Australia’s earliest strategic relationship with the British Empire established a foundation of dependence that would characterise all of the nation’s future defence and national security relationships both in the Indo-Pacific and the wider world.
As British power slowly declined following the First World War and the US emerged as the pre-eminent economic, political and strategic power during the Second World War, Australia became dependent on "Pax Americana" or the American Peace and the 'guarantee' of US tactical and strategic support in the event of any threat to the nation.
However, this dependence upon the US was different to its prior incarnation, with Australia emerging from the Second World War as a potent middle power, one essential to maintaining the post-war economic, political and strategic power paradigm established and led by the US.
This relationship, established as a result of the direct threat to Australia, replaced the nation's strategic relationship of dependence on the British Empire and continues to serve as the basis of the nation's strategic policy direction and planning – in the form of the ANZUS Treaty signed between the United States, Australia and New Zealand in San Francisco in 1951.
The formalisation of the relationship came amid the height of the Korean conflict, the growing threat of communist insurgency in south-east Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia and Vietnam and the successful Communist Revolution in China served to drive Australian political, strategic and public concerns about the nation's enduring stability and security just years following the defeat of Imperial Japan.
Australia's support of the US in both Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War entrenched the nation as one of America's most reliable regional and global allies and one essential to the enduring stability of the Indo-Pacific – one that is more relevant now more than ever.
Indeed, new Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds recently highlighted the enduring importance of the relationship between the US and Australia in light of mounting regional and global challenges to the post-Second World War international rules-based order, telling the ASPI International Conference: War in 2025:
"We are now in our second century of mateship with the US. That matters a great deal. Today this relationship is not just about our mutual support obligations, enshrined in the ANZUS treaty. Rather, it is about ensuring the alliance is more focused on, and responsive to, shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific."
Article III – Consulting on security issues
However, despite the prominent role ANZUS plays in Australia's strategic planning and advantages it affords the nation, the Cold War-era treat fails to provide a guarantee, despite the protestations to the contrary of Australia's political leaders.
Indeed, Article III states: "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." (Emphasis added)
Further expanding on the principle of consultation between the parties, both Articles IV and V expand on the concepts established by Article III, by identifying in particular:
Article IV: "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.
"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."
While Australia has never (thankfully) needed to enact the ANZUS Treaty, it has used the public perception of the treaty to justify supporting the US in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, seemingly resulting in a broadening of the scope for the ANZUS Treaty thus leaving future interpretations open to all parties.
Art of the Deal: Time to renegotiate ANZUS?
With the recent withdrawal of US forces in Syria and the seeming abandonment of the Kurdish forces to the mercy of Turkish President Recep Erdogan and his ambitions to rebuild the Ottoman Caliphate, many have questioned the resolve of the US under mercurial President Donald Trump, which has been further compounded by the ongoing democratic protests in Hong Kong and China's long-dreamt of ambitions of reunification with the island-state of Taiwan.
Further complicating the tactical and strategic calculations for Australia is the unprecedented economic, political and strategic ambitions of the region's rising powers, namely China and the potential for direct impact on the national interest. Is it time for the two parties to renegotiate and expand the scope of the ANZUS Treaty to reflect the 'combined arms' economic, political and strategic competition they both find themselves engaged in?
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce also issued a challenge for Australia's political and strategic policy leaders, saying: "If we observe that the level of debate among our leaders is characterised by mud-slinging, obfuscation and the deliberate misrepresentation of the views of others, why would the community behave differently ... Our failure to do so will leave a very damaging legacy for future generations."
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.