It’s important to consider steps to make the ANZUS alliance more robust to weather the challenges brought about by the rise of China. Our contributions to US-led operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan weren’t trivial for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in operational terms, but they were far less consequential in strategic terms for two main reasons. First, Afghanistan and Iraq were ‘wars of choice’ as there was no existential danger posed to Australia, so we could continuously adjust our political and operational objectives in order to declare a relative ‘victory’ to our domestic audiences. Second, even if Australia had decided not to support its US ally in these campaigns it wouldn’t have caused irreparable damage to the Alliance. Washington wouldn’t have liked it, but US policy-makers would’ve seen the continued value of ANZUS for US interests in the Asia–Pacific.
Last Friday’s Defence White Paper (DWP) rightly drew a lot of praise from (most) of the analytical community and the media. Many commentators, including myself, welcomed the more cautious tone regarding China’s military rise and the dismissal of Australia having to choose between Washington and Beijing. Does that mean Australia is less supportive of our US alliance? I’d argue that exactly the opposite is the case. There are several key points that support my view.
First, being more nuanced about China’s military capacity and intentions shows a maturation of Australian strategic thinking which surely is welcomed in Washington. As it seeks to integrate (not contain) China, Washington doesn’t need alarmist rhetoric about Beijing from its allies. It also doesn’t want us to invest in military capabilities such as nuclear submarines or long-range strike assets which would unnecessarily duplicate theirs and send provocative signals to China.