ANZUS and agency in regional security
9 Nov 2021|

A new ASPI special report, Sliding-door moments: ANZUS and the Blue Pacific, released today, canvasses important lessons from the 70-year history of ANZUS in the Pacific Island region* and how those lessons bear on Australia’s Pacific step-up, New Zealand’s Pacific reset and the United States’ Pacific pledge.

While most of the moments examined in the report centred on decisions that seemed inconsequential at the time, the same can’t be said of the current pivotal juncture in regional security. The risks of the current period of strategic flux are recognised as both high and escalating.

Our Pacific neighbours appreciate keenly that their security is tied up with the region’s evolving and complex geopolitical environment. Equally, they have made it clear that they have no wish to be a catspaw in any of the developing strategic responses.

They fear a loss of agency over their own security priorities as broader and less accessible forums such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS are coming to dominate a more intense strategic agenda.

The calculus of what counts as ‘agency’ can be very convoluted, especially when the asymmetries of power are so marked for these Pacific nations in the fast-moving strategic recalibrations occurring now. Even the well resourced can struggle.

For example, ASPI’s Peter Jennings, in his assessment of the lessons to be taken from the tortured origins of AUKUS, argued that Australia had lost some of its security agency through a chronic underinvestment in defence.

Burden-sharing within ANZUS has been contentious and difficult to calculate, as Joanne Wallis and Anna Powles note. They argue that Australia and New Zealand, through the non-military contributions they make in the region, including the influence of their soft-power assets, tip the scales towards more a more equitable security balance than the US recognises.

The degree to which the Pacific nations can demand control of their own security environment depends on how well they can decouple the physical defence priorities of extra-regional states from their human-security-centric priorities as given in the Boe Declaration.

As the report notes, shared security interests of the colonial powers, a relatively benign transition to independence and the absence of perceived external threats left these states with very limited capacity to assert independent defence interests.

Only two of the region’s 13 states with populations under 3 million—Fiji and Tonga—have a formal defence force. None of the states have any mutual security agreements or defence alliances.

These nations’ capacity for independent defence agency contrasts markedly with the 10 Caribbean small island states with populations under 3 million. Six currently have military establishments, and two of those—Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Kitts and Nevis—have smaller populations than Tonga.

Significantly, Dominica, the second smallest of the regional states, had its own defence force until 1981 but was able to disband it with the creation of the Eastern Caribbean’s Regional Security System. The three members with defence forces work cooperatively with the four without a military force to provide mutual assistance in meeting threats to their national security.

Having this defence establishment is an important factor for all these small island states in promoting their security agenda with the larger powers, especially through the Committee on Hemispheric Security of the Organization of American States.

The comparison is scarcely fair given the higher levels of physical threat and close proximity of the small Caribbean states that drive their need for defence capacity and physical security cooperation. Nor is it an argument that the Pacific states should militarise in order have some agency with regard to their physical security needs in the current period of heightened international rivalry.

Nevertheless, there are burden-sharing obligations that fall on the Pacific states to contribute to the region’s physical security. During the period of the ‘war on terror’, the principal obligation was not to permit their sovereignty to be misused to facilitate or promote terrorist bodies through passport sales, flags of convenience or money laundering.

From an ANZUS perceptive, the key contribution has been to maintain a commitment to an effective security community. This means that members of the community share and protect a common defence perspective so that no member allows its territory to become a threat to other members—and this includes Australia and New Zealand in their regional roles.

Former Pacific Islands Forum secretary general Meg Taylor stressed the potential consequences of disunity, observing that ‘if we divide into our sub-regions and then get played off by geo-strategic interests, our own interests as a collective will be undermined’.

As the report notes, there’s an opportunity of relevance here for ANZUS.

The alliance is the only formal security arrangement that could serve to protect and project the concerns of these Pacific states in the evolving defence super-arena that is framing Indo-Pacific security. While they would resist any suggestion that outside agencies should protect their national and regional interests, they have appreciated, and called for, the support of international champions to meet core security challenges such as climate change.

ANZUS has been perceived as such a supporter in the past; indeed, during the Cold War, some of these nations even tentatively inquired as to some form of association with ANZUS. In present circumstances, any overt or formal connection would overheat the already somewhat febrile concerns regarding the designs extra-regional powers might have on them as defence assets.

However, as the report argues, a shared consensus on regional defence will have to overcome two critical challenges. ANZUS will have to recover, as an alliance, an internal functionality that it has lacked for several decades. AUKUS poses a serious question mark.

On their side, the states have to demonstrate that defending their commitment to a collective stewardship of the ‘Blue Pacific’ and securing the aims of the Boe Declaration are more compelling than a dispute over internal regional administrative arrangements.

* Defined in the report to comprise the independent states of Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu and the dependent territories of American Samoa, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Guam, New Caledonia, Niue, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, Tokelau, and Wallis and Futuna.