Inside Story

Has ANZUS passed its use-by date?

Would abandoning the treaty substantially affect Australia’s strategic circumstances, asks Geoffrey Barker

Geoffrey Barker 13 June 2011 4912 words

With the appointment of Percy Spender (above) as foreign affairs minister in late 1949, Australia’s pursuit of a Pacific pact gathered momentum. Australian War Memorial

FOR sixty years the ANZUS alliance has been the holy grail of Australian security policy. It is the alliance on which Australia ultimately relies for national survival in the event of an armed attack that it can’t repel alone.

But questions are emerging about the long-term value of ANZUS to Australia as economic malaise continues to plague the United States and Chinese economic and military power continues to grow in an increasingly multi-polar world. The key questions, perhaps, are whether ANZUS is approaching its use-by date and whether abandoning the treaty would substantially affect Australia’s long-run strategic circumstances.

There would most likely be a balance of gains and losses – gains in terms of national autonomy and losses in terms of access to high-end US intelligence and to some US military technologies – with the exact impact on Australia’s regional influence harder to gauge. Obviously it would be better for Australia to plan for and manage these contingencies rather than confront them unprepared.

Judging by the recent visits by prime minister Julia Gillard to Washington and Beijing, the Australian government is not ready to address the issues publicly. It wants the security benefits of the ANZUS treaty and the economic benefits of the lucrative and growing relationship with China, and it thinks it can have them both.

This might be increasingly difficult if, as the latest defence white paper estimated in 2009, the strategic primacy of the United States declines after 2030 – only nineteen years in the future. Even if the United States manages to remain the world’s greatest superpower after 2030, its approach to the ANZUS treaty could be affected profoundly if it finds itself in strategic competition with an increasingly powerful China. The United States might become unwilling or unable to deliver on even qualified security guarantees to Australia. China might seek to put pressure on Australia to put its economic relationship with Beijing ahead of its ANZUS commitments.

In these circumstances Australia might be unable to maintain a Washington–Beijing balance. It might find itself increasingly alone in a hostile world, surrounded by Asian giants – one of the deepest and most abiding fears in the Australian political consciousness. Australia might also, as the 2009 white paper suggests, find itself faced with a hard-pressed American ally seeking Australian assistance in handling more regional crises and a belligerent China demanding that it desist.

How then to avoid snubbing the United States or kowtowing to China? One way would be to decide now to depart the ANZUS alliance on good terms with the United States and without Chinese pressure. Australia would then be able to calculate its vital national security interests and act as an entirely independent agent. In some ways this might enhance regional respect for Australia.

Departing ANZUS would, in fact, have limited security consequences for Australia. The most basic fact about the treaty is that it does not provide unqualified security guarantees. ANZUS obliges the Australian, New Zealand and US governments only to consult with each other if there is an armed attack on any one of them.

As J.G. Starke, QC, noted in his magisterial 1965 study, The ANZUS Treaty Alliance, “there is no pledge of American support to Australia and New Zealand in all circumstances. Unlike the old-fashioned types of military alliances there are no automatic commitments to go to war… nor obligations to aid and assist each other on all occasions and in all places.”

The questions therefore arise: What are the limits of the alliance security guarantees and what is their value in a changing world? Have successive Australian governments been right to pay the ANZUS treaty insurance premium in Australian blood and treasure in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan? Under what circumstances can Australia rely on US military assistance if it comes under armed attack?

The 2009 defence white paper says that “Australia would only expect the United States to come to our aid in circumstances where we were under threat from a major power whose military capabilities were simply beyond our capacity to resist.” It acknowledges that the treaty does not commit Australia or the United States to specific types of actions, but “it does provide a clear expectation of support.”

The white paper leaves no doubt that the “major power” of concern to Australia is China. “[T]he pace, scope and structure of China’s military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained, and if China does not reach out to others to build confidence regarding its military plans,” the white paper says.

But how is Australia’s “capacity to resist” to be judged? And how is the level of “support” to be defined and assessed? The only clue in the white paper is the confident assertion that “for so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are able to rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia.” That might be an optimistic assessment in the event of a major global emergency involving confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

Yet the benefits of ANZUS to Australia have been important. They were summed up ten years ago by Gary Brown and Laura Rayner in a paper for the Parliamentary Library, “Upside, Downside: ANZUS After Fifty Years.” Brown and Rayner argued that the treaty had contributed to Australia’s sense of security in its region, given pause to possible aggressors, and provided Australia with regular access to the US military and government at senior levels.

