Canberra and Washington are celebrating the 70th anniversary of their alliance, the ANZUS Treaty. Though celebrations will focus on shared history and values, the alliance endures because, for both countries, the benefits outweigh the costs.
Australian debate about the alliance in recent years has focused on the benefits: does it afford us enough security, or should Australia plan to be more self-reliant?
But it’s equally important to consider how the costs may be changing – and in some cases, diminishing. In particular, alliance critics argue that it comes at the cost of deeper ties with Asia (an “independent” foreign policy).
Yet these criticisms miss a crucial change: quietly, our neighbours in south-east Asia have accepted – and, in some cases, started to welcome – Australia’s ties with the United States.
Australian officials have always portrayed the alliance as an asset to our standing in Asia. But in hindsight, many would agree that when the alliance celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2001, it was also a liability.
The “deputy sheriff” moniker, however much we tried to shake it, stuck. It pithily summarised a perception of Australia that was, in the words of Richard Woolcott, “excessively assertive, jingoistic and triumphalist” around the East Timor peace-keeping intervention.
Later comments by the Bush administration that appeared to endorse Australia’s status as regional police-keeper aggravated the wound for Indonesia. Malaysia cited our ties with the US as evidence we did not belong in regional forums.
Australia’s ties with south-east Asia are different today, a good news story that has been missed in the fury of a foreign policy debate centred on China. As Frances Adamson observed when she retired as Department of Foreign Affairs secretary, regional perceptions of Australia have shifted, leading to deeper discussions and willingness to work together.
Much of this shift is due to the laying to rest of outdated perceptions about Australia’s ties with the United States.
At the heart of south-east Asia’s problems with Australia in the late 1990s and early 2000s were two beliefs: that Australian policy was too focused on the United States, at the expense of the region, and that the alliance – and Australian strategic policy more generally – were targeted at the region.
Today these concerns have eased. When in 2011 Julia Gillard announced the troop rotation of US marines in Darwin, Indonesia’s initial reaction was not positive. But Jakarta’s views later became more favourable: when President Yudhoyono visited Australia in 2012, he expressed willingness to work with Australian and the US on disaster relief.
This more positive approach has largely prevailed since. Indonesia and the Philippines welcomed Canberra’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, even though it declared Australia’s intention to lead “coalition operations where it is in the interests of the region” and to acquire longer-range strike weapons systems.
Of course, frictions still exist. When in 2018 Scott Morrison mooted moving Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, in an echo of Donald Trump’s policies, Indonesia and Malaysia were furious.
But by and large, Australia’s regional partners mostly now see Australia as an independent actor. They understand that our defence policies are geared towards managing threats from China, not from within our immediate region.
China’s very obviously growing assertiveness has also made most countries in our region more welcoming of a US presence. This does not mean their relationships with the US are like Australia’s. Apart from Singapore, none affords the US reliable military access. And all our neighbours will remain far more ambivalent about America’s regional role than we are.
But as Penny Wong recently pointed out, our neighbours share our “abiding interest in averting hegemony by any single power”. This makes Australia’s willingness to host joint facilities and rotating US troops complementary to their interests.
Moreover, the Australia-US alliance no longer stands apart from the region. The alliance now sits alongside co-operation with Japan and India in the Quad, trilateral ties with Japan, and many other relationships with partners such as Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam. This network means our bilateral alliance is more integrated into regional arrangements.
Despite this evolution, the complaint that Australia is seen as a satrap of America, and that this jeopardises our ties with Asia, is still voiced on occasion by critics who argue that our ties with the United States come at the expense of our standing in Asia.
China seeks to exploit such perceptions – arguing that Australia is beholden to US interests. This should not surprise us, as weakening the US alliance system is an objective of Chinese foreign policy. But fortunately China’s efforts to discredit Australia are not gaining traction in the rest of Asia.
The ambition set out by Paul Keating in the mid 1990s to seek “security in Asia, not from Asia” remains as relevant as ever. But Asia is now home to an aspiring new hegemon. For Australia, there can be no security in Asia without the United States.
Increasingly, our partners in Asia agree, but we should not take this convergence for granted. Deeper strategic dialogue and more high-level contact would lower the risk of returning to rocky regional ties.