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ANZUS and the future of US- Australian relations

Grace Anderson | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

The ANZUS has been lauded as “100 years of mateship”, the “backbone” of Australia’s security”. However, Australia is foolish to believe this alliance offers anything more than a ceremonial promise to “consult” in the case of military threat and be wary of putting “all their eggs in one basket” in such an uncertain time in history.

The vague and narrow wording within the ANZUS is not a new revelation. This has been an active concern for Australian politicians since the inception of the alliance in 1951. In fact, in 1976 the Fraser Government published a White Paper stating that it would not be “prudent to rely on the US to help in all circumstances”. However, successive, bipartisan Government’s since have seemingly held an unfounded belief that, in the case of a threat to Australia, the US would offer “substantial” assistance. This unquestionable notion by which Australian leaders have based strategic policy is dangerous for Australia’s national interest and security.

Article III of the ANZUS Treaty only requires states to “consult” and Article IV requires Parties to “act to meet the common danger”. While this appears to infer a duty to “act”, it is well understood that the US have adopted a very narrow interpretation of this vague statement. This was demonstrated in the East Timor operation where Australia directly invoked the ANZUS and asked for US assistance to prevent pro-Indonesian militia and the US rejected the requirement to send troops, only offering limited logistics support. Again, in 2002, the Bali bombings killed 88 Australians and were believed to be linked to Australia’s involvement in US military action. Despite this evident threat to Australia’s national security, the US urged Australia to focus its efforts on fighting in the Middle East. Offering no direct support.

Australia has been a loyal ally to the US. It is the only ally to follow the US into every major conflict it has fought since World War II. Now, after years of loyal and subservient support, it is time for Australia to question when its own national interest should take priority. One of the biggest motivations for this renewed debate, is the US President’s expressed disdain for alliances. Throughout his original presidential campaign in 2016, President Trump preached to crowds about how he would end “bad deals” and US “exploitation”. He referred to loyal allies that have followed the US into countless military expeditions as “freeloaders”. This is an attitude that should scare Australians. Our strategic security plan is to rely on US support being forthcoming, despite the vague and unbinding nature of the ANZUS.

Right now, the Australian-US relationship, or “friendship” as Prime Minister Morrison so fondly refers to it, is strong. We have re-committed to another US-led military action in the Straits of Hormuz, and our Prime Minister was welcomed as the second foreign leader to receive a state dinner during the Trump Presidency. However, we have seen the fickle nature of Trump and his capacity to approach politics in a very reactive manner. This is not a regular president, and Canberra cannot rely on his mood of the day to be the decisive factor in whether or not it can defend Australia from external threat.

Australia can no longer act on the whim of the US interest, in the hopes that we can maintain a close relationship solely to ensure they will come to our aid in our time of need. As the international stage becomes increasingly complicated, and US unipolarity appears less secure, Australia must look towards its own national interest; and a trade war between the US and China is not within that interest. China is Australia’s largest trading partner. That economic relationship with China dwarfs the economic relationship with the US and has helped it enjoy 23 years of continued economic growth and will be vital in ensuring ongoing prosperity in Australia. It is not in our interest to support the US President in his self-destructive trade battle. Prime Minister Morrison appears to be committed to echoing the term put to John Howard by a journalist that he took days to distance himself from that Australia is the US “Deputy-Sheriff” in the Pacific. However, Howard simultaneously acknowledged and appreciated the incredible importance of China in Australia’s future.

It is time for Australia to re-focus its efforts away from the US and towards its own national interest. This does not been abandoning the ANZUS. It is a good basis for national security- but it should not be only means by which Australia’s strategic plan is built upon. Canberra must commit to ensuring regional stability, to work with our neighbours to collectively ensure Australia is never in the position of having to rely on US ground troops as ANZUS represents a vague, ceremonial promise, that may never come to the mean what Australian leaders promise.

Grace Anderson is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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