Throughout history, Australia’s identity has been conditioned by its self-perception as the Anglo-American outpost of the south. Australia’s inherent geographical vulnerabilities and its affinity with European values underlie Australia’s historic pursuit for great and powerful friends, first Britain and then the United States (US). Following Britain’s failure to protect Australia from Japan in 1942, the broadly held view that the US had saved Australia from Japanese invasion prompted Australians to swap best friends, ditching Britain for the more powerful United States. On 29 April 1952, the Security Treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America (the ANZUS Treaty) was brought into force and was given concrete expression through Australia’s involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
While the initial utility of the alliance for both security and economic purposes is broadly undisputed, by the late 1960s, the Asia-Pacific accounted for two-thirds of Australia’s imports and exports; bringing the importance of regionalism and multilateralism into sharp focus for Australian policy makers. Even though rhetoric at the time suggested an openness amongst political and intellectual elites to the consolidation of a new national identity based in Asia - take for example former Prime Minister Keating’s slogan ‘It’s all the go with Tokyo’ - Canberra has remained committed to the alliance and adamant that it can manage tensions between its economic and strategic interests implied by the dramatic rise of China.
This disjuncture in Australia’s foreign policy is given some explanation through looking at Australia as a liminal state, experiencing two worlds, old and new at the same time. In seeking to establish whether Australia should remain in the old, or transition to the new, we need to weigh up the costs and benefits of the ANZUS security alliance. ANZUS is a threat-orientated security alliance that was established based on shared fears pertaining to communism, a militarily resurgent Japan, and more recently, terrorism. Similarly, the benefits provided to Australia through the ANZUS alliance are also security and threat orientated, including access to US intelligence and military technology. In exchange for these military advantages, Australia pays a regular premium by hosting US technology at Pine Gap and lending a hand to the US with military action abroad.
The threat-orientated nature of the security ANZUS alliance is problematic and inherently dangerous to Australia’s future for two reasons. First, Australia openly acknowledges that it faces no threat from regional or global states and yet paradoxically persists with spending up to $10 billion a year on a military force that is designed to deter and combat military attacks that could only emerge from these very neighbours. The second problem is the resulting ambiguity amongst neighbouring states in the Asia-Pacific, confused by Australia’s fluctuation between a traditional military defence approach and a cooperative, regional security approach.
Despite Australia perceiving no direct threat from any regional or global countries requiring the military might or resources of the US, the reciprocal expectations of the alliance have sparked fear pertaining to Australia’s subordinate position in what is clearly a binary power dynamic favouring the US. That is, the alliance impinges on the ability of Canberra to manoeuvre in favour of Australian national interests when they do not correspond to those of the US. In a sort of security dilemma, Australia has become unconditionally entrapped by US military choke points, fearing abandonment by the US if they do not oblige.
Analogies have been cast comparing Washington’s expectations of Australia to those held by Britain preceding the Second World War, where Australian troops were sent across the world to bolster the military pursuits of the UK. A more recent example can be taken from the Iraq quagmire, where the Howard government sent forces into an effort lacking UN mandate, and largely understood to undermine rather than promote Australian security. A prominent commentator in this field, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser critiques Australia’s commitment to ANZUS, writing in 2015 that ‘we have effectively ceded to America the ability to decide when Australia goes to war’. This perception of Australia as an uncritical US proxy is particularly damaging for Australia’s regional interests, with political and intellectual actors in the Asia Pacific becoming increasingly concerned that Australia’s readiness to back US postures without reservation will be emulated in the Asia-Pacific region.
In what has been widely coined the ‘Asian Century’, Australia’s alliance with the US no longer parallels (as it once did) economic links to the US. With the economic geography of Australia making a major shift from West to East, particularly into China, accompanied by the relative economic decline of the US, serious questions arise pertaining to the regional costs of the ANZUS alliance for Australia. Looking to the future of Australian security, building on existing security cooperation with Japan seems like a logical first move. By strengthening security ties with Japan, Australia will be able to subdue much of the concern emanating from its regional neighbours pertaining to military engagement with the US and play a credible, non-threatening leadership role on regional issues without the explicit involvement of the United States.
It is time for Australia to abandon its insulation again the ‘reality of its own geography’ and realise that our strategic and economic potential as a nation lies in the Asia Pacific. For there is surely little doubt that Australia would be a far more prosperous and secure country if our neighbouring countries were similarly stable, secure and prosperous.
Rose is a University of Melbourne International Relations graduate & social policy researcher with a flourishing curiosity over Australia’s past, current and looming political chapters both domestic and abroad.