Re-examining the Australia–US alliance (part 3): the Chifley model

While Australia looked to America in 1941–42 to defeat a military threat, the post-war vision of Prime Minister John Curtin and his successor Ben Chifley was to restore the British Commonwealth to bind and strengthen increasingly divergent Western states.

The main idea was establishing ‘zones of responsibility’ around like-minded countries. Australia and New Zealand would take responsibility for the South Pacific. South Africa, India, Canada and others would look after their respective domains, and the UK would guard and support the sea links in between.

Chifley’s idea never got very far. It was opposed by the British and Americans, as well as by his own military advisers (who worked with the British to scuttle the plan). Yet it may be an idea whose time has come.

A framework of it is already in place. Americans look to Australia to help them interpret and achieve their interests in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. The Australian government’s ‘step-up’ in the South Pacific is exactly the kind of leadership Washington often wants from its allies—and too rarely sees. Yet, at the same time, Washington can’t seem to help itself, sometimes supporting Canberra’s efforts, at other times replicating or confusing them with its own initiatives.

The Chifley model would be a way of recognising that most countries worry primarily about their own immediate regions. America’s allies could serve the US by working within their own regions to fulfil a number of key roles—ranging from deepening their intelligence-gathering on specific areas to helping engage key neighbouring states—most notably Indonesia in Australia’s case—so they better provide for their own defence and ensure their zones remain a ‘free and open’ part of the Indo-Pacific.

This approach would fit with US military interests. A region of defensible ‘bastions’ with advanced anti-access/area-denial capabilities, based out of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia (and possibly Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore or other places) would be much more difficult for China to coerce.

It would also relieve pressure on the US to maintain its current offensive posture in Asia—an approach which in my view doesn’t serve Washington’s interests, is out of sync with regional attitudes, and deepens resentment and insecurity spirals with Beijing.

Ultimately, ANZUS remains in relatively good health. I am conscious that there’s much going on behind the scenes I am not aware of, and my reading of Australia’s strategic history and interests may differ from those of others. Yet I worry that our very closeness is blinding us to significant differences in how the US and Australia see the world.

Our countries are different from who we were in 1951 when the treaty was signed, and different still from who we were in 2001 when ANZUS was first invoked. Both the US and Australia want to focus more on issues closer to home, shrugging off the idealism and emphasis on global institutions that seemed to define much of our post–World War II approach. The US is no longer the sole superpower, and Australia is now more of a regional power than a middle power.

There’s never an easy time to talk about differences in a partnership, but now is as good a moment as we’ll get. The Chinese Communist Party’s threat has not yet materialised, and its economic and domestic struggles may distract it for the next few years. For all the talk of Washington’s bipartisan hardening on Beijing, the US doesn’t have a clear strategy for China. Nor will it for some time, as whoever wins the presidential election in November will continue to be distracted from Asia. This leaves an opening for Australia to insert its ideas and proposals to drive the ANZUS relationship.

With its new US ambassador Arthur Sinodinos, Australia will have a public face in DC who can convey a difficult conversation with the gravity it requires. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has more than two years before the next election, time enough to begin speaking frankly to the Australian people about the challenges we face. The Australian Labor Party remains committed to a bipartisan approach of support.

Finally, President Donald Trump may be many things, but he is not attached to the status quo. If we can sell him the idea that change is beneficial to the US (and it needs to be for the alliance to make sense), we have an opening for change not previously available. Today’s political conditions are not easy, but they provide a rare moment of opportunity for the smaller partner in an alliance to drive the relationship.

If ANZUS is to be recast for Asia’s strategic competition, now is the moment—not some years down the track when, in the midst of a crisis, an Australian leader has to tell Washington they don’t want to send forces into Taiwan, or when the Australian public wake up surprised and angry at a sudden new US base on their soil designed to strike deep into Asia. To believe such hard questions can be pushed endlessly away is to do a disservice to our partnership and give lie to the claim that we are genuinely close in values and world view.

If we are to share each other’s burdens, and to earn the label of mates, we need to be open about what we want from our cooperation. Whether we revamp the Menzies model, evolve to the Chifley model or perhaps are forced into the MacArthur model, now is the time to talk about where we are going, and what each of us wants from the partnership. Only then can the discussions of dollars and cents contributions and attempts to calculate the value of the alliance make sense.