ABC Fact Check

  • The claim: Julie Bishop says at the heart of the ANZUS treaty is a commitment for signatories to come to one another's aid in the worst of times.
  • The verdict: The treaty calls on signatories to "consult" and "act" if another party is attacked, but does not specify what that action should be. Without saying what she means by "come to one another's aid", Ms Bishop's claim, like the ANZUS treaty itself, is ambiguous.

The ANZUS treaty signed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States has been a cornerstone of Australian foreign policy since the 1950s.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently told a conference on the US–Australia alliance that under the ANZUS treaty, signatories are required to come to one another's assistance. "At the heart of the treaty is a commitment to come to one another's aid in the worst of times..." Ms Bishop said.

The Foreign Minister's comment was seemingly at odds with earlier remarks from her colleague, Defence Minister David Johnston.

Senator Johnston was asked on ABC's Lateline whether the ANZUS treaty could see Australia drawn into a conflict between the US and China.

Tony Jones (host): "So just to complete that answer, does the ANZUS alliance commit Australia or not, if the United States is in a conflict in our region?"

David Johnston: "I don't believe it does."

ABC Fact Check assesses whether ANZUS commits signatories to "come to one another's aid" as Ms Bishop claims.

The ANZUS treaty

The ANZUS treaty was signed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States in San Francisco on September 1, 1951, and came into force the following April.

The treaty says the signatories will "consult together" and "act to meet the common danger".

Article III: The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific.

Article IV: Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

Article V: For the purpose of Article IV, an armed attack on any of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of any of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.

New Zealand effectively withdrew from ANZUS in the mid-1980s after a dispute over visits by nuclear powered or armed US Navy vessels. But while New Zealand is no longer allied to the United States, the ANZUS treaty remains in effect between Australia and the United States and Australia and New Zealand.

ANZUS invoked for the first time after 9/11

The ANZUS treaty has been invoked only once — by Australian prime minister John Howard in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

The invocation came just days after the 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty.

In a press conference on September 14, Mr Howard announced federal cabinet had determined the hijacking of commercial airliners by members of Al Qaeda and the targeting of the World Trade Centre towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC constituted an attack upon the United States, as outlined in Article IV of the ANZUS treaty.

"The consequence of that," Mr Howard said, "is that we will consult the Americans regarding responses which might be deemed appropriate to what does amount to an attack upon the metropolitan territory of the United States in accordance with the provisions of the ANZUS treaty".

Asked by a journalist what sort of military support might be involved, Mr Howard said Australia would be willing to participate "to the limit of our capability" and that "the important thing is that by invoking ANZUS, it puts us in consultation, it represents a determination on our part to identify with the Americans".

He also said the invocation "does mean that if there is action taken then we will naturally consider any requests from the Americans for assistance".

His formal statement similarly referred to consultation and consideration, not commitment.

"The Australian Government will be in close consultation with the United States Administration in the period ahead to consider what actions Australia might take in support of the US response to these attacks," it said.

Both Australia and New Zealand sent forces to fight alongside the United States in the Afghanistan war, just as they had in the Vietnam conflict, when ANZUS wasn't invoked.

What the ANZUS treaty means in reality

As outlined above, the treaty requires each signatory to "consult together" (Article III) and "act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes" (Article IV).

Professor Hugh White, a former senior defence department official and adviser to Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, tells Fact Check there are a lot of questions about what "act" means. "It doesn't necessarily mean military action," he says.

That's a view shared by Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney policy think tank, who is a member of the expert panel advising the Abbott Government on its 2015 defence white paper. "Technically, the ANZUS treaty requires the parties to consult in the event of a threat to one of them, rather than to automatically come to the other's assistance," he tells Fact Check.

And Dr John Blaxland, senior fellow at Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, agrees the wording of the ANZUS treaty does not guarantee military intervention by the United States in Australia's defence.

Defence and foreign policy expert Dr Adam Lockyer from the University of New South Wales says after more than 60 years, the wording of ANZUS is not how either Washington or Canberra would wish it to be. "Instead of trying to push a fresh treaty through the US senate, however, the two capitals simply remember the treaty the way they wish it read," he tells Fact Check. Dr Lockyer says the one time ANZUS was invoked shows how it has been interpreted very broadly. "It's unlikely, for instance, that September 11 would technically fall under ANZUS. John Howard, however, wished that security incidents like 9/11 would fall under ANZUS so he triggered the alliance for the first time in its history."