They also noted that the treaty gave Australia preferential access to US military equipment and technology and allowed Australia to maintain a technological edge in its region. It also enabled Australia to receive valuable intelligence and to train and exercise with US forces and to develop interoperability with them. Being an ally of the United States allowed Australia to project its influence further and wider, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, than its size would otherwise warrant and helped to keep the United States engaged in the Western Pacific region.

Similar benefits are detailed in the 2009 white paper, which says the alliance “gives us significant access to materiel, intelligence, research and development, communications and systems and skills and expertise that substantially strengthen the ADF. Without access to US capabilities, technology and training, the ADF simply could not be the advanced force that it is today…”

But while the white paper doesn’t focus attention on the downsides of the alliance, Brown and Rayner offer a comprehensive summary. They note that the alliance does not provide Australia with any guarantees of assistance. In some circumstances, they argue, the United States may be unable or unwilling to provide direct military assistance to Australia.

Brown and Rayner argue that Australia’s dependence on the United States for key materiel and resupply means that the Australian Defence Force cannot sustain any but the most minor operations for any length of time without American materiel and logistic assistance. They contend that this situation enables the United States to dictate the terms on which Australia conducts military operations.

Moreover, they say, the rising cost of military technologies is pricing the United States out of the market as an ally with which modestly resourced states can cooperate or interoperate effectively. And they argue that although the alliance relationship has given Australia excellent access to the highest levels of the US administration, there is little indication that this access translates into effective influence.

Despite high-flown rhetoric and pledges of support from American politicians and officials over many years, the US commitment to ANZUS has never been as strong as the Australian commitment. That may simply reflect the relative size, military power and global importance of the two countries. Australia has needed the alliance more than the United States has needed it. The question now is whether that need will remain a paramount consideration in Australian security policy.

It is worth noting, in parenthesis, that the treaty has been invoked only once, and then only symbolically, when John Howard, heading home from the United States after witnessing the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, decided that Australia would support the United States to fight terrorism under the terms of the treaty.

Article IV, the action clause of the treaty – or what Starke called “the key or operative provision” – says: “Each party recognises 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.” Article III commits the parties to “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.”

Compare that with the action clause (Article 6) of the earlier North Atlantic treaty, which declares that “an armed attack on one or more of the parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the territory of any of the Parties…” Despite heroic efforts by the architects of ANZUS to argue that the two clauses carry the same weight, it is difficult to see how a mere obligation to consult matches an obligation to regard an attack on one as an attack on all. The current defence white paper declares explicitly that Australia would expect US aid only if threatened beyond its capacity to resist. Australia clearly expects to meet some threats without US aid, which suggests that it does not expect more than consultation in some eventualities.

AUSTRALIAN proposals for a “Pacific pact” date back at least to the 1930s. But the seeds of what was to become the ANZUS treaty were probably sown in February 1949, when Labor’s foreign affairs minister H.V. Evatt told parliament that Australia wanted a Pacific defence agreement.

Evatt’s move came against the background of the completion of the North Atlantic treaty negotiations in Europe. Australia at the time was deeply afraid of resurgent militarism in Japan, which had been defeated just four years earlier. It was witnessing the communist victory in China and growing communist insurgencies in Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos and Burma. The invasion of South Korea by the Chinese-backed North Korean communists was just over the horizon. The world was an alarming place for a country like Australia with an abiding fear of being left alone among the Asian hordes.

With the election of the Menzies government in December 1949 and the appointment of Percy Spender as foreign affairs minister, Australia’s diplomatic pursuit of a pact gathered increasing momentum. Spender is universally credited with overcoming US reluctance and securing the ANZUS treaty for Australia. “The shaping of a Pacific pact became a political obsession with him,” wrote Starke. “In proposing this goal he showed tremendous verve, sense of timing, elasticity, capacity to guide public opinion, and negotiatory skill.”

Adopting arguments first made by the Chifley government, Spender urged a Pacific pact primarily to address Canberra’s fears over possible remilitarisation by Japan. He also said a pact would allow Australia to send troops to world trouble spots like the Middle East without having to worry about whether it would have sufficient forces at home to deal with any emergency that might arise.

While recognising Australia as a valued friend that had contributed importantly to the allied victory in the second world war, the Americans were initially resistant to Spender’s vigorous advocacy. They were more concerned with the postwar spread of Soviet communism in Europe and with the communist victory in China. They wanted a peace treaty and warm relations with Japan to ensure that it did not fall into the communist orbit. They were also concerned by open British hostility to Australia and New Zealand’s joining a Pacific pact with the United States (and possibly others) if Britain were not also a member.

