Reshaping ANZUS for a new strategic age
1 Sep 2021|

It’s a rare thing for an alliance to last as long as the ANZUS Treaty, signed 70 years ago today. A Brookings Institution study in 2010 reviewed 63 major alliances over the past 500 years and found only 10 lasted more than 40 years. These included NATO, ANZUS and the US–Japan treaty.

The alliance between Australia and the United States survives because it suits both countries’ interests. Don’t be fooled by the usual rhetoric about mateship and standing shoulder to shoulder. Strong alliances are based on calculations of interest and mutual usefulness.

The clearest lesson to come from the debacle in Afghanistan is that the US has no interest these days in helping those that are incapable or uninterested in helping themselves. For Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Australia, the message is the same: lift your defence game.

The NATO benchmark for alliance adequacy used to be to spend 2% of GDP on defence. After years of pressure from Washington, only 10 of the 29 NATO countries with armed forces currently meet that standard.

Australia just gets over that budget line. Given the enormous challenges a belligerent China presents to the Asia–Pacific, we desperately need to rethink our defence posture.

For Australia the alliance remains vital. We could double defence spending and get nowhere near the deterrent power that the US presence in Asia provides. The challenge is to sustain American engagement and get stronger in our own right.

Does the US get defence ‘value’ from its relationship with Australia? Yes, absolutely. Washington looks to us to be a lead actor in stabilising our nearer region, the Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste. Washington wants Australia to be a strong shaper of security in Southeast Asia. In both cases, this means pushing back against growing Chinese influence in the region.

The US gets good intelligence value from Australia not just because we host a critical joint facility at Pine Gap, but because we offer serious intelligence know-how and insight about the Asia–Pacific.

Militarily, we are a valued alliance partner because we’re prepared to get into the fight and don’t just deploy forces for symbolic value. Yes, the Australian Defence Force is small, but from special forces to submarines and combat aircraft we bring some superb capabilities to the field, uninformed media criticisms notwithstanding. Don’t underestimate the access and influence that that effort delivers in Washington.

Finally, the US values Australia because of our geography. America needs ‘places not bases’ for its military so it can disperse more widely in the region and avoid being locked into a handful of large vulnerable bases in North Asia.

This means Australia can make a powerful case in Washington that we are a valuable partner, one that should be listened to and one that is intent on getting stronger more quickly, because of the growing Chinese threat to Asia–Pacific security.

The best way to insure against American isolationism is for us to be a stronger ally and, moreover, to do this in coalition with Japan, which has an equal imperative to keep the US engaged in Asia.

It’s likely that AUSMIN—the annual gathering of Australia’s foreign and defence ministers with their US counterparts—will happen in Washington later this month.

ANZUS was created in 1951 as the result of quick Australian policy thinking at a time of great strategic change in Asia. This is precisely what we need today. Typically, Australia drives the agenda for alliance cooperation. Frankly, we think about the alliance more than the US and have a sharp eye for how to maximise our return on investment.

Here we have an opportunity to repurpose the alliance. My advice to Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne would be to ditch their AUSMIN briefing packs, accept that the Asia–Pacific is heading into a five-alarm fire, and go to the States pitching for a fundamental alliance step-up.

First, let’s lift that US Marine Corps presence of 2,500 in the north to a full 7,500-personnel Marine Air–Ground Task Force. That task force comes with a lot of ships and aircraft, and the only place to house them in the short term is the Port of Darwin. It’s time to say goodbye to the lease that handed the port to a Chinese company for 99 years.

Second, we should ask the US to speed up its plans to bring more of its air force and navy presence into northern Australia. We need to urgently refurbish our remote so-called bare bases, which are falling into disuse. We should pay for this ourselves instead of hoping the US will take care of it.

That larger US presence in Australia would complicate any adversary’s plan to coerce us. We can shape that presence into a joint force, with equal sovereign weight for both countries. Nothing could be more reassuring to our neighbours, who worry equally about US disengagement and Chinese dominance.

This could all start happening next year. Contrast that with a plan for future submarines arriving in the mid-2030s.

Third, we need a decisive step forward in plans for joint missile design, manufacture and stockpiling in Australia. This will only be delivered if our political leaders decide they want to build this joint capability fast; otherwise, Congress could kill the idea.

Beyond missiles there are opportunities to promote joint projects in hypersonic weapons, quantum computing and autonomous land, sea and air vehicles. Both countries need to modernise their military forces, making them more relevant to the Asia–Pacific threat picture.

This is the threshold test. President Joe Biden can back his alliance rhetoric or succumb to ‘America first’ ideologies that just deliver America alone. Australia is positioned to make the case that the US needs its allies as much as the allies need America.

What is required here is a sense of speed, size and scale. If we default to standard defence planning nothing will happen for a decade, by which time the battle for strategic dominance in Asia will have been lost.

Dutton and Payne will arrive in a deeply demoralised Washington DC. Biden’s handling of Afghanistan has been disastrous, but what matters now is how America rebounds from this defeat.

Australia needs to bring its own design for the future of ANZUS to Washington, backed by a willingness to invest in our own idea and a rejection of rent-seeking. This will inject momentum and purpose into US security policy after Afghanistan and advance our national interests.