The contents and contests of The Alliance 
27 Jul 2015|
Dark clouds

Australia’s nightmare about the US alliance has two versions: home alone or crushed by the embrace. Opposing dreads: Oz abandoned versus Oz abused.

For decades, home alone was dominant. Oz would call but Washington would not answer the phone. America would be off attending to Europe or doing the Middle East and the antipodes would fall off the map.

Richard Nixon’s Guam doctrine moment—allies have primary responsibility to defend themselves—is a classic in the abandonment Parthenon. The development of the Defence of Australia doctrine was partly a Guam response: we can’t rely on America post-Vietnam. We’d better do it ourselves.

Today, that looks a bit last century. The other nightmare dominates. The fear is no longer that the US will fail to deliver. The worry is what the US will demand and what Oz is able to deliver in response. This is the dangerous alliance vision of Malcolm Fraser.

For all the uncertainties about the US rebalance, the pivot offers one answer as conclusive as you get in this game. Australia’s nightmare is no longer being abandoned. Fear only what we’ll be asked to do. And whether we’ll want to do it. One nightmare fades as the other becomes vivid. The motif of the fading abandonment nightmare was insurance—stay loyal and pay the premiums. The new motif is alliance management, still with lots of loyalty.

As always, the view from Washington is different. The dichotomy is America’s ability to demand and deliver. Any future threat to US alliances in Asia—short of war—will come from the US itself, because of what it demands or fails to deliver. This is quite a duality: the danger of an America that asks too much or delivers too little.

American smarts in handling its allies and quasi allies (both reassurance and delivery) will be more important than Chinese pressure in this peacetime equation. Chinese pushiness helps the alliances. In much of Asia, China is making the US argument for the US.

We ask a lot of Washington. The US must do chameleon duty, adjusting alliance demands and delivery to suit individual partners.

Such currents get a workout in the ‘candid audit’ of the alliance by Canberra’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) and Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). It’s an excellent effort by two thinkers from the US and two from Australia—good analysis illuminated by sparks and jabs generated between two far-apart capitals. Unpack the title: ‘The ANZUS Alliance in an Ascending Asia’.

The NZ part of ANZUS disappeared in 1986. Washington wanted what the small ally wouldn’t do (the demand/deliver dichotomy at work). The ANZUS usage works for a Washington audience. Just as easy in Australia to refer to The Alliance. The One. The Only. The Alliance—so revered it needs no other identifier.

Canberra and Washington agree on Ascending Asia for the title, then spend the rest of the document wrangling over what it means.

Throbbing away within the ANU cloisters, the SDSC is a broad church, as the Centre’s Professor Hugh White proves by taking a bite out of the study, saying ‘it seems to evade the hard issue at the heart of the strategic choices confronting both Australia and America today: what order do we wish to see in Asia in the Asian Century, and what role should America aim to play in it?’

Hugh is entitled to mark hard because he’s been bold in giving his own answer; he has the bruises to prove it.

The report starts with the usual positives about converging and closely aligned interests and how The Alliance is thriving. Then wrangling. Three dark examples:

  1. ‘Do the complexities of Asia’s ascent mean that the United States–Australia alliance is now entering its twilight years’?
  2. ‘The reality is that neither Washington nor Canberra has a clear or consistent China policy’.
  3. ‘Leading Australian political figures now debate whether this apparent divergence of security and economic interests presages a dilution of the United States–led alliance system in the region. These public debates by the United States’ closest ally in the Pacific have some senior US officials quietly questioning whether Japan may in future replace Australia as the most trustworthy ally should US and regional tensions continue mounting with Beijing’.

My response to 1: Not if the alliance addiction of the Oz polity and the alliance sentiments of the Oz voters are any guide.

Number 2 is true. This column’s line is that the grand strategy the US and Australia have used for China since the end of the Cold War—Engage & Hedge—is broken. Engage & Hedge no longer run in parallel and aren’t even in parallel universes.

Number 3 gets a big laugh and a serious response.

The laugh: Who knew Malcolm Fraser could scare ‘senior US officials’? Washington, the most raucous polity on the planet, asks Oz to be seemly!

The serious point is that Canberra is comfortable with the strategic convergence and Asia focus in The Alliance. The debate about ‘entrapment’—as the report calls it—is a proper and valid discussion that will get louder and ever more important. The reference to Japan as rising ally prompts the thought that the highest level of alliance angst is to be found in Tokyo, not Canberra. Japan’s worry is that the US may not be entangled enough—come the China crunch, America may not deliver for Japan. Alliance angst is a constant ache.

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