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ANZUS and the fabric of peace in the Pacific

Posted By on June 4, 2024 @ 06:00

China is seeking to establish itself as the hegemonic power in Asia, using coercion and intimidation, and by challenging US primacy. It appears to be willing to use force to achieve its aims, perhaps from 2027. It is deepening its military alliance with Russia. If China continues on its present course, the likelihood of major war occurring before 2030 in the ‘Pacific Area’ is at least 10 percent, if not higher.

The term ‘Pacific Area’ is used in the Security Treaty between Australia and the United States (known as ANZUS, although the United States suspended its treaty obligations to New Zealand in 1986). The Treaty alliance was created in 1951 for the purpose of collective defence against armed attack in the ‘Pacific Area’. While not necessarily the most immediately useful starting point for dealing with this risk of war, thinking about the issue through the prism of the Treaty text yields rewarding insights and concrete suggestions for action. 

Through its drive for hegemony in Asia, China is damaging ‘the fabric of peace in the Pacific Area’ (first recital in the Treaty). As part of a broader regional strategy of integrated deterrence, Australia and the United States should commence urgent consultations, under Article III, on how best to deal with the threat posed by China to the territorial integrity, political independence and security of Australia and the United States in the Pacific (to use the terms of Article III). Thereafter, pursuing agreed actions would signal a credible commitment on the part of Australia and the United States to act collectively under their military alliance. 

It might be argued that the Treaty does not create an automatic obligation on either of the parties to go to war, insofar as the Treaty does not provide for an attack on one ally being considered to be an attack on the other. Better, some might argue, to leave consideration of hypothetical obligations well enough alone. Seeking to avoid the issue in this way would be to misread the Treaty, and misjudge our interests.

In terms of the Treaty, Australia is obliged to recognise that an armed attack on the United States ‘in the Pacific Area’ would be dangerous to its own peace and safety (Article IV). This would include an armed attack on the ‘metropolitan territory’ of the United States, the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific, or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific (Article V). A US-China war would involve some, if not all, of these elements. 

Article IV provides that each ally would ‘act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes’. This means that Australia would have the right to determine whether an ‘armed attack’ had occurred, within the meaning of Articles IV and V, as well as what action to take to ‘meet the common danger’, under Article IV. However, any attempt to parse the meaning of terms such as ‘armed attack’, ‘Pacific Area’, or ‘act to meet the common danger’, or to otherwise read down Australia’s obligations with a view to avoiding involvement in a war with China, would be seen by the United States as a betrayal of the trust which necessarily sits at the heart of such an alliance. The United States would expect us to meet our obligations. Australia could, of course, insist that it was not obliged to go to war – and it would have to accept the consequences of its choice.

While consideration of obligations matter, of far greater importance would be Australia’s own strategic interests. Australia has an abiding strategic interest in the preservation of US primacy in the Indo Pacific region, which means countering the establishment of Chinese hegemony. In order to secure this overarching interest, Australia has an interest in contributing to a regional system of deterrence. Australia also has an interest in the United States being able to deter nuclear attack by China, against itself and, through extended deterrence, against its allies in the Indo Pacific.

This is unfamiliar territory for Australian grand strategy. In the 1950s and 1960s, Australia’s ‘fear of abandonment’ (to use Allan Gyngell’s phrase) led it to seek unrealistic levels of protection through the Treaty. After 1969, Australia gradually decided that it could not rely upon US combat assistance in its own defence, short of major war – although it took until 1987 for this approach to be properly institutionalised in policy, strategy, capability and doctrine. In the 1970s and 1980s, Australia developed a different ‘fear’. This was said to be a ‘fear of entrapment’ in US nuclear warfighting strategies, due to the hosting of certain US capabilities in Australia, strategies which were seen as the dark underside of US deterrence.

In the 1990s and the 2000s, Australia sought ‘security in Asia’, without seeking to displace the US alliance. At the time, it was assumed that China would be a ‘responsible stakeholder’, admitted into the World Trade Organisation, and engaged positively in an emerging regional architecture, anchored in Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and the ASEAN Regional Forum.  

In the 2010s, Australia entered a new strategic era. Far from being an abandoned backwater, we became for the United States a strategic bastion and secure base. The strategy of defence self-reliance of the 1980s, which was predicated on the prospect of lower levels of conflict (when there was no credible threat of a conventional attack on Australia by the Soviet Union), started to evolve around 2008-09 in anticipation of the prospect of a US-China war. We entered a period of strategic warning, but then did not build the force that we now desperately need.

Today, the defence of Australia in a US-China war would be a coalition effort – for us in the existential defence of our homeland, and for the United States in the defence of vital strategic space. Moreover, we cannot seek ‘security in Asia’, when Asia itself is being fractured by China’s hegemonic drive. Instead of somehow triangulating peace in the region, through a vain attempt to seek an ‘equilibrium’ between the two competing great powers, whose tensions roil the region, we have in fact chosen a side. We are today party to the steady creation of a system of regional deterrence which is predicated on US primacy. We are doing so in league with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and potentially others. We all have an interest in the preservation of US primacy, and resisting Chinese hegemony, the establishment of which would be the basis for national subjugation, regional subordination, and enduring global tension.

