Is it Finally Time for Australia to Review ANZUS?

James Whiteley

Judged on simple, realist terms the ANZUS treaty has served Australian security interests exceptionally well since its conception in 1951. However, increasing Sino-American tensions over Chinese militarisation in the South and East China Seas has resulted in a security threat environment that has the potential to strategically place Australia between its foremost trading partner in China, and its chief security partner in the United States. Furthermore, inactivity by Australia and its partners could produce immediate and lasting ramifications as the region also contains two more of Australia’s largest trading partners in Japan and South Korea. This escalation has brought into question the longstanding ANZUS Treaty, that in recent years has been increasingly criticised for its opaque language and lack of clear, tangible commitments.

There is also a case for saying that ANZUS is responsible for effectively hamstringing the ability of Australia to pursue a flexible foreign policy. For instance, the treaty lacks a clear commitment to the defence of either nation in times of significant peril such as that displayed by NATO’s vaunted Article V which states that ‘if a NATO ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the ally attacked’. The ANZUS treaty only states that members will ‘consult’ and ‘act’ if another member is attacked leaving the commitment open for interpretation. This means that vastly contrasting actions such as a direct military response and lobbying for a UN condemnation or even the simple writing of a letter criticising an attack all equally satisfy this criterion. If Australia wishes to place all of its security eggs in one basket, shouldn’t that basket be as ironclad as the NATO Treaty’s Article IV?

Apparently not if you heed the comments of some who have occupied positions at the top of Australia’s foreign policy apparatus. When asked whether ANZUS committed Australia to a future conflict in East Asia involving China, Japan and The United States, then Defence Minister David Johnston stated that ‘I don’t believe it does’. As Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer further downplayed the alliance by referring to ANZUS as ‘in many cases symbolic’ while former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage sternly rebuked those comments by stating ‘you can’t pick and choose like an a la carte menu’ when it came to ANZUS. In any case if Canberra wishes to continue to back Washington in both their ‘Pivot to Asia’ and their increasingly standoffish attitude towards China then surely it makes sense to review and modify ANZUS in the NATO fashion outlined above to reflect this. If a large scale conflict were to occur over the South or East China Sea involving China, Japan and the United States it is entirely reasonable to suggest that retaliatory or even pre-emptive strikes on Australian-based US forces are a real risk, as with US bases in Guam, Japan and the Philippines. This would make further sense from a Chinese standpoint as US-run instillations such as Pine Gap (located just south of Alice Springs) play a key regional role in the US’ satellite and signals intelligence operations and would therefore be seen as a high value target should conflict break out.

On the contrary, if Australia wishes not to antagonise its largest trading partner to the brink of being perceived as a security threat, ANZUS should also be reviewed and restructured to show this change in policy. Simply put, Australia no longer needs the security guarantees that ANZUS has the potential to offer due to both the end of the Cold War and no real prospects of Indonesia translating its newfound economic might into military power in the short or middle-term, as it becomes the world’s fourth largest economy by 2050.

Defenders of the treaty state that pulling out or renegotiating the treaty would result in access to both advanced weaponry and intelligence being withdrawn when in reality this is simply not the case. Australia’s continued participation in the Five Eyes intelligence group as well as the existing expansion of Australia’s intelligence apparatus (especially ASIO and ASIS) would provide the collection, analysis and operational capabilities needed to operate as a middle power in the region. From a signals intelligence perspective, facilities such as Pine Gap or the Australian Signals Directorate’s Kojarena station in Western Australia provide the high tech infrastructure needed to drive ECHELON-like operations independently if Washington were to make the unlikely move to pull its military/intelligence presence from the region.

In terms of the allegations that if ANZUS were to be restructured or completely rescinded then it would result in a loss of access to high tech military hardware from the US, a glance at recent acquisitions proves that similar technology can be found elsewhere at a staggeringly discounted price. Take for example the blunder-ridden F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program which found itself upwards of US$160 Billion over budget and over seven years behind schedule. Recent projections theorise that by the time production of this fifth generation fighter jet reaches its peak, countries such as Russia and China will not only have produced significant amounts of their fifth generation variants but will be progressing with plans for sixth generation models. Adding to this is the massive cost differences (upwards of US$20 million per unit) between the relatively comparable US and Russian models. With Australia’s vast landmass, wouldn’t a cheaper, more abundant fighter make sense for the national defence?

There is no mistaking that it is time for Australia to review their ANZUS commitments, especially as Eastern Asia becomes an increasingly tense region. The need for a security guarantee from Washington no longer outweighs the need of the United States for a supporting partner in the region. This presents not a problem but an opportunity to secure an advantageous deal with Washington without unnecessarily antagonising our largest trading partner in China. With this proactive, pragmatic approach Australia will be taking a huge step in securing both its economic and strategic security in in the decades to come.

  • Global Questions

© 2020 by Young Diplomats Society