ANZUS at 70: Defending Australia
31 Aug 2021|

It’s taken many decades for Australia to come to terms with American expectations that we should be able to defend ourselves, short of nuclear war or a conventional attack by a major power. Those expectations have been made clear by successive US governments—beginning with President Richard Nixon in 1969 in what has been termed the Guam Doctrine.

However, it took Australian governments until the 1976 defence white paper, Australian defence, to acknowledge the need for increased self-reliance. That document observed that Australia had one significant alliance—the ANZUS Treaty—but that it was prudent to remind ourselves that the US ‘has many diverse interests and obligations’.

Thus, the 1976 defence white paper identified a critical new defence posture for Australia in the post-Vietnam era. For the first time in a public document, it called for increased self-reliance, which was described as a ‘primary requirement’. It stated that any military operations were much more likely to be in our own neighbourhood than in some distant or forward theatre, and that our armed services would be conducting joint operations together as the Australian Defence Force.

Coming from a Coalition government, that was radical stuff. The white paper made it plain that it was not Australian policy, nor would it be prudent, to rely upon US combat help in all circumstances. It said that an alliance doesn’t free a nation from the responsibility to make adequate provision for its own security. Furthermore, Australia’s self-reliance was seen as enabling us to contribute effectively to any future combined operations with the US because it would significantly reduce our demands upon US operational and logistics support.

The 1987 white paper, The defence of Australia, continued the theme towards defence self-reliance but made it plain that self-reliance ‘must be set firmly within the framework of our alliances and regional associations’ and that the support they give us makes self-reliance achievable. The white paper noted that self-reliance in defence ‘requires both a coherent defence strategy and an enhanced defence capacity’. It rejected the concept of self-reliance as being the narrow concept of ‘continental’ defence. The Hawke government had to make this plain because of US suspicions that Australia was tending towards isolationism. The white paper made it clear that to be self-reliant the ADF must be able to mount operations to defeat hostile forces in our own area of direct military interest. Thus, the fundamental objective of Australia’s defence policy was to develop the capacity for the independent defence of Australia and its interests. However, it emphasised that self-reliance doesn’t mean self-sufficiency.

The 1987 white paper correctly noted that its 1976 predecessor had failed to give substance or direction to the concept of self-reliance. That’s why the Hawke government commissioned the Review of Australia’s defence capabilities, which established a comprehensive approach needed to implement the principle of defence self-reliance. The review noted that Australia can scarcely pretend to contribute to the defence of broader Western interests if it can’t defend itself. The obligation to providing for our own defence is clearly spelled out in Article II of the ANZUS Treaty, which states that ‘the Parties separately and jointly by means of continuous and effective self-help … will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.’ The white paper noted that basic self-reliance is a minimum that any self-respecting country should contribute to an alliance. Our alliance with the US, it said, doesn’t free us from the responsibility to make appropriate provision for our own security.

Since the 1987 white paper, successive Australian governments have endorsed the concept of increased self-reliance and the need for Australia to demonstrate that we can defend ourselves short of a fundamental threat to our security. For example, the Howard government’s 2000 defence white paper declared that, ‘At its most basic’, Australia’s strategic policy aims to prevent or defeat any armed attack on Australia. It went on to say, ‘This is the bedrock of our security and the most fundamental responsibility of government.’ But it also went on to observe that the kind of ADF that we need isn’t achievable without the technology access provided by the US alliance. Self-reliance would remain an inherent part of Australia’s alliance policy, but we wouldn’t assume ‘that US combat forces would be provided to make up for any deficiencies in our capabilities to defend our territory’.

Those views continued until the watershed 2020 defence strategic update (DSU), which accepts that Australia no longer has the luxury of assuming prolonged warning time of a serious threat. It talks about the possibility of high-intensity conflict in which we must be able to hold a potential adversary’s forces and infrastructure at risk. And, in a complete turnaround from the stillborn 2016 defence white paper, the DSU makes it plain that the key force structure determinant now for the ADF is Australia’s immediate region of direct strategic interest, which is defined as including the northeast Indian Ocean, maritime and mainland Southeast Asia (including the South China Sea), and the Southwest Pacific. The DSU notes that the prospect of high-intensity conflict in the Indo-Pacific is less remote than in the past and that there’s greater potential for military miscalculation—including state-on-state conflict that could engage the ADF. Accordingly, ‘Defence must be better prepared for the prospect of high-intensity conflict.’

There’s also an emphasis in the DSU on increased self-reliance and bolstering national sovereignty by growing the ADF’s self-reliance for delivering deterrent effects, as well as such commitments as acquiring our own satellite imagery capability and the capacity to manufacture advanced guided weapons. However, none of that means a lessening of our alliance relationship with the US. If we’re to enhance the lethality of the ADF for high-intensity operations, that will undoubtedly mean even closer access to highly advanced American weapons. Without access to the world’s most technologically advanced military equipment, such as long-range strike weapons, the ADF can’t be a credible force capable of operating in a high-intensity environment in our own defence.

This post is an excerpt from ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance, published by ASPI with support from the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia and edited by Patrick Walters.