Today, four different strands of policy – defence self-reliance, the ANZUS Treaty alliance, a US- centred regional security system, and US extended nuclear deterrence, together with the AUKUS technology pact – are coming together, in fits and starts, in a new Australian grand strategy. It is happening, although not quickly enough, and without it being explained in such direct and undiplomatic terms.

China’s calculus matters too. In its planning, it would assess that Australia holds significant geostrategic utility for the United States, as a bastion, and as a secure base from which to project military power, by way of US combat operations being mounted from, or through, Australia. Our long-standing military and intelligence cooperation, which dates back to 1942, and the close political, economic and cultural ties otherwise between Australia and the United States, would be regarded adversely in Chinese war planning. It should be assumed that there would be high probability of Australia being subjected to armed attack, cyberattack, and cognitive operations in any US-China war.

Moreover, there are functions undertaken in Australia that are structurally integrated into the deterrence and warfighting capability of the United States. Since 1963, these functions have been progressively established in Australia, specifically to support the United States’ global complex of communications, intelligence and surveillance. Agreement given to the establishment of facilities at North West Cape (1963), Pine Gap (1966) and Nurrungar (1969) were central to this development. Other facilities were also established, concerned with geological and geophysical research, satellite communications, solar observation, and space surveillance.

While policy discourse in Australia has tended to emphasise the deterrent and stabilising functions of these facilities (see, for instance, the ministerial statement by Bob Hawke on 22 November 1988), their contribution to US conventional and nuclear warfighting capability has tended to be less appreciated. Deterrence and warfighting are two sides of the one coin. Deterrence, and any resultant stability, can only be achieved if it is underpinned by a warfighting capability that is seen by potential adversaries as being effective and potent.

Absent credible options to act decisively, with a mix of conventional and nuclear weapons, the United States cannot deter armed attack on itself or its allies. As an active enabler of US deterrence (for instance, in supporting ballistic missile early warning through Pine Gap), Australia is a contributor to global stability, and to US extended deterrence. Enabling US deterrence means materially supporting US warfighting. Deterrence and warfighting are enmeshed.

By dint of these functions being located on Australian territory, with Australia’s concurrence, Australia would be seen as being a vicarious belligerent in a war involving the United States, even if it was not a combatant. In order to achieve neutrality in such a war, Australia would have to exercise its rights to terminate relevant agreements, close these facilities, and cease supporting the functions with which they are associated.

For 50 years, Australia has accepted its vicarious association with US warfighting capability. This ought to be better known. Not having been advised of the putting of the North West Cape naval communications station on a higher level of defence alert during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, the Whitlam Government entertained the idea of seeking to establish joint control of the station, such that the Australian Government could exercise a veto over its use.

By January 1974 it had become clear, after extensive discussions between Defence Minister Lance Barnard and US Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, that joint substantive control or an Australian veto was not achievable, and especially not in relation to the control or vetoing of orders to US submarines to launch nuclear missiles. Barnard did, however, win assurances from Schlesinger regarding timely notification of, and meaningful consultation on, strategic and operational issues connected with the use of North West Cape (see Gough Whitlam’s account in The Whitlam Government: 1972-1975 [1985]).

Barnard’s eyes were open to the implications, for instance in relation to supporting selective nuclear targeting by the United States. After 1974, both major political parties accepted that Australia would have to be prepared to be vicariously associated with US warfighting, even if grudgingly, and consequently needed to do more to inform itself as to the totality of the uses of these functions (see Barnard’s letter to Whitlam of 16 October 1974, classified SECRET and since declassified, available online through the website of the National Archives of Australia).  

This laid the foundation for the policy of Australia having full knowledge of, and concurring in, these functions, which was later more enduringly institutionalised by the Hawke Government (see his ministerial statement of 22 November 1988). Building on the foundation of the Barnard/Schlesinger agreement of 1974, Kim Beazley set the standard for how Australia should better inform itself about strategic and operational developments related to these facilities, particularly with regard to US nuclear war planning. At his direction, Australia sought and obtained more regular relevant briefings from the US Department of Defence, including on sensitive nuclear issues (see Beazley’s note for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, The Strategist, 18 August 2021).  

