The peaks and troughs of ANZUS at 70
27 Apr 2021|

Beyond defending Australia and New Zealand, the original purpose of the ANZUS alliance was to keep the US in, Japan down and China out.

This aphorism reworks its original NATO context (keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down).

Approaching ANZUS’s 70th birthday, today’s purpose is to keep the US in and Japan up, and to compete against, cooperate with and confound China. The balance of the compete–cooperate–confound contest is to stop short of combat.

Canberra seeks meaning from the first 100 days of the Biden presidency as we gaze towards the 70th anniversary of ANZUS’s signing on 1 September 1951.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has invited the president to visit Australia this year to mark that anniversary. Deliver Joe Biden to Oz in the first year of his presidency? ‘No pressure,’ is the cheerful response from Australia’s ambassador to Washington, Arthur Sinodinos.

The ANZUS anniversary in September will arrive as the last US troops withdraw from Afghanistan—an ironic counterpointing of two big Biden choices that matter to Australia.

One choice is the stance on China, as Biden picks up where Trump left off. The other was his announcement of an end date for America’s—and Australia’s—longest war. The US is leaving and, thus, so is Australia.

The depressing take on Afghanistan is that Biden has set the date when the US loses. The binary of asymmetric war is that if you don’t win, you lose.

The positive take is that the US is heading out of Afghanistan into the Indo-Pacific. The tough take is that this is Biden’s first major blunder as president. Australia confronts its own Afghanistan scars, and an army profoundly changed by two decades of war.

As an ally, Australia must weigh the meaning of the retreat from Kabul, pondering judgements such as this from The Economist’s Washington column:

Afghanistan was not only, or mainly, a test of American military power. It was a test of its decision-making and ability to take the long view, including by sticking with a troublesome ally. The Biden administration speaks of the China challenge requiring the same qualities. It has just ducked a chance to display them.

Not much Afghanistan shadow fell on APSI’s conference on ‘The US–Australia alliance in a more contested Asia’. The focus was on the contest now unfolding, not the contest that’s about to fold.

Sinodinos offered an ambitious view of ANZUS going from strength to strength.

But his optimism goes to a key question: have we ‘passed peak ANZUS’ or can new peaks be scaled?

‘Peak ANZUS’ was coined by Rod Lyon when writing about Covid-19 and the balance of power: ‘[T]he alliance might not hold the degree of centrality it has previously enjoyed in our strategic and defence policy … We need to find options that strengthen our capacities when the US isn’t the only game in town.’

The peak question captures the Trump tempest and The Donald’s disdain for alliances (storms battered and shrouded the alliance peak), distilling much that Rod has mused about when contemplating the hard times facing Oz strategy and ANZUS in the age of disruption.

Biden’s emphasis on repairing alliances acknowledges chilliness on the peak. And the ‘peak ANZUS’ insight points to the many ways the concept of ‘alliance’ has to shift or broaden: from digital technology to rare earths to vaccines. The policy vocabulary of government defenceniks enjoys rich growth.

The alliance mountain is being scaled by new teams like the Quad (much hope with the hype), plus ambitious new fields for the Five Eyes club (the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand). New Zealand has blinked at expanding the Five Eyes remit, a reminder that peak ANZUS for the Kiwis was 1985–86, when the US booted NZ. The NZ inside ANZUS is still pronounced, even though it’s silent.

We have passed peak ANZUS as a purely military language for the alliance. Now ANZUS turns its eye to a new mountain range, a fresh set of peaks. Some bits of the vocabulary are hefting more weight, such as the focus on values: interesting to hear a gathering of realist defenceniks continually circling back to the role and worth of democracy in the compete–cooperate–confound contest with China.

Always a reliable rhetorical gloss for ANZUS speeches, democracy gets more space and attention as an important piece of alliance software.

Charles Edel, Global Fellow at Washington’s Wilson Center, talked of the alliance in both the power and values dimensions. On power, he argues that China is the US’s greatest ally in the region: ‘China has created the demand signal that keeps the US anchored in the Indo-Pacific.’

On the software side, Edel talks up the strategic logic of democratic solidarity.

On the future of ANZUS in an era of great-power competition, Edel and John Lee argued a couple of years ago that the ‘comprehensive challenge China poses to the United States might be the only issue that brings bipartisan consensus to Washington these days’. China has a rare ability to unite the US polity, making for an equally rare area of continuity from Trump to Biden.

Speaking to the ASPI conference from the US, Paul Wolfowitz (former US deputy defence secretary and president of the World Bank) said Trump had the right idea on China but strategy was lacking. Biden’s job, he says, is to sharpen the strategy: ‘The new administration understands a great deal of what has changed. The American mood has changed dramatically, and it’s affecting elite opinion even in circles that I would say were much too accomodationist in the past.’

Australia has spent 70 years obsessing about the meaning and strength of ANZUS. Then we apply that thinking about the central pillar of Oz defence to our diverse interests in Asia.

The strategic double-step—bilateral and regional—flows from the geographic reach of the treaty text, with the opening paragraph lauding the desire ‘to strengthen the fabric of peace in the Pacific Area’.

The bilateral/regional double-step was the way Australia envisaged the alliance, even as Percy Spender was busy with its creation: getting ANZUS was the price the US paid for Australia’s agreement to a ‘soft’ peace treaty with Japan, allowing Japan to rearm.

Spender wanted ‘not only the protection which a treaty with the US would provide, but the opportunity it would offer to influence policies and events in Australia’s own region’, Tom Millar writes in the ‘American lifeline’ chapter of Australia in peace and war.

The bilateral/regional recipe means that for many decades, when Australia talked Asia strategy, it was really thinking US alliance. That’s reversed. Today, when Australia talks alliance, the thinking is about China.

Washington and Canberra seek to shift the meaning of peak ANZUS towards the dangerous peaks of Asia’s mountainous new power.