The Perils of Continuing an Unquestioning ANZUS Alliance Reliance:

Ben Moles

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. ( or Follow on Twitter @bwmoles


11 thoughts on “The Perils of Continuing an Unquestioning ANZUS Alliance Reliance:

  1. i agree that australia needs to understand and pursue its own strategic interests, which will not always align entirely with those of the US. but i also feel that this either/or scenario (china OR the US) has been overstated. i can’t think of many countries who are MORE intertwined than the US and china, and they will sink or swim together. also, if the marines are based in darwin instead of say japan then wouldn’t that impact china’s perception of the move? i also disagree that US troops would remain if canberra asked them to leave and/or that they wouldn’t come to australia’s aid when needed most. are we talking hypothetical invasion here? they would have to respond or give up on the entire system of international law that they’ve worked to implement the past 70+ years!

  2. I suppose I agree with the point of the article. I feel its a bit alarmist though….I mean, so what if the Chinese and Indonesians get slightly irritated by US troop mevements in the Pacific? The Yanks and Aussies can’t always tip-toe around countries that like to blow things out of proportion. Besides, I think the liklihod of the Americans doing something to REALLY piss off the Chinese is unlikely; it would be just as bad for the US as Australia.

    • Firstly thanks guys. Ill reply to you both in this one comment. The piece was meant to be alarmist, loud noises and naked people are the only things that people take notice of these days, I suppose in part the fact that you both wanted to comment on this goes some way to substantiate that point. Dave you are right, the Yanks don’t have to tiptoe around the region but Australia does. Australia should be cautious of biting the hand that feeds it so to speak, we are (optimistically thinking) a ‘middle power’ geographically situated in this region, we can’t just pack up and go home at the end of the day. We need to develop some form of positive rapport with our neighbours and our focus on the alliance prevents us from fully seeking to do this with the energy the task requires and inhibits our neighbours from viewing us as anything more than America’s ‘deputy sheriff.’ This is where the danger rests for Australia as we enter the ‘Asian Century, ’ not from war but isolation. Beth, I agree that the either/or is overstated. Australia doesn’t/shouldn’t have to ‘pick sides’ but plotting a middle course will not be easy and will require creative policy dexterity which won’t happen independent of the application of serious thought to issues, which at times I believe has been lacking (in particular in the case I highlighted). Economic interdependence means very little at the end of the day, the obvious and often cited case being Britain and Germany prior to World War I. Below in such beautiful prose that I feel compelled to include it are the thoughts of John Maynard Keynes describing life in early twentieth century London and world wide interconnectedness (globalisation certainly isn’t a twenty first century phenomena) – I should add that World War I followed…

      “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.

      He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.

      But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.”

      Also, tying up the themes of alliances and the transition into a state of war when previously it was unthought-of is Captain Blackadder’s explanation of World War I, there was indeed “…a tiny flaw in the plan.” (If you haven’t seen it the whole of the Blackadder goes fourth series is so tragically funny).

      What is the message China takes from the US moving troops from Japan to Australia, well if I was offering advise in Beijing I would say it looks like we’re making head way on pushing them out past the first Island Chain, China is a growing power and the US are taking notice. This opens up the door to potential miscalculation; I’m thinking a stronger Chinese stance on Taiwan and the South China Sea.

      I agree, the US wouldn’t stay in Australia if Canberra asked them to leave, US occupation of Australia, irrespective of the cartoon that heads the piece, was not a point I was trying to make. However, it would be very difficult for Australia to ask them to leave (if for whatever reason Australia felt it was in the national interest to do so), if the US wanted to stay, without it impacting on the alliance. As I said, I personally don’t think it could be said with any degree of certainty what the US would do if Australia asked for help and think Palmerston’s dictum sits true, no permanent friends or enemies just permanent interests. Prior to the Korean War the US was ready to cut off Taiwan, it wasn’t an interest to them, then the Korean War happened and it became an interest. The government of the ROC in Taiwan was the recognised government of the whole of China until in 1972, because of shifting US interests, the US recognised the CCP in the PRC. In 1996 the US sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan straits to send a message to China out of national interest, would they do the same today for their ally (and it is often forgotten that Taiwan remains a US treaty ally- mostly because the US seem to have lost interest in Taiwan and its utility- the famous and perhaps apt for Australia tombstone carving “…as you are now so once was I…” springs to mind) today.

      Finally your last point. It would be quite easy for the US to say no within International Law to Australia as ANZUS just provides a mechanism for consultation, it has no clause similar to that of article 5 in the NATO Treaty, where an armed attack on one signatory is seen as an armed attack on all and all will collectively respond. At the end of the day the strong do as they will while the weak suffer what they must- I think the 2003 invasion of Iraq will stand as testament to this and the failings of International Law.

  3. As Darth Vader would have said, “I find your lack of faith disturbing…” I see American troops on another country’s soil as the clearest of indicators that the US has an interest in that country’s welfare. How so? If Australia were attacked, US troops, equipment, and citizens are already there and in the line of fire. So basically, attacking Australia would be like attacking the US because of the co-location of things that are inherently of interest to the US (ie, its own soldiers, citizens and military hardware). In addition, I think you’re discounting the value of shared language and culture between the US and Australia. I reckon NATO HAD to have a clause in there about how an attack on one is an attack on another due to the differences in language and lack of shared culture between, say, the US and Norway, or Italy and the UK. I might be tempted to argue that the bond of language and culture is just as strong as words in a treaty.

    Like you said, I definitly think that Australia has to be careful to not alarm its neighbors too much. Hopefully the US doesn’t decide to station a carrier battle group in Aussie waters anytime soon. Like you said, I think such a step might really hurt the Australian trade relations with China and unnecesarily flare tensions in the region. Now if Australia were able to diversify its trading partners (selling uranium to India for example), then we might yet see the stars and stripes flapping permenantly in the Sydney Harbor breeze.

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‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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