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ANZUS for the 21st century

Posted By on May 12, 2017 @ 22:35

Defence Department Secretary Dennis Richardson retired today, after 48 years in the public service. In that time he also headed ASIO and DFAT, and served a term as Australia’s ambassador to Washington. This is an edited version of his farewell speech at the National Press Club in Canberra on the complex three-way relationship of Australia, the US and China.

 

[When I] joined the public service in 1969, the Cold War was 22 years old, and had another 23 years to run. Then the US economy accounted for 37.9% of the global economy while China, then in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, accounted for just under 3%. Today, China’s share of the global economy is 15.5%, with the US at 24.4%, demonstrating both China’s remarkable rise and American resilience.

The events of 9/11 and the subsequent operations in Iraq led to us being militarily engaged in the Middle East alongside the US for most of the past 16 years. The global financial crisis of 2008-9 gave rise to populist and economic nationalism in many Liberal Democracies, contributing to politico-strategic uncertainty and anxiety. That populism, in part, also saw the election of Donald Trump.

All of that, especially the rise of China and the arrival of President Trump, have raised questions about the continued relevance and value of our Alliance with the US and the question of ‘independence’ in Australian policy. But any reassessment of the Alliance should flow from clear-eyed analysis and judgement, not the emotional reaction to one person.

Australian governments generally have a strong and consistent record of charting their own course, with the Alliance part of the overall strategy, not the driver. Indonesia is perhaps the best example of where Australian and US approaches have often diverged. And Australia’s approach to New Zealand after its effective withdrawal from ANZUS in the early 1980’s is another.

At decisive points, Australian governments have very much done their own thing or have pressed the US hard to take a particular course to serve our own interests.

The Howard Government’s decision in 2005 to seek membership of the East Asia Summit and the decision by the Bush Administration to call a G20 Leaders Meeting in 2008, as opposed to a G13 or G14 which would have omitted Australia, are but two examples.

Including the Korean War, Australia has been involved in ten major military operations since 1951, excluding operations such as Cambodia, Rwanda and the Solomon Islands. The US was not involved militarily in the Malayan Emergency or Konfrontasi, and was in a supportive role in East Timor. The Korean War and the 1991 Iraq War were backed by Chapter 7 UN resolutions. Somalia, East Timor and Afghanistan were also supported and framed by UN resolutions.

Without US leadership and involvement, we would not have been in most of the conflicts since 1951. But the Alliance has not always been the sole driver of decision making, with our presence in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan today serving strong national interests independent of the Alliance. In some instances, without the US we would not have been able to give full effect to our own national interests through the use of force. And sometimes the use of force is necessary.

The Alliance was the dominant reason for our involvement in Vietnam and in the invasion of Iraq. It’s also arguable that, given the world as seen from Canberra in the 1960s, there was a respectable case for Vietnam, independent of the Alliance. And, in the case of Iraq in 2003, the government was very careful about the extent and nature of its on-ground commitment, in contrast to the UK. Australian governments have generally been pragmatic and hard headed in weighing Alliance considerations on matters of war and peace. Understanding that is critical at a time when it is all too easy to opportunistically suggest that Australia lacks policy independence.

We need to ensure that military operations don’t drive policy. Beyond operations, military-to-military activity needs to be conducted within a deliberate policy framework. A decision to embed an Australian naval vessel within a US carrier strike group should always be considered a matter of policy, not a routine navy to navy activity.

The preparedness of the US to share sensitive military technologies and capabilities is now more essential to our defence and broader strategic interests than ever.

Intelligence sharing arrangements, have expanded enormously, but are well understood and appreciated by the Australian community because of enhanced transparency and accountability, and the immediacy of terrorism.

China’s relationship with Australia is beyond the imagining of 50 years ago, including: our largest merchandise trading partner by far, a growing investment relationship, people-to-people ties encompassing tourism, education and migration, and developing defence ties. Australia and China are in the 20th year of annual Defence Strategic Dialogues. The range and scope of joint military exercises has slowly increased, albeit from a very low base.

But it is no secret that China is very active in intelligence activities directed at us. It is more than Cyber. That is no reason to engage in knee jerk anti-China decision making or to avoid seeking to build a stronger relationship with China. It’s simply the world in which we live.

Foreign investment proposals from China are weighed carefully, but it doesn’t follow that because one electricity grid can go to a Chinese entity, another must.  Those who argue for so called consistency across a single sector of the economy should be careful of what they seek. We should have open and frank discussions with China about this. Certainly, they are not bashful in denying foreign investment opportunities in their own country.

Likewise, China’s government keeps a watchful eye inside Australian-Chinese communities and effectively controls some Chinese language media in Australia. We have substantive concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea, and look to China to do much more on North Korea.

I’ve always thought that we in Australia do not always see the full dimension of the US/China relationship, in both its depth and complexity. The US and China are strategic rivals. There are, and will continue to be, points of real tension. The dynamic will play out for many decades. Misunderstandings could lead to miscalculation. But both seek to manage the relationship reasonably sensibly and work hard to avoid military conflicts.

I think Australia’s relationship with China and the US will continue to be ‘friends with both, allies with one’, and any notion that the growth in our relationship with China requires a recalibration of our relationship with the US is inconsistent with the facts, and lacks logic or purpose.

Some, including former decision makers, suggest that we should retain the Alliance, but with the US in more of a stand-off arrangement in the region, engaging when needed, especially if China overreaches. But do we expect an inalienable right to a US response if things get difficult while we put in less and talk the Alliance down?

It’s essential for those who believe the Alliance is important to our national interests to engage in the public discourse. It’s perfectly reasonable for millennials to question and query its contemporary relevance. That relevance should be articulated in terms of today’s world: its strategic dynamics, the vibrancy and depth of the contemporary Australia-US relationship, and a bit of history to connect past and present.



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