Managing ANZUS: getting the balance right

By John McCarthy AO, Former Australian Diplomat

While ANZUS originally developed as a necessary tool for our national defence, facilitating US engagement in our immediate region, former Australian diplomat John McCarthy argues it must also work alongside our evolving foreign policy needs. Namely, engaging with our independent neighbours and developing a role in the multilateral structures designed to guide the liberal international order.

In a conversation a few years ago, a seasoned Canadian columnist commented that both Canada and Australia had excellent relations with the US. Canada resisted the American embrace while Australia encouraged it.

The remark gave me pause for thought.

The reasons for our different approaches to the US are clear enough.

Geography dictates that Canada’s security is organically bound to that of its neighbour, but the burden of that propinquity means that Canada wrestles to create its own political space.

By contrast, Australia’s national psyche derived from our origins as a set of isolated largely white colonies surrounded by crowded Asian nations. The fall of Singapore in 1941 left an indelible mark on a world view already shaped by a perceived need for powerful friends. That perspective stimulated ANZUS, which has remained ever since as a central leg of our foreign policy.

As Australia emerged from the war, two other legs of our foreign policy evolved: to engage with our newly independent neighbours; and to play a role in the multilateral postwar structures designed to guide a liberal international order.

Support for those three legs has been bipartisan. However, the Coalition has placed more emphasis than Labor on our relationship with the US – a factor in the differences between the parties over our involvement in Vietnam and Iraq.

Since the 1970s, Labor has channelled more political energy than the Coalition into our relations with Asia (remember APEC) and into our multilateral role, as illustrated, for example, by the Cambodia settlement in 1991.

Our national challenge has been — and still is — to get the balance right between those three legs.

The first leg, ANZUS, works for Australia not only because of its centrality to our national defence but because it facilitates continued strong US engagement in the Indo-Pacific and the maintenance of a strategic balance in the region.

However, Australia has gone further than those objectives require.

We encouraged American action in Korea and Vietnam. We sought to be involved in the Gulf War and Afghanistan. We were ready to be counted in Iraq.

In the past six or seven years, we’ve increasingly looked to the US in the face of a more aggressive China, to the extent that regional friends have found it hard to distinguish our policy statements from those of an increasingly deranged Trump administration.

The history of our alliance has meant that we tend to see our strategic environment in trilateral terms (the US, China and us) and our security as being reliant on one major relationship rather than as being bound up with that of our neighbours.

On the second leg, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has involved a broadening of our security profile in the region. But there’s a risk that it could dilute a necessary exercise by its members of economic and soft power, particularly in Southeast Asia, which is the single most important area of competition between the West and China.

In their March summit, the Quad leaders seemed to recognise that risk as they engaged mainly in non-security initiatives. The Quad is nonetheless perceived in the region as an informal anti-China cabal, not as a group intending to assist the region.

And, with the exception of Japan, Quad members have yet to pursue individual economic and development assistance policies on the sort of scale required to counterbalance Chinese influence in the region.

The US and India have for domestic political reasons found themselves unable to step up to the plate on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, respectively – both of which economic agreements have major regional security implications.

Australia and Japan have done more than their part on those two agreements, but, over the past decade, Australia has dramatically reduced its development assistance to the region.

So if we, as well as other Quad members, wish to counter Chinese power, we need to attach real priority to doing so.

The third leg is about values and the international order. In the recent G7, NATO and associated meetings in Europe, the participants emphasised the importance of alliances, of values in foreign policy and of bolstering the liberal international order. Those objectives, they argued, were central to democracy’s contest with authoritarianism. This was a far cry from Trumpspeak.

Australia, too, may have changed. In a speech in October 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared to be tilting towards the Trump view of the liberal international order when he raised the spectre of ‘negative globalism’.

Almost two years later, before the G7 meeting, Morrison made a major speech in Perth on, among other things, the importance of the liberal international order.

The question now arises whether Australia will put the same energy into the second and third legs of our foreign policy as we put into the first.

The irony here is that to do so isn’t to derogate from ANZUS but to act even more in the alliance’s interests and in those of our key partner. But it will be by beating different drums to the same tune.

Morrison’s recent approaches give reason for optimism, but the jury will be out for a while.

John McCarthy AO is Senior Adviser at Asialink and former High Commissioner to India, Australian Ambassador to the US, Japan and several other Asian countries.

Banner image: Australian PM Scott Morrison and former US President Donald Trump participate in a joint press conference, Washington, D.C., US - September 20, 2019. Credit: Trump White House Archive, Flickr.

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.