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Towards a More Robust ANZUS Alliance

New Zealand Army soldiers from Alpha Company. Image:Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.

This article was originally published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on 24 August, 2015.

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.

However, the strategic challenge of China to the Asia–Pacific security order significantly raises the stakes for the Alliance. As Ross Babbage points out, whether Australia likes it or not, ‘we now find ourselves close to the centre-stage of major power competition, international tensions and potential conflict.’ Not surprisingly, the debate has focused on the big strategic question of whether Australia might one day have to ‘choose’ between its US ally and its major trading partner China. The standard response by many politicians and analysts to Hugh White’s work on the ‘China Choice’ has been that there’s no binary choice to make. Yet, Hugh didn’t really make an argument about a simple, binary choice. Instead, his main point was that because of the enormous consequences of a potential war with China, the US and Australia would be hard pressed to agree on the circumstances under which to resist a Chinese challenge to the regional security order.

But if one doesn’t agree with Hugh’s central recommendation, that the US and China should ‘share power’ in the Western Pacific—whatever that means—then making ANZUS more institutionally robust and operationally effective becomes imperative. The simple truth is that one of the main contemporary functions of ANZUS in 21st century Asia is to deter Chinese adventurism and, if necessary, to fight it—with enormous consequences for all involved. How well is ANZUS prepared for this challenge? A common view is that the ‘institutional and ideational foundations of the United States–Australia alliance are deep and enduring’, a point made in the recent ANU/CSIS alliance report, which also highlights the close military links between the two allies, noting that ‘Australia currently has hundreds of ADF personnel on exchange or embedded into the US military’.

That’s true as far as it goes, but ANZUS’ current level of political and military institutionalisation could well be insufficient to meet the ‘China challenge’. Because of the enormous stakes involved, the political–strategic and military–operational demands for the Alliance are certain to grow significantly. But contrary to widespread reassurance, ANZUS is far less institutionalised politically than is often assumed. To be sure, the annual Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) is important for leadership exchange at the highest levels. Embedding officials in relevant departments of both countries also helps to promote common understanding about the key issues facing the Alliance.

However, the ‘China challenge’ demands a more institutionalised structure comprising senior political, diplomatic and military leaders from both sides, meeting on a more regular basis to discuss fundamental questions about future Alliance decision-making on China. That includes issues such as a mutual understanding about the ‘red lines’ for Chinese behaviour; continuous political and operational assessments of Chinese intentions, actions and capabilities; concrete political and military contingency planning involving China scenarios; and coordination of diplomatic responses, including the military, to Chinese activities in the Western Pacific. As well, the Alliance might consider communicating its primary tasks and capabilities more openly to other nations and organisations. For instance, it could formulate an ‘ANZUS Strategic Concept’, akin to the NATO alliance’s strategy.

Such steps require a change in Australia’s preference for more flexible, ad-hoc arrangements with regards to the Alliance. That was fine when there was no serious challenge to the US, but maintaining the credibility and capability of the ANZUS alliance in the emerging Asia–Pacific security environment will be far more challenging. If Australia wants to uphold the Alliance as a centrepiece of its strategic and defence policy, strengthening its institutional resilience will be a key task.

This includes the level of military cooperation. There’s already a high degree of technological interoperability between the ADF and US forces, as well as a long history of joint military operations. And embedding senior ADF officers at US Pacific Command has helped to facilitate a common understanding about the strategic–operational challenges facing the Alliance in the theatre. But those small peacetime steps mightn’t be adequate in a real China contingency. In that sense, the recommendations by a CSIS report to establish a fully-integrated, combined US–Australia amphibious capability are a step in the right direction. So too is the idea of forming a ‘small, high-quality Australia–US Strategic Planning Group’. Hopefully we’ll never need to use the alliance in an existential war, but if we do we don’t want to come up short.


Benjamin Schreer is Professor in Security Studies and Head of the Department of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism at Macquarie University. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

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