A post-ANZUS world?
12 Jun 2015|

John Foster Dulles is shown signing the Tripartite Security Treaty

In my first post yesterday I set out the case for a radical reappraisal of our alliance with Washington. My argument doesn’t reflect a neutralist or anti-American disposition. Rather it’s an attempt to advocate a confident post-Cold War realism where national interest and the balance of global power trump neurotic Australian dependency on a great and powerful friend.

In a post-ANZUS world Australia and the US would remain close, linked by language, history and democratic values. Australia would inevitably have more guarded relations with China, an aggressive communist power.

Australia could continue to train and exchange intelligence with the US. It could continue to host critical joint facilities like Pine Gap if the Americans wanted them. And it could continue to acquire high-end US military equipment from US firms.

But Australia would have more freedom to take an independent and pragmatic view of international policy and national interests. It wouldn’t feel obliged to join every war the Americans wanted to fight, but it could join coalitions when it judged its interests were directly engaged.

In a post-ANZUS world Australia would have to be smarter diplomatically and to build forces that would give potential aggressors reason to pause before threatening Australia. The government would have to accelerate the current multi-billion dollar sea, air and land re-armament program.

In fact the US commitment to ANZUS has never been as strong as the Australian commitment. Australia, the smaller and less important power, has relied on the alliance considerably more than the US has relied on it.

Alliance history suggests the Americans push hard for Australian support under ANZUS when it suits their interests but put US national interests ahead of alliance obligations to Australia when it suits them to do so. It’s worth noting, in parenthesis, that the treaty has been invoked only once—when John Howard, heading home from the US after witnessing the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, decided that Australia would support the US to fight terrorism under the treaty.

In his comprehensive 1991 study, Crises and Commitments: the Politics and Diplomacy of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1965, the historian Peter Edwards notes, among other things, major differences between the US and Australia over Indonesian claims to West New Guinea and over Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia in the 1960s.

Australia supported the Dutch decision to exclude West New Guinea from the transfer of the former Netherlands East Indies to Indonesia; the Americans stayed neutral, believing that a friendly Indonesia would be valuable to the West. Edwards argues that Australia ultimately had to no choice other than to accept the incorporation of West New Guinea into Indonesia. ANZUS proved irrelevant.

Indonesia’s confrontation of Malaysia prompted Australia to seek assurances under ANZUS of US support in the event of an Indonesian attack on Australian forces in Malaysia. According to Edwards the Americans agreed to act only in the event of ‘an overt attack, and not in cases of ‘subversion, guerrilla warfare or indirect aggression’. Support would be limited to the use of air and sea forces and logistic support…in other words, the use of American troops was excluded’, writes Edwards. Again, ANZUS didn’t help Australia.

At the same time, Australia found itself under pressure to contribute to US efforts to defend Vietnam from communism. Edwards writes: ‘The United States made it clear…that American support for Australia in the event of a substantial conflict with Indonesia depended partly on Australian support for the American role in Vietnam’. Australia went to war with the US in Vietnam as an ANZUS obligation and between 1962 and 1975 saw 500 troops killed and 3,129 wounded.

In 1999 Prime Minister John Howard asked President Clinton for troops to assist Australia in the East Timor crisis. Clinton refused, but instead delivered diplomatic, logistic and intelligence support and an over-the-horizon seaborne deterrent presence to support the Australian deployment as head of the 17-nation INTERFET force. ANZUS worked—but it didn’t put US boots on the ground.

Australia’s commitment to ANZUS has taken Australian troops to Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. Australia just cannot say ‘no’.

But how would Australia respond in the event of a crisis in US–China relations? Would it stand by its old strategic ally at the cost of its economic relationship with China? Australian politicians prefer to fudge that question.

Australia and the US could be allies without an alliance although a decision to rescind ANZUS would shock the Asia–Pacific region. It’s an old treaty and part of the wider framework of Western alliances. Australia would have to maintain military forces superior to others in the region and compatible with US forces.

A significant cost to Australia could be its loss of access to some high-end US intelligence collections, especially to real-time satellite imagery that’s highly classified. The US might also be less willing to make certain advanced weapons technologies available to Australia.

Australia wouldn’t have to sign onto every war the Americans want to fight, but it could join military coalitions when it felt its interests were directly engaged.

Australia, as now, could probably expect US help when the US perceived its national interests to be at stake. There would questions about extended US nuclear deterrence, but that would be doubtful anyway if China’s nuclear capabilities became competitive with US capabilities.

In a post-ANZUS world Australia would have to play smarter diplomatic and defence games. It would also have to continue to build forces that would give potential aggressors reason to pause before threatening Australia—as it is doing in the current major sea, air and re-armament program now underway.

Looking back, Australia has unquestionably paid its dues under ANZUS. But the strategic situation today bears little resemblance to that of the second half of the 20th century. Australians need to start thinking about whether ANZUS is of continuing relevance to their vital interests in the 21st century.