffith Asia Institute and professor of International Relations at Griffith University. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.