An op-ed by Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the ANU National Security College.
1 September 2021
Birthdays are about symbol and sentiment. But we should use the 70th anniversary of our American alliance as an opportunity for the opposite: a focus on interests and future challenges.
The tragedy in Kabul is an awful reminder for all nations to go back to basics when assaying their commitments and alliances.
The ANZUS Treaty was signed in San Francisco on 1 September 1951, bringing together Australia, New Zealand and the United States in a world of very different threats.
In large part it was about reassuring Australia that Washington’s forgiving and pragmatic new alliance with Tokyo would not allow a return to Japan’s militarism in Asia, just six years after the Second World War.
But the shadow of other struggles lay heavy – not just the global Cold War, but fully-fledged warfare in Korea, with Australian troops among UN allies in the frontline against North Korea and China.
Now, in the 2020s, we face differently grim times: a world, in the words of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, ‘poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly’ than the global age of stability and wealth being so widely promised at the start of this century.
So what should ANZUS mean for Australia in today’s contested globe, where geopolitical rivalry will be concentrated in our region of the Indo-Pacific?
The ANZUS treaty is a spare and simple document. It affirms faith in the UN Charter and principles of peace, then commits the parties to three things: to make themselves and each other stronger against attack; to ‘consult together’ when their territory, independence or security is threatened; and to ‘act to meet the common danger’ when an armed attack occurs against any of them.
As veteran alliance scholar Rod Lyon wryly notes, the treaty text is a good place to begin in understanding the alliance, but a poor place to stop.
One strength of the Australia-US alliance is its demonstrated capacity to evolve. It isn’t focused on one narrow threat or contingency, nor is it confined purely to the domain of guns and warships. And it reinforces what is also our largest investment relationship, by far.
Much more than a security treaty in the 20th century military sense, what we now seeing develop is a full-spectrum partnership across many dimensions: cyber and critical technologies, countering foreign interference, securing supply chains, and close coordination on offering ‘public goods’ to the wider region – development assistance, infrastructure, digital technology standards and the response to COVID-19.
This new collaboration is galvanised by shared concerns about China’s coercive use of its power. Whatever differences our policy establishments may have over trade or climate, and whatever recriminations unfold over Afghanistan, the shared interest in preventing our region being dominated by China will be pervasive and persistent.
Amid all that divides Americans, bipartisan mistrust of Chinese power has become profound.
Building back at home is vital for its own sake, the wellbeing of the American people, with a rapid COVID-19 vaccination rollout and massive plans for infrastructure spending. Such foundations will also enable America to compete with China from a position of renewed strength.
Hence the Biden Adminstration’s US Innovation and Competition Act, one of the most far-reaching pieces of industrial legislation in US history, which commits hundreds of billions of dollars to scientific research, design and manufacturing, including in semiconductors and emerging technologies – all with the express purpose at maintaining an edge that may otherwise be lost to China. It is an act of geoeconomic rearmament.
The United States cannot compete with China globally if it does not remain a powerful balancer in the Indo-Pacific, and here we need to avoid hasty geopolitical generalisations from the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.
The jury is out on whether frontline powers in maritime Asia – such as Japan and Taiwan – can draw assurance or angst from the Kabul retreat. What matters is what Washington does next.
Alliance critics and champions alike can agree on the need to understand relations with America in contexts far beyond the bilateral.
And the alliance is now central to wider webs of strategic partnership, such as the trilateral arrangement with Japan, and the promising Quad, which also adds in India. Even as the Indo-Pacific middle players consult or work together – such as this week’s dialogues between Australia and France, or less officially between Taiwan and Japan – the United States is strengthening its security relations with all of them.
None of this allows complacency. The Biden Administration can be criticised for slow and uneven efforts to translate its firm China diplomacy into reinforced military firepower or well-resourced initiatives to counter the largesse of the Belt and Road.
American strategy in the region will be incomplete, and vulnerable to China’s economic gravity, until Washington can rebuild a constructive agenda on multilateral trade.
As Australia’s foreign and defence ministers prepare for their next dialogue with American counterparts – the annual AUSMIN consultations in this historic 70th year – they will want to be firm in urging an American Indo-Pacific strategy that is comprehensive and convincing. Now is the time to prosecute that case.
But we too need the perspective of a simple truth. For all our progress in defence ‘self-reliance’, our nation’s extensive interests outweigh our abilities to defend them.
And for all our creative diplomacy in building closer ties with the likes of Japan and India, the US alliance remains the bedrock in agenda setting, trust and capability: military force, advanced technologies and intelligence.
Australia is a more capable power, and a credible partner in Asia, because of the alliance, not despite it.