The Canberra Times

By Michael J Green, Zack Cooper, Peter Dean, and Brendan Taylor

The United States and Australia have a long history and, despite recent calls by some for Canberra to abandon the alliance or choose between Washington and Beijing, a bright future.

Over seven decades, the ANZUS Treaty has persevered through numerous tests. But alliances are not without tensions. Fears of abandonment in Washington and entrapment in Canberra are one example.

Added to this is a changing power dynamic in the region, with Asia's ascendancy in the 21st century, and both countries' seemingly incoherent and inconsistent approach to managing their relationship with the biggest new kid on the block – China.

These dynamics have the potential for causing discord or deeper collaboration in the alliance. One way to ensure that chaos does not trump co-operation is to rebalance ANZUS towards the Asia Pacific. By focusing ANZUS on defence planning for regional dynamics, leaders in Canberra and Washington can drive the alliance forward to meet the emerging challenges of an ascending Asia.

However, while an ascending Asia demands the alliance's utmost and immediate attention, ANZUS continues to split its energies further afield, particularly in the Middle East.

Expeditionary military deployments to the Middle East are a long-ingrained part of Australia's strategic culture. These commitments have largely come about because a key element of Australia's strategic culture is its support for great and powerful friends.

This has been particularly evident in the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, given the relatively small size of its military commitments, Australia's support has been most effective at the political level.

While operations in Iraq generated considerable controversy in Australia and the United States, Australia's primary motivation for involvement was forming a closer partnership with the United States.

Australia has also committed forces to Europe and the Middle East as part of a liberal internationalist approach to international affairs in an effort to support a rules-based global order based on shared norms and values buttressed by US power. However, given Australia's geographical isolation, its involvement has always been predicated by another key element of its relationship with its great and powerful friends: a stable Asia-Pacific region.

There is no question that US interests in Europe and the Middle East are on a wholly different scale to those of Australia. US involvement in Europe and the Middle East remains extensive and critical to meet threats from Russia, Iran, Islamic State and others, but Australia's primary missions are increasingly in its own neighbourhood.

The differing role of the United States and Australia outside the Asia Pacific is where the asymmetric nature of ANZUS is most apparent. This goes to the fact that the United States is a global power with ingrained strategic interests and long-standing security commitments in multiple regions, while Australia is a middle/regional power in the Asia-Pacific with strategic concerns elsewhere. As such, while Australia has had an ongoing military presence in the Middle East since 1990, the limited size of this commitment is reflective of the fundamental difference in interests, military capabilities and geography.

The Asia-Pacific today is radically different from that of the 1990s, when the United States and Australia first engaged in combined military operations in the Middle East. The region is also, as Australia's Secretary of the Department of Defence Dennis Richardson recently noted, the "decisive shaper" of the "Australian Defence Force's force structure".

Most significantly, the era of regional stability backed by uncontested US maritime supremacy that underwrote ANZUS's extra-regional focus after the end of the Cold War seems to be coming to a close.

So, just as the United States is "rebalancing", so too ANZUS needs to "pivot" and refocus its attention on responding to the realities of an ascending Asia.

This is a reflection of the importance of the Asia Pacific to both countries. The text of the Anzus Treaty has always centred the relationship on a fundamental "Pacific pact". It is this refocusing on an ascending Asia which has driven observers to note that "Australia figures more prominently in US foreign policy than at any time since Australian combat troops served under General Douglas MacArthur in World War II".

For the alliance to be successful in Asia, a renewed strategic focus on the region will be necessary. Not only should Australia expect the United States to remain committed to the principles that led to the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, but the United States should also continue to look to Australia to do more in its own region in support of the treaty, especially in south-east Asia.

This requires both that Australia maintains a regional focus and the United States displays a high degree of discipline in balancing requests for Australian support outside Asia.

As John Blaxland has noted: "United States policymakers should consider the significance and utility of Australia's military commitment in the Middle East compared to its ability to help foster regional security and stability in south-east Asia and the south-west Pacific: it cannot readily do both well."

Australia has been a loyal ally to the United States across the globe, and thus it remains tempting for both governments to periodically leverage this history for short-term expediency. However, such approaches must be overcome to foster a more focused and sustainable long-term alliance.

The key to such an approach is setting up a framework for the extra-regional role of Australia's forces and having frank discussions of forces levels for these missions given other priorities. Maintaining a disciplined approach will enable high levels of continuity and the ability to maximise the mutual interests of the alliance while maintaining the focus on its primary operational area – the Asia Pacific.

In an era of growing security challenges in Asia and increasing budgetary restrictions in both Canberra and Washington, this sort of prioritisation is absolutely vital.

This article was originally published in The ANZUS Alliance in an Ascending Asia.