A fundamental difference was that Australia wanted a “tough” peace settlement with Japan and hoped for an ANZUS treaty action clause declaring, like the NATO treaty, that an attack on one party would be deemed an attack on all. The Americans wanted a “soft” settlement and indicated that they were not necessarily contemplating a NATO-style action clause. If it wanted a treaty, Australia had no choice but to accept the seemingly softer agreement-to-consult formulation.

The complex diplomacy that led to the ANZUS treaty’s being signed on 1 September 1951 is detailed in a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade book, The ANZUS Treaty 1951, published in 2001 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the alliance. It is a wide-ranging anthology of documents and cables on the treaty negotiations from 1949 to 1952.

A brief introduction notes that the North Korean attack on South Korea in June 1950 helped to push the Australians and the Americans towards agreement. A visit to Canberra in February 1951 by John Foster Dulles, special representative of US President Harry Truman, yielded a draft treaty eventually judged, however grudgingly, as acceptable by the British government. Two months later the tireless Spender was appointed ambassador to the United States and Richard Casey took over as foreign affairs minister.

The foreign affairs department documents reveal the Australian government’s struggle with the action clause formulation. Prime Minister Robert Menzies warned Spender that Australia “should not push the United States too hard for formal obligation.” The secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Alan Watt, told Spender, “Australia should be on its guard against any very loose or uncertain arrangement” and “should try to get the tightest guarantee which we can.”

Spender, in a key cabinet submission, seemed to reflect an ambiguity in Australia’s attitude towards the treaty. He said Australia’s “first objective” should be to try to obtain US consent to an agreement “that would provide for mutual assistance in the case of an attack on any of the parties from any quarter.” Then he said Australia’s object “would in fact be to confine the obligations to an undertaking to consult with the other signatories,” but noted that this “would not give Australia the kind of guarantee needed.” He said Australia would aim to make its agreement to an undertaking to consult “conditional on a firm independent guarantee of Australia’s security against attack from any quarter.”

Spender appears to have accepted that the United States would not agree to a NATO-style action clause and that he would have to accept, as the best deal available, an undertaking to consult subject to firm US security guarantees to Australia.

After the treaty was agreed Casey sought to put the best construction on it, telling parliament in July 1951 that the US Secretary of State had said the fates of the United States, Australia and New Zealand had been joined “and the intention is that an attack on one should be regarded as an attack on all and that all three would resist together.”

Nine months later, in April 1952, he told parliament the unvarnished truth: “The precise action to be taken by each party in the event of an armed attack is not specified.” But Casey insisted the obligations were real. “[I]t is not so much the wording of the obligation which matters as the determination of the parties to resist aggression,” he said. Those words seemed to reflect the triumph of Australian hope over the reality of the treaty language.

Spender’s cabinet submission and Casey’s parliamentary statements raised questions about whether the ANZUS commitment was less definite than the NATO commitment. The issue absorbed Starke, who noted that in 1954 Dulles told Casey that the United States believed the ANZUS obligations provided “all the freedom of action and power to act that is contained in NATO.”

Relying on Dulles’s comment, and remarks by Casey and the New Zealand minister, Frederick Doidge, that the NATO and ANZUS clauses were effectively identical, Starke concluded: “It would seem of little point… to contrast these corresponding articles of the two treaties in a sense unfavourable to ANZUS.” The practical reason for the use of different wording in article IV of ANZUS, he wrote, “was to facilitate approval by the United States Congress of the Treaty.”

Here Starke seems to have lost his usual forensic acuity and placed his trust in remarks made by three politicians with a shared interest in putting a construction on Article IV most likely to reassure their national electorates at the time. Starke does not offer compelling independent arguments for his conclusion, but he does suggest, interestingly, that the vagueness of the term “armed attack” in Article IV “has suited the parties because it draws no firm line and leaves the potential aggressor guessing.” He also suggests that ANZUS “to some extent formalised a de facto relationship of alliance between the parties which had received particular expression during the second world war and in the course of the Korean hostilities…”

But legal analysis of the treaty terms is less significant than how the treaty has actually operated over its sixty-year life. How has it helped to preserve US, Australian and New Zealand national security? How willing have the parties been to assist each other when they faced security challenges? Have the benefits of the treaty justified the costs?

