ANZUS and China

By Rowan Callick, Industry Fellow, Griffith Asia Institute

The relevance of ANZUS to Australia’s relations with China has fluctuated over decades with perceptions of Beijing’s international ambitions. As Rowan Callick writes, China is again at the centre of strategic cooperation between Washington and Canberra, driven in large part by anxiety over the prospect of war over Taiwan.

China was front of mind as the ANZUS Treaty was framed, was signed and came into force. The Chinese Communist Party had won its war with the Kuomintang Government and declared the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. And the bitter civil war on the Korean Peninsula, in which China was a core combatant, was being fought through the entire period, with the three ANZUS partners also fully engaged.

Today, China is again the core focus of ANZUS strategising, training and planning – but the extent of the challenge it’s perceived to pose has been transformed extraordinarily by its economic surge, from GDP of US$30.5  billion in 1952 to US$15.2  trillion in 2020. It’s now an immense economic, military, diplomatic and technological power. Such is China’s regional, and global, enmeshment, that former concepts such as ‘containment’ – even if still viewed as desirable by elements within ANZUS—are no longer relevant.

As ANZUS was being negotiated in 1949, and three days after the communist declaration in Beijing, Australian External Affairs Minister Herbert Evatt said he didn’t see why the PRC shouldn’t be recognised diplomatically. However, the 10 December election saw a new government elected under Robert Menzies, and the new External Affairs Minister, Percy Spender, instead supported Washington in withholding recognition, as did his New Zealand counterpart Frederick Doidge under the first National Party government elected three days later.

In 1972, US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China and the enthusiasm of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam for rapprochement with Beijing following his own earlier visit led to diplomatic recognition, and New Zealand’s Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk followed suit just before that year’s end.

During CCP Chairman Mao Zedong’s almost three decades in power in Beijing, he propelled China into constant forays in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, supporting parties and leaders, such as Cambodia’s Pol Pot, with whom he identified as having common cause, and also backing myriad oppositional movements. That PRC effulgence also provided the impetus for the responsive creation, in stages from 1961, of a new alliance that remains the core regional organisation – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Demonstrating their commitment to the concerns and concepts that drove the founding of ANZUS, Australia and New Zealand fought alongside the US in Vietnam, even as other long-time American allies such as Britain opted to stand aside.

Mao’s successor as paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, reordered China’s priorities from class combat and from supporting anti-capitalist causes globally to focus on economic growth, inaugurating the 40-year reform-and-opening era. Deng famously instructed that China’s foreign policy should now comprise ‘hide your strength and bide your time’ – informed by the advice of the Chinese general of 600 BC, Sun Tzu: ‘Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.’

The Deng era saw a decline in front-of-mind concern within ANZUS about the PRC and its aims, as the US’s own focus swung to the final showdown with the USSR, the 1990s ‘holiday from history’ (pace Francis Fukuyama), and soon after that the challenge of Islamism as it emerged starkly on 9/11, leading to the American immersion in wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

As American corporations rapidly seized the new opportunities to engage with China both to manufacture their products for global markets and also increasingly as a huge market in itself, an ‘elaborate set of illusions about China’ emerged among political as well as business leaders, wrote James Mann, ‘centered on the belief that commerce would lead inevitably to political change and democracy’.[1] Thus a modern China was widely thought to mean a Westernised China. Many in parallel roles in Australia and New Zealand developed a similar perception, and naturally the focus of ANZUS shifted. China remained on agendas, but no longer topped them.

The advent of Xi Jinping as the CCP General Secretary in 2012 radically changed that, as he abandoned Deng’s dictum and Sun Tzu’s ancient advice in order to add to his nation’s continuing growth in prosperity a new core source of domestic legitimacy: China’s rejuvenation reverberating around the world, thanks in part to his hallmark international strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative. He pronounced confidently in a speech early in 2021: ‘The East is rising, the West is sinking.’

China agreed its sole formal treaty relationship, with North Korea, in 1961 — after the US had developed a series of treaties, including ANZUS, with Indo-Pacific partners also anxious about the surge of communism in the region — an alliance structure that American ANZUS negotiator John Foster Dulles branded the ‘hub and spokes’.

That pattern continues to present the region’s liberal democracies with habits of cooperation, and strategic options, unavailable to China. Xi, in his online speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2021, urged the ‘need to reform and improve the global governance system’ and warned that ‘to build small circles … will only push the world into division and even confrontation’.

Since then, however, the development of the Quad (US, Japan, India, Australia) has intensified, providing an alternative narrative — alongside the US’s treaties with the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea — to the PRC critique of ANZUS and of the Five Eyes partnership as ‘white, colonial’ arrangements.

The US’s response to the PRC’s global push began with President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ back to Asia and continued with President Donald Trump’s branding China as a ‘strategic competitor’. And Australia shifted to the front foot on the issue, becoming the first country, for instance, to deny Chinese telco equipment giant Huawei a role in its 5G rollout.

The annual AUSMIN talks between American and Australian foreign and defence ministers — providing ANZUS with its key regular political edge — have consequently in recent times become more open about the countries’ China concerns. The official statement from the 2020 AUSMIN talks criticised China’s behaviour in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea and reaffirmed Taiwan’s ‘important role’ in the Indo-Pacific region.

Back in 2004, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said during a visit to Beijing that China was proposing to build a ‘strategic relationship’ with Australia, and that Canberra wouldn’t feel obligated to help US forces defend Taiwan if it came under Chinese attack.

But anxiety about the prospect of Beijing using force to seize Taiwan has become in more recent years — as Xi has succeeded in promoting his proactive platforms at home and abroad — an ANZUS focus (possibly the central focus). Paul Dibb, former Australian Deputy Defence Secretary, explained in The Australian in 2020: ‘If the US does not come to the defence of Taiwan then that will mark the end of the US alliance system in the Asia–Pacific region … If the US does defend Taiwan and Australia refuses to make a military contribution, that may well threaten the raison d’être for ANZUS.’[2]

But anxiety about the prospect of Beijing using force to seize Taiwan has become in more recent years — as Xi has succeeded in promoting his proactive platforms at home and abroad — an ANZUS focus (possibly the central focus).

In March 2021, the then head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: ‘I worry that [the PRC] is accelerating their ambitions to supplant the US and our leadership role in the rules-based international order, which they’ve long said that they want to do by 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.’[3]

The ANZUS responses to the perceived growing threat from China include working hard on regular military exercises that now again routinely also involve the New Zealanders, as well as building greater interoperability with other regional allies, evolving beyond the original hub-and-spokes framework, encouraging arrangements between new partners such as Vietnam and India, and planning to develop new joint platforms including the Lombrum naval port in Manus, Papua New Guinea.

Rowan Callick is an author, columnist and Industry Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.

Banner image: Flags of Australia and the People's Republic of China fly side by side. Credit: yui, 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.


[1] James Mann, 'The China fantasy: how our leaders explain away Chinese aggression', Penguin, 2007.
[2] Paul Dibb, ‘Taiwan could force us into an ANZUS-busting choice’, The Australian, 4 August 2020, online. [3] Mallory Shelbourne, ‘Davidson: China could try to take control of Taiwan in “next six years”’, USNI  News, 9 March 2021, online.