ANZUS and Australia’s region

By Graeme Dobell, Senior Fellow, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)

When the ANZUS Treaty was signed 70 years ago, the purpose was to keep the 'US in, Japan down and China out', writes the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Graeme Dobell, in the first of a series of articles on the alliance starting today. Changing power dynamics have changed ANZUS's purpose in the region, but not the central role it plays in Australian security thinking.

Beyond defending Australia and New Zealand, the original purpose of ANZUS was to keep the US in, Japan down and China out.

That aphorism reworks its original NATO context (‘keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’).

On ANZUS’s 70th birthday, today’s purpose is to keep the US in, to keep Japan up, and to compete against, cooperate with and confound China. The balance of the compete–cooperate–confound contest is to stop short of conflict.

The aim of the alliance when it was created, just as it is today, is to lock in the US security guarantee to Australia as part of the US role in Asia. That’s why Australia never tires of hearing the refrain from visiting US leaders about America’s vision of itself as an Asian power.

Australians have spent 70 years obsessing about the meaning and strength of ANZUS. Then we apply that thinking about the central pillar of our defence to our diverse interests in Asia.

The strategic double-step (bilateral and regional) flows from the geographical reach of the treaty text, from the opening paragraph’s commitment ‘to strengthen the fabric of peace in the Pacific Area’.

The bilateral-regional two-step was always the way Australia envisaged the pact, even as Percy Spender was busy with its creation, getting ANZUS as the price paid for Australia’s agreement to a ‘soft’ peace US treaty with Japan, allowing Japan to rearm.

Spender ‘wanted not only the protection which a treaty with the US would provide, but the opportunity it would offer to influence policies and events in Australia’s own region’, Tom Millar wrote in the ‘American lifeline’ chapter of Australia in peace and war.[1]

The bilateral–regional dual vision is Australia’s each-way bet. Setting ANZUS within the vast array of US regional interests gives the alliance the biggest of contexts. It’s all about anchoring the US on this side of the Pacific, which is one of the many reasons the definition of ‘the region’ has expanded, joining ANZUS language of ‘the Pacific Area’ to all that Asia has become to construct the Asia-Pacific, and then bigger again to the Indo-Pacific.

When Canberra talks Asia strategy, often it’s really thinking about the alliance – from the failed regional defence treaty, SEATO, to Australia’s Vietnam commitment.

The increasing weight that China brings to the contest has made Canberra’s regional-bilateral habit of mind both explicit and ever more vital. Helping the US balance against China is going to need much neighbourhood support.

As the US’s relative power slips, it must draw more from its friends. The alliance discussion shifts from what the US will or won’t do for us, to contemplate what the US is able to do for itself, much less for everyone else. The constructs and imaginings of ‘region’ are a calculus of power, and what balance will look like.

The Australians (and New Zealanders) who hammered out the ANZUS Treaty had seen what happened when Washington picked other options, sitting out the start of two world wars and embracing isolationism in the 1930s. Donald Trump ditching the Trans-Pacific Partnership was an unhappy echo of that previous protectionist disaster.

The ANZUS Treaty gives America much flexibility. Nothing is automatic — this is no self-licking ice-cream cone. Action at any time is a choice — an act of political will.

Beyond the habits and benefits of ANZUS, Australia draws much sustenance from the political creativity of US choices in the Pacific/Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific. With unusual military flexibility and diplomatic dexterity, the US has created layers of alliances and quasi-alliances:

  • formal treaty alliances that originated out of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 to become the ‘hub and spokes’, such as with Australia, Japan and South Korea
  • de facto or virtual alliances, such as with Taiwan, Singapore and, these days, New Zealand
  • partial alliances, more politely called ‘relationships’ or ‘partnerships’, such as with Malaysia and Vietnam (Indonesia is always interested in being courted but reluctant to embrace).

India is zooming up this chart, moving from partial alliance towards a broader, deeper, de facto alliance.

In the first decade of the 21st century, Australia, Japan and the US built the trilateral security dialogue. In the second decade, the trilateral has become the Quad. It’s not just India’s sensitivities that cause disavowals of the Quad being Asia’s NATO.

Compared to the multilateral depth, legalism and unified command of NATO, the layers of US ‘alliances’ in Asia can change shape, form and colour from country to country. The various Asian customers have a choice of size, function, tempo and commitment in what they ask of the US.

At the high-tempo end, in South Korea and Japan, the US makes huge investments of people, hardware and coordination of command. At the low-tempo end, the commitments can be looser, even in treaty alliances such as with the Philippines and Thailand. As the Philippines starts asking for more, the tempo and investment have risen.

Singapore is an obvious example of a firm de facto ally. The US pledge to Taiwan, enshrined in US law, means it reaches beyond the virtual category towards formal status – but the demands of ambiguity and the One China agreement mean this is filed in the de facto category.

New Zealand has shifted between all three layers, but it’s now comfortably back near the top of the de facto class.

The same effect can be seen at the partial level in the long-established version with Malaysia and the new relationship with Vietnam.

The partial alliance or partnership offers little permanent structure or joint military planning, and certainly no integrated command. It’s at this low end — Malaysia being an outstanding model — that the US military has been quietly creative, learning to live with silences and implicit deals.

Three years after Mahathir Mohamad first became prime minister, in 1984, Malaysia signed a military pact with the US (kept secret for two decades) known as the Bilateral Training and Consultation Agreement, for naval ship visits, ship and aircraft repairs, joint exercises, intelligence sharing, logistic support and general security consultation. The Malaysia model gave birth to the US doctrine in Asia of ‘places, not bases’.

The US military guarantee is of such importance that any future peacetime threat to the formal and informal alliance system will most likely come from the US itself. Short of war, only major new US demands — or US failures to deliver — could imperil the value of the multilayered alliance system in Asia.

A superpower always has the potential to underdeliver or overdemand. The US will underdeliver if it doesn’t have the means to fulfil its security assurances to its Asian allies of various stripes. Such underperformance will show first in US political will, rather than in the sinews of US military power (one reason why the Trans-Pacific Partnership failure had strategic as well as economic significance).

Canberra’s dual habit of mind on ANZUS — bilateral and regional — means that the health of the alliance is measured as much by what the US is doing with its Asian partners as with Australia.

Graeme Dobell is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

Banner image: Australian and US flags fly side-by-side, Townsville, Australia - August 9, 2019. Credit: caseyjadew, Shutterstock.

This article comes from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's new book, "ANZUS at 70: The past, present and future of the alliance", edited by Patrick Walters.