In his comprehensive 1991 study, Crises and Commitments: The Politics and Diplomacy of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1965, the historian Peter Edwards argues that the ANZUS treaty was the price Australia obtained for its acquiescence in the “soft” peace treaty with Japan. It was also partly Australia’s reward for its swift and substantial United Nations military response to the invasion of South Korea by Chinese-backed North Korean forces.

But Edwards notes that the treaty did not grant Australia direct access to American strategic planning, which was one of Australia’s major goals at the time. The alliance has evolved since then, but in the earlier years of the Cold War it seemed to do as much to complicate Australian relations with Washington as it did to reassure Australia that it enjoyed the protection of US power.

In the early 1950s, Edwards shows, the United States put pressure on Australia to assist the French, who were facing military defeat in Indo-China. But the Department of External Affairs argued that Australia would be unwise to agree to the use of Australian troops, as requested by the United States. The Americans, through John Foster Dulles, maintained their pressure, prompting a worried Casey to write in his diary that the United States might change its attitude to Southeast Asia if Australia and others did not respond. Spender, in Washington, reported that the government had to consider, if it failed to respond to Dulles, how the United States would react if and when areas closer to Australia were in jeopardy.

The matter was resolved by the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and subsequent international negotiations, but it was an early lesson in the potential costs of the alliance.

In the mid 1950s Menzies, concerned about communist guerrilla threats, planned to send troops to Malaya and to introduce conscription for military service. He obtained general assurance in Washington of US willingness to help defend Malaya but was “not fully satisfied with the extent of American support,” according to Edwards. Nevertheless he announced that Australia, Britain and New Zealand would contribute forces to a strategic reserve in Malaya. The United States said it would attack China with nuclear weapons in the event of war, but offered no troops under the ANZUS treaty.

Edwards also notes major differences between the United States and Australia over Indonesian claims to West New Guinea and over the Indonesian confrontation with Malaysia. Australia supported the Dutch decision to exclude West New Guinea from the transfer of the former Netherlands East Indies to Indonesia; the Americans stayed neutral, believing that a friendly Indonesia, incorporating West New Guinea, would be valuable to the West. Edwards argues that the issue had the potential to divide Australia and the United States, and that Australia ultimately had no choice other than to accept the incorporation of West New Guinea. Again the ANZUS treaty proved irrelevant.

Indonesia’s confrontation of Malaysia in the early to mid 1960s prompted Australia to seek assurances under ANZUS of US support in the event of an Indonesian attack on Australian forces in Malaysia. According to Edwards the Americans agreed to act only in the event of “an overt attack, and not in cases of ‘subversion, guerrilla warfare or indirect aggression.’” Support would be limited to the use of air and sea forces and logistic support. In other words, writes Edwards, “the use of American troops was excluded.” Again, ANZUS did not help Australia.

At the same time, Australia found itself under pressure to contribute to intensifying American efforts to defend Vietnam from communism. Vietnam at the time was of less concern to Australia than Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia, but, Edwards writes, “The United States made it clear… that American support for Australia in the event of a substantial conflict with Indonesia depended partly on Australian support for the American role in Vietnam.” Australia went to war in Vietnam as an ANZUS obligation and between 1962 and 1975 lost 500 troops killed and 3129 wounded. It was part of the alliance price.

Partway through that conflict, in 1969, President Richard Nixon announced his “Guam doctrine,” which had obvious implications for the ANZUS treaty. While the United States pledged to keep all of its treaty commitments, it also declared that the United States expected allies to take care of their own military defence. “[W]e shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defence,” President Nixon said.

Prime Minister John Howard faced the reality of the Guam doctrine in 1999 when he urged President Clinton to assist Australia in East Timor during the country’s greatest foreign policy crisis since Vietnam. Clinton refused to put American troops on the ground with Australians, but pledged (and delivered) diplomatic, logistic and intelligence support and an “over-the-horizon” seaborne deterrent presence to support Australia’s deployment as head of the seventeen-nation INTERFET force. ANZUS worked – but it did not yield American boots on the ground.

THERE is no doubting Australia’s commitment to ANZUS. It has taken Australian troops to Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. The dead are many and the toll continues to mount. Successive Australian governments, Coalition and Labor, have genuflected before the treaty, accepting its costs and uncertainties as justified in the pursuit of national survival.

Generally, Australia and the United States have managed differences skilfully – including during the 1984 crisis when New Zealand’s prime minister, David Lange, banned visits by nuclear-armed ships and the United States suspended its ANZUS obligations to New Zealand. If anything, the crisis brought Australia and the United States closer as the AUSMIN forum replaced the ANZUS council.

Yet, as many commentators have noted, the major test may be yet to come. How would Australia respond in the event of a crisis in United States–China relations? Would it stick with its old democratic ally at the cost of its new and still evolving economic relationship with communist China? It is not a question any Australian politician wants to address.

Former prime minister John Howard managed the ANZUS relationship with great skill. He dispatched Australian troops to fight with the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he ensured the deployments were small compared with the 5000-odd troops he sent to East Timor. Moreover he moved within twenty-four hours to correct foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer when he suffered a brainsnap in China in 2004 and declared that ANZUS did not require Australia to fight alongside the United States in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Howard earned the accolade “man of steel” from President George W. Bush after he invoked the ANZUS treaty in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the United States. Howard got significant political mileage in Washington for what were in fact small and cautious troop deployments under ANZUS. The question is whether future Australian prime ministers will be able to act similarly and maintain good relations with the United States and with China (which Howard also managed to achieve).

If the answer is “no,” or “not certain,” then it would seem reasonable to consider whether ANZUS is past its use-by date – at least in its present form. So what might replace it? And what would be the implications for Australia?

A decision to rescind ANZUS would obviously shock the Asia-Pacific region. It is an old treaty and part of the framework of regional relations. Australia and the United States would have to manage both substantial and symbolic political fallout.

But in a post-ANZUS world there is no reason why Australia and the United States would not remain close and friendly, linked by language, history and democratic values. Australia would inevitably have more guarded security relations with China, which remains a brutal communist power engaged in a major long-term military expansion. Australia would, as it has so often done patchily throughout the ANZUS years, seek to maintain military forces superior to others in the region and compatible with US forces.

Australia would continue to exchange intelligence with the United States; it could continue to host critical joint facilities like Pine Gap if the Americans wanted them. It would continue to acquire the military equipment American firms are permitted to sell to countries like Australia. Political and military exchanges with the United States would be franker and more fruitful than those with China.

A significant cost to Australia could be a loss of access to high-end US intelligence collections, especially highly classified real-time satellite imagery. The United States might also be less willing to make certain advanced weapons technologies available to Australia if it departed ANZUS. These costs would have to be balanced against the benefits.

Australia would have more freedom to take a more independent, realist and pragmatic view of its international policy and national interests, which do not always coincide with those of the United States. There would be no obligation to consult in the event of a crisis, but the parties would be able to do so if they felt it was in their interests. Australia would not feel an obligation to sign onto every war the Americans want to fight, but there would be nothing to stop Australia from joining military coalitions when it felt its interests were directly engaged.

Australia would not have the comfort of possible US assistance under ANZUS if attacked, although it could probably expect help in circumstances where the United States perceived its national interests to be at stake. There would be questions about extended US nuclear deterrence, but that would be doubtful anyway under ANZUS if China’s nuclear capabilities became competitive with US capabilities. No American president would risk sacrificing an American city to protect an Australian city from nuclear attack.

In a post-ANZUS world Australia would have to play smarter diplomatic and defence games – developing regional relationships and participating, as it does now, in regional security and economic groupings. It would also have to continue building forces that would give potential aggressors reason to pause before threatening Australia, as it is doing in the current major sea, air and rearmament program described in the 2009 white paper.

It may be true that ANZUS complicates military planning for any hostile power considering an attack on Australia because it cannot be sure that the United States will not come to Australia’s aid. But equally, Australia cannot be sure of US support in every circumstance. ANZUS may give rise to Australian expectations of US military assistance in the event of a major attack, but it does not guarantee it.

So things probably would be little different from how they are under the ANZUS arrangements. Australia might find itself more exposed to a hostile world, but it would also have more independence to act or not to act as its national interests and the balance of global power demanded. If so, departing ANZUS would arguably reflect growing national self-confidence and maturity.

ANZUS has generally served Australia well and Australia has unquestionably paid its dues. But the first half of the twenty-first century bears little resemblance to the second half of the twentieth century. Times change. Treaties that seemed sacrosanct can become less relevant. Australians need to start thinking about the continuing relevance of ANZUS to their vital interests. It is a challenge that cannot be evaded with fatuous political rhetoric crafted to flatter great powers. Great powers are smarter than that, and Australia needs to be smarter too. •