Unlike Australia, the US is also party to the 1949 North Atlantic treaty, often referred to as the NATO treaty, which explicitly requires both consultation and assistance to any signatory nation under attack "including the use of armed force".

Article 4: The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.

Article 5: The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

Professor White, who is now professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, contends that in drafting the ANZUS treaty the Americans were wary of being entrapped into others' wars. "They wanted to give themselves a let-out from military action, so a stern letter could count as an 'act'," he says.

He says the treaty cuts both ways. In the event the US was engaged in a regional conflict, "we are not legally obliged by the treaty to send forces".

Professor Russell Trood, a former Liberal senator and Adjunct Professor in defence and security at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, agrees that ANZUS stops short of a NATO-style commitment to military action.

However, Professor Trood believes the two treaties envisage the most serious security situations confronted by the countries concerned. "Hence John Howard's step to invoke ANZUS after the 9/11 attacks".

A US embassy spokeswoman tells Fact Check Ms Bishop's comments "capture the spirit of the US–Australia Alliance".

"The ANZUS treaty serves as the political and legal foundation of the US–Australia security alliance, which remains indispensable to the security of both the United States and Australia and to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond," she said.

"The application of the ANZUS treaty or any mutual defence treaty will depend on the specific facts of a given situation.”

Julie Bishop's comments open to interpretation

While the ANZUS treaty is open to interpretation, so are Ms Bishop's comments. "The Foreign Minister has chosen her words carefully," Dr Blaxland says. "After all, how does one define 'coming to another's aid' and how does one define 'the worst of times'?"

Fact Check asked Ms Bishop's office what the minister meant by "aid" and whether it implied a commitment to military action. Ms Bishop's office declined to offer a comment or clarification.

Professor Trood tells Fact Check in his view Ms Bishop is correct, "as it would only be in the 'worst of times' that a government would seriously consider invoking the treaty". "In short, it is not a treaty for trivial or not so serious security challenges," he says.

Dr Lockyer maintains Ms Bishop's claim is "technically false", but notes that when it comes to ANZUS, neither Canberra or Washington has ever been literalist.

Alliance beyond ANZUS

There were concerns in the early 20th century that Australia may not be able to rely on British naval power for its defence.

The arrival in Australian ports of America's "Great White Fleet" on a goodwill visit in 1908 signalled to many that the US might soon become a more reliable strategic partner.

The fall of the British naval base in Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 saw the United States come to Australia's defence almost a decade before the signing of the ANZUS treaty.

Dr Blaxland says the events of 1942 still echo through Australian history — "when the British Empire was exposed as a hollow shell and when the United States intervened on our behalf to block the Japanese advance in the Southwest Pacific".

Dr Lockyer says the origin of the ANZUS treaty is linked to the other US treaty entered into in San Francisco in 1951 - the US-Japan treaty. "The rearmament of Japan was a major concern for many Australians as the memories of World War II were still raw," Dr Lockyer says.

Mr Medcalf says in practice the US and Australia have indeed come to one another's aid in tough times.

In any case, he says, "it is extremely hard to imagine either side turning down a request for assistance in the event that either found itself facing a critical threat".

"And if, after consulting, one side elected not to help the other in such circumstances, it is difficult to see how the treaty or indeed the alliance would survive".

So, Mr Medcalf says, Ms Bishop's remarks capture the spirit of the alliance if not strictly the letter of the treaty.

Professor White also says the alliance carries expectations beyond the text of the treaty. "Treaties like ANZUS are not really legal instruments anyway," he says.

"What would impel Australia to support the US or vice-versa is not the risk that we'd take them to the world court if they didn't, but the fact that the alliance relationship itself would dissolve if we do not live up to one another's expectations".

However, Dr Blaxland says there have been times, such as in the Indonesia confrontation in the early 1960s, when Australia did not receive hoped-for US military assistance.

"It was the tepid response over confrontation (when) the US felt it was not their problem to resolve, that added impetus to Australia's involvement alongside the US in Vietnam — to prevent the recurrence of our position being given such a cavalier dismissal," he says.

The verdict

Ms Bishop says "a commitment to come to one another's aid" is at the heart of the ANZUS treaty.

The treaty calls on signatories to "consult" and "act" if another party is attacked, but does not specify what that action should be.

While history and the depth of the US-Australia alliance might suggest otherwise, experts say there is no commitment to military assistance from either side under the ANZUS treaty.

Ms Bishop's office has not clarified what she means by "aid" and whether it implies a guarantee of military assistance.

Ms Bishop's claim, like the ANZUS treaty itself, is ambiguous.


This article was originally published at ABC Fact Check