ANZUS has been the cornerstone of Australian security policy and the foundation upon which Australian identity has been built for the past 60 years. However, Australia must rid itself of the fear that to say no to the US would be the ruin of the ANZUS alliance, when saying yes without critically analysing and questioning the demands being made on Australia, could lead to Australia’s own ruin.
Forward to the past: Alliances have remained a cornerstone of international relations for millennia. The offensive realist paradigm characterises the international system as anarchic, stating that in absence of an international arbiter: states seek to maximise their power through achieving relative gains in pursuit of attaining hegemony. However, not all states possess the capabilities necessary for competing. The cost of internal mobilisation is too high a burden for many states to carry alone and in a competitive international environment, where the ultimate duty of the state remains to maintain sovereignty and state survival, states will seek to balance the power of hegemons, or those with hegemonic aspirations, through the formation of alliances until power equilibrium is achieved, or so balance of power theory posits.
However, Stephen Walt observes that balance of power doesn’t adequately explain the formation of modern alliances such as those extant under the US San Francisco system, of which ANZUS is a part, and claims that “It is more accurate to say that states tend to ally with or against the foreign power that poses the greatest threat.” Walt claims that states seek to balance threats, not power. The most important threat that states calculate against, of which he lists aggregate power, geographical proximity, and offensive power, is aggressive intentions.
Back to the future: The ANZUS alliance is central to Australia, both in terms of identity and security and has been since it was signed in 1951. ANZUS is integral to the construct of Australia’s Asian identity; it remains the foundation upon which is built Australia’s status as an Asia-Pacific ‘middle power.’ Australia’s connection to the US, and some believe influence in Washington, bestow upon Australia a standing that enables Australia to ‘punch above its weight’ in regional affairs.
From a security perspective, Australia places great faith in the belief, although it has never been tested, that if Australia were ever attacked the US would come to its aid. In recompense, or the price paid for maintaining this safety net- if you like, Australia has been and remains in PM Julia Gillard’s own words “…an ally in war and peace, an ally for hardship and prosperity, an ally for the 60 years past and an ally for all the years to come.” However, great danger exists in continuing to walk down the path of ANZUS alliance reliance without surveying the current and rapidly changing strategic landscape that surrounds us. It would be extremely foolhardy to believe the path to a secure and prosperous Australian future in this rapidly transforming geopolitical region within which Australia sits, will be as easy to traverse advancing into the future as it has been throughout our recent past. A more nuanced government approach will be required, one characterised by creative policy dexterity. Australia needs to progress cautiously and should seriously begin to question its policy of ANZUS alliance reliance.
In a move seen as strengthening the ANZUS alliance, in April 2012 the first 200 US marines arrived in Darwin and this will eventuate in a rotational troop deployment of a full 2500-strong Marine Air Ground Task Force to Australia. The move was initially announced when president Obama visited Australia back in November 2011. The ANZUS alliance receives bi-partisan political support in Australia and is furthermore, largely supported by the Australian public. In a recent Lowy Institute poll, 74% of people asked were in favour of up to 2500 US troops to be based in Darwin. Interestingly 46% were in favour of allowing more US troops to be based in Australia; a number that increased to 51% if Indonesia or China objected to the move.
So, what was the reaction of Indonesia and China to the news of US troops being deployed to Australia? It was largely one of bafflement. I have sat in on many roundtables and work-shops of late, where it has often been said that it wasn’t the substance of the message that drew the ire of Beijing and Jakarta, but the delivery. I don’t think this is entirely correct, I believe it was both and the failure on behalf of the delivery stems from not really understanding the true implications of the message (or what the message actually was entirely) and how, more importantly, it might be interpreted by others within the region. Here, Australia certainly slipped up.
The US asked Australia to base/rotate US troops in Australia. Prima facie, this appears a low cost initiative for Australia to agree to and engage in that would enhance the ANZUS alliance and strengthen Australian security. However, Australia failed to ask, or fully understand the implications of, how might this be interpreted and be seen by others? Yes, it strengthens the alliance (two allies working side by side deepening and demonstrating their commitment to one another is natural and nothing new) but what is it that has altered, where is it that balance equilibrium has been lost that means there now exists a need and requirement for basing/rotating US troops on Australian soil when there previously was none? Ultimately this is a question of balance, which returns us to a theme this piece began with. What is it the alliance seeks to balance? It isn’t power because in both latent and military terms the US remains the regional preponderant power. Is it then threat? If so, who is the threat and where is it originating from? Despite protestations stating otherwise, it was and remains clear to many whom that perceived threat is.
Stationary in the present: Australia is now very much on the strategic radar of China. Australia now grapples with balancing a desire to be noticed with the consequences that stem from the actuality of that desire being recognised. At the moment Australia appears to be dangerously band-wagoning with the US at a time when many regional states are hedging, thus drawing not only the attention of China but also that of other regional states. China is not a threat to Australia and even if it ever were, does anybody seriously believe that the US would go to war with China to protect Australia. Former Australian PM Malcolm Fraser, with a firm grasp and understanding of realpolitik, certainly doesn’t. I believe, in accordance to Lord Palmerston’s dictum, that this would very much be dependent on the perception of US interests at that moment in time, and it could never be said with any degree of certainty that US interests would align with those of Australia, irrespective of the loyalty and permanence of Australia’s friendship. At the very best, or worst, the policy of ANZUS alliance reliance represents one of hope, but as Richard Armitage, a former US Deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush, has noted before- hope is not a policy at all.
Before Australia walks down the path of allowing US Carrier Strike Groups and Virginia Class submarines to berth/rotate out of Western Australia (an unthinking decision that could easily be arrived at considering Australia’s Defence budget cuts and the perception of large public support for the alliance), or inviting increasing numbers of troops to rotate through Australia, questions must and need to be asked of the alliance and serious eventualities must be considered. The most obvious that springs to mind is in the instance that- for whatever reason- Australia wants US troops off Australian soil while the US wishes to remain- this would certainly signal the end of the alliance. As the US increases its military presence in Australia- without being asked to, the US will only ever leave when it wants to and when it wants to would most likely be the time Australia needs its alliance partner most, a US exit under such circumstances would, at the very least, signal the end of the alliance…
Finally, and certainly something to think about. Quentin Crisp- the British playwright once warned on the matter of relationships “It is explained that all relationships require a little give and take. This is untrue. Any partnership demands that we give and give and give and at last, as we flop into our graves exhausted, we are told that we didn’t give enough.”
Perils certainly exist in continuing Australia’s unquestioning ANZUS alliance reliance.
Ben Moles completed his Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year. (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles