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Loyal deputy or regional anchor? ANZUS provides our strategic centre so we can provide the regional foundation

Australian Army soldiers prepare to board a US Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter as part of a bilateral training exercise (Source: Defence)

Since 1951, the ANZUS Treaty has empowered Australia to bolster regional security and stability. However, despite our significant contributions, we’re frequently denigrated as a mere “Loyal Deputy”, obscuring the crucial leadership Australia offers and must continue to provide in the Indo-Pacific.

Since 1951, the ANZUS Treaty has empowered Australia to bolster regional security and stability. However, despite our significant contributions, we’re frequently denigrated as a mere “Loyal Deputy”, obscuring the crucial leadership Australia offers and must continue to provide in the Indo-Pacific.

The collapse of British power in the East, following Japan’s blitzkrieg-like campaign through Malaya, culminating in the surrender of Singapore in 1942, shattered the widely-held Australian belief in British invincibility and had wide-reaching fallout that resonates to this day.

Australia’s resulting strategic anxiety levels were subsequently ramped up to 11 as it scrambled to recall its deployed troops from North Africa to defend the mainland from the rampaging Japanese war machine.


In response, Australia’s Prime Minister, John Curtin, made an impassioned plea to the Australian people to remain stalwart and defiant in the face of the coming horrors and across the vast expanse of the Pacific to the United States of America in search of a new “great and powerful friend”.

Prime Minister Curtin said in his speech to America, “On the great waters of the Pacific Ocean war now breathes its bloody steam. From the skies of the Pacific pours down a deathly hail. In the countless islands of the Pacific the tide of war flows madly. For you in America; for us in Australia, it is flowing badly. Let me then address you as comrades in this war and tell you a little of Australia...

“We looked to America, among other things, for counsel and advice, and therefore it was our wish that the Pacific War Council should be located at Washington ... But I give you this warning: Australia is the last bastion between the West Coast of America and the Japanese. If Australia goes, the Americas are wide open. It is said that the Japanese will bypass Australia and that they can be met and routed in India. I say to you that the saving of Australia is the saving of America’s west coast. If you believe anything to the contrary then you delude yourselves.”

Bringing us to the signing of the Australia, New Zealand, United States (ANZUS) Security Treaty in San Francisco in 1951, bringing the three nations together in a non-binding, collective security agreement that continues to serve all three nations to this day.

For Australia, the ANZUS Treaty went a long way to mitigating and resolving the nation’s long-held strategic anxiety and anguish that dated back to the earliest days of colonisation and provided an opportunity for the nation to develop and implement a largely independent coherent strategic doctrine for the first time in its history.

This doctrine would become known as “Forward Defence”, which Andrew Carr and Stephan Frühling for the Australian Army Research Centre explained as “seeks to deter by denying the adversary its intended objective, albeit within a broader national strategy for reinforcement and potential escalation“, leveraging a host of deterrence-focused capabilities as an overlapping network of thin and thick “trip wires” ahead of engaging the United States.

For many Asian nations, this left a bit of a sour taste in their mouths as Australia increasingly became viewed as a “loyal deputy” to the United States following the Vietnam conflict and then subsequently reinforced during the Global War on Terror operations across the Middle East, southeast and central Asia.

In many ways, the overlapping nature of both the ANZUS Treaty and Australia’s policy of “Forward Defence” provided both Australia and the United States with a period of relative peace and stability across the region, with Australia establishing itself as an “anchor nation” at the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific.

Today, the Indo-Pacific is at the epicentre of the global transition towards a multipolar world, with a number of competing centres of economic, political and strategic gravity and strategic competition rapidly reshaping the regional balance of power, yet the ANZUS Treaty and the tactical and strategic flexibility it provided Australia have never been more important.

Highlighting the importance of the ANZUS Treaty in the context of broader Indo-Pacific context is Michael Pezzullo, Defence deputy secretary in 2006 and 2007 responsible for the ANZUS Treaty and the former secretary of the Department of Home Affairs from 2017 to 2023, in a piece titled ANZUS and the fabric of peace in the Pacific in which he stated, “The term ‘Pacific Area’ is used in the security treaty between Australia and the United States (known as ANZUS, although the United States suspended its treaty obligations to New Zealand in 1986).

“The treaty alliance was created in 1951 for the purpose of collective defence against armed attack in the ‘Pacific Area’. While not necessarily the most immediately useful starting point for dealing with this risk of war, thinking about the issue through the prism of the treaty text yields rewarding insights and concrete suggestions for action,” Pezzullo added.

Responding to the growing risk to the fabric of Pacific peace

Since the inception of ANZUS in 1951, Australia and the United States, alongside other regional partners, namely Japan and, increasingly, South Korea, have served as the “anchor states” responsible for maintaining the balance of regional peace and stability, with Australia and the United States playing a central role for much of the last century.

However, Beijing’s ascendency and continued antagonism, particularly in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, coupled with its growing web of political influence and “dual-use” infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific, have only served to exacerbate the over-extension of the United States in light of ongoing conflict in the Middle East and Europe, while also laying bare the severe inadequacies of Australia’s own defence capabilities.

Pezzullo explained the impact of this push, saying, “Through its drive for hegemony in Asia, China is damaging ‘the fabric of peace in the Pacific Area’ (first recital in the treaty).”

In doing so, Pezzullo stated that responding to these challenges requires a more concerted and coordinated effort to develop and implement a strategy and doctrine of “integrated deterrence” in order to mitigate the damage to the fabric of Indo-Pacific security and stability in line with the ANZUS Treaty, with Pezzullo explaining, “As part of a broader regional strategy of integrated deterrence, Australia and the United States should commence urgent consultations, under Article III, on how best to deal with the threat posed by China to the territorial integrity, political independence and security of Australia and the United States in the Pacific (to use the terms of Article III).

“Thereafter, pursuing agreed actions would signal a credible commitment on the part of Australia and the United States to act collectively under their military alliance,” he added.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach would require Australia to recognise an armed attack on the US in the “Pacific Area” would be dangerous to our own national interest and would be obligated to, in concert with the US, respond accordingly.

However, it would allow Australia to have the right to determine if an “armed attack” had occurred and what action to take to respond to the “common danger” as part of Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty. This, however, does not mean that Australia would be “obligated” to respond with military force, something that Pezzullo explained, saying, “The United States would expect us to meet our obligations. Australia could, of course, insist that it was not obliged to go to war – and it would have to accept the consequences of its choice.”

All of this must. of course. be measured against Australia’s national and strategic interests in the region, although it goes without saying that the order built and maintained by both the United States and Australia is central to our national and strategic interests and security, therefore maintaining it is essential to the fabric of Pacific peace.

Pezzullo stated, “Australia has an abiding strategic interest in the preservation of US primacy in the Indo-Pacific region, which means countering the establishment of Chinese hegemony. In order to secure this overarching interest, Australia has an interest in contributing to a regional system of deterrence. Australia also has an interest in the United States being able to deter nuclear attack by China, against itself and, through extended deterrence, against its allies in the Indo Pacific.”

Overcoming our ‘fear of abandonment’

This leaves Australian policymakers with an uncomfortable double-edged sword when it comes to the “great and powerful friend”, resulting in a “fear of entrapment” by the US alliance, a point made by a number of Australian analysts and policymakers seeking to support the end of the US-led global order, whether through malice or naivety of the reality of the outcome.

Pezzullo detailed the impact of this double-edged sword, saying, “In the 1950s and 1960s, Australia’s ‘fear of abandonment’ (to use Allan Gyngell’s phrase) led it to seek unrealistic levels of protection through the treaty. After 1969, Australia gradually decided that it could not rely upon US combat assistance in its own defence, short of major war – although it took until 1987 for this approach to be properly institutionalised in policy, strategy, capability and doctrine. In the 1970s and 1980s, Australia developed a different ‘fear’. This was said to be a ‘fear of entrapment’ in US nuclear warfighting strategies, due to the hosting of certain US capabilities in Australia, strategies which were seen as the dark underside of US deterrence,” he explained.

Unfortunately, the sheer reality of the relationship with the United States (or any relationship with a similar nuclear power for that matter) will require some level of risk of nuclear retaliation, equally important to understand, our “fear of abandonment” has brought us here, by virtue of our desperation.

And what has Australia done to mitigate this? We have only further weakened ourselves across all major metrics of national tactical and strategic power, while talking a big game on the global stage at a time when, as Pezzullo stated, “Far from being an abandoned backwater, we became for the United States a strategic bastion and secure base.”

Further reinforcing this self-imposed weakness, Pezzullo explained, “The strategy of defence self-reliance of the 1980s, which was predicated on the prospect of lower levels of conflict (when there was no credible threat of a conventional attack on Australia by the Soviet Union), started to evolve around 2008–09 in anticipation of the prospect of a US-China war. We entered a period of strategic warning, but then did not build the force that we now desperately need.”

This has resulted in a spasmodic, if not schizophrenic approach to our national security posture and response to the challenges we now face.

Pezzullo explained, “Today, four different strands of policy – defence self-reliance, the ANZUS Treaty alliance, a US-centred regional security system, and US extended nuclear deterrence, together with the AUKUS technology pact – are coming together, in fits and starts, in a new Australian grand strategy. It is happening, although not quickly enough, and without it being explained in such direct and undiplomatic terms.”

While spasmodic, these varying policy approaches ultimately reaffirm Australia’s capacity as a regional anchor nation, even if we have neglected our role and responsibility over the past three decades (at least).

Final thoughts

The reality is, Australia has always had to balance its roles as a “loyal deputy” whether to the British Empire or, more recently, with the United States with its own national interests in remaining and maintaining its role and capacity as an “anchor nation” to maintain the regional balance of power and stability.

Regardless of whether we are in a “pre-war” or traditional “Cold War” environment, it is clear that successive generations of Australian leaders have let the country down, too entranced and seduced by the promise of “Peace Dividends” and the “End of History” to recognise the cold reality of the world, particularly developing concurrently with the “Clash of Civilisations” during the Global War on Terror.

Equally, many an academic, strategic thinker, and policymaker were seduced by the march of hyper-globalisation and the ultimate triumph of liberal democratic values that either naively overlooked the importance of historical context, religion, ethnic loyalty and rivalry and ideology that has left Australia dangerously exposed and unprepared for the challenges we now face.

But it isn’t too late if we pivot now and accept the reality of the world and the region as it is, rather than how we would wish it to be, or as the US Marines say, “embrace the suck”.

Responding to the challenges arrayed won’t be easy and it will require the whole of nation to put its shoulder behind the effort, but if we can engage the Australian public and industry early and bring them along, I promise it will be worth it in the long run.

Because if we don’t, when it comes to paying the bill, the cost will be too devastating to comprehend.

Stay tuned for a podcast discussion with Mike Pezzullo on the Defence Connect Podcast which will be released in coming weeks.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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