In recent years, more information about the functions of these facilities has been placed on the public record, building on the disclosures contained in the 1988 ministerial statement. Taking that earlier ministerial statement together with the ministerial statements by Brendan Nelson (20 September 2007), Stephen Smith (26 June 2013), Christopher Pyne (20 February 2019) and Richard Marles (9 February 2023), it can be inferred that Australia is structurally integrated into the following elements of US warfighting capability:  

  • satellite-based collection of intelligence on military and weapons developments;  
  • ballistic missile early warning (of both long-range strategic missiles and short-range battlefield missiles, the latter having been disclosed by Robert Ray on 5 November 1991);  
  • ‘battlespace characterisation’ by way of space-based infrared means;  
  • detection of nuclear explosions by space-based, and geological and geophysical, means;  
  • communication with submarines, which would presumably involve the relaying of orders to launch ballistic, cruise, and other missiles;  
  • satellite-based communications, and other forms of communications support;  
  • identification and tracking of objects in space; and  
  • monitoring of space weather.

It would not be possible, without breaching official secrecy, to describe how, or even whether, these functions might be relevant in a US-China war. Perhaps an inference could be drawn from Christopher Pyne’s statement that Pine Gap provides warning of potentially hostile activities and developments that threaten to destabilise the region (see his ministerial statement, 20 February 2019), but this would be suggestive at best. 

The Force Posture Initiatives that have been put in place since 2011 (and institutionalised in the 2014 Force Posture Agreement) have a different character. They are not the subject of any known standing, preauthorised, agreement for the United States to undertake combat operations from, or through, Australia. The use of Australia territory for such operations would only take place through mutual agreement, and at the invitation of Australia.  

US national war planning for such operations might already assume access to bases, infrastructure, logistics, prepositioned material, and other support in Australia. There is no public sign that Australia has encouraged any such assumptions. Indeed, it might be that planning assumptions in Washington and Canberra differ to such an extent that each holds erroneous expectations of the other. Alliances are meant to show resolve. Misplaced expectations and faulty assumptions can negate the very purpose of a military alliance, which is to demonstrate strategic alignment and unity of purpose.  

To overcome this, and to signal alignment and resolve, Australia and the United States should urgently put in place political-military structures under auspices of the Treaty, as one would expect to see in a warfighting alliance. By putting in place policy mechanisms, strategic planning processes, command arrangements, and operational planning activities, and agreeing policy aims, strategic objectives, and roles and missions, Australia and the United States would signal that they were putting their alliance onto a war footing. This would enhance regional deterrence.  

Arising out of the suggested Article III consultations, mentioned earlier, agreement could be reached on:  

  • Establishing an Australia-US Defence Committee (consisting of the Minister of Defence and the US Defense Secretary, and their senior civilian and military advisers), to oversee the matters listed below.  
  • For the purposes of Articles IV and V, the ‘Pacific Area’ being taken to mean that an armed attack on US forces involved in the defence of Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and others as might be mutually agreed, would be considered dangerous to the peace and safety of Australia.  
  • For the purposes of Article V, an ‘armed attack’ being deemed to include cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and essential services (codifying what was agreed by the President and the Prime Minister on 25 October 2023), an attack in space, or on undersea infrastructure.  
  • Establishing an Australia-US allied command arrangement, whereby the Australian commander of the Australian Area of Responsibility (AOR), COMAUST, would be dual- hatted as the Australia-US allied force commander. Command and control arrangements, including with respect to US operations in Australia (or from, or through, Australia), and the boundaries of the Australian AOR, would be agreed by the Australia- US Defence Committee.  
  • Developing strategic planning guidance to inform combined Australia-US planning for:  
    • US operations in the defence of Australia (for instance, missile defence);  
    • US operations to be conducted from, or through, Australia (including, potentially, operations by US nuclear forces – see further below);  
    • combined logistics, sustainment, maintenance and support activities;  
    • combined operations in contiguous areas of operation in the Indian Ocean, the Western Pacific, the Central Pacific, and the South Pacific;  
    • sea lane protection, building on the Radford/Collins Agreement of 1951;  
    • combined cyber offense activities; and  
    • combined cyber defence activities, particularly as related to combined military operations, and critical infrastructure protection.  
  • Recalling the consultative arrangements first agreed in 1974, the establishment of an Australia-US Nuclear Policy Group, to enhance consultation on US planning for the use of nuclear forces, and related crisis and escalation management issues, insofar as these might involve or affect Australia. (In this context, Australia should rule out support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as being detrimental to its interests.) 

Today, the challenge for Australia is to combine defence self-reliance, the ANZUS Treaty alliance, integrated regional deterrence, extended nuclear deterrence, and the AUKUS technology pact into a comprehensive strategy to deal with the singular problem of China’s hegemonic drive, and the consequential risk of war. Once this threat is seen off by a likeminded coalition, a more agreeable vision of peace and security could be set as the new objective. Australia’s strategic objective of seeking ‘security in Asia’ could be reinstated. Some of these suggested warfighting arrangements could then even be unwound.  

If, however, war is tragically to come, we should not stumble into its cauldron, in a fit of absence of mind. We should understand, plan and prepare. Thinking about war is distressing. The alternative is worse. There will be no greater dereliction of duty if, ill-prepared, unalerted, and vulnerable, the people were to be exposed to the storm of war by those who knew better, but who did not act according to their duty, including by urgently putting ANZUS on to a war footing. 

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