ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre lecturer Andrew Carr has issued a call for Australia to begin the process of re-evaluating and, if necessary, renegotiating the key points of the Australia-US alliance in the face of rising Chinese aggression towards the regional and international order.
Designed and formalised in the early days of the Cold War, ANZUS marked a major transition in Australia’s position and approach to the new world order emerging in the aftermath of the Second World War.
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 ASPI’s War in 2025 international conference:
“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.”
However, ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre lecturer Andrew Carr has outlined the first stages of a major rethink for the Australia-US alliance as both nations and the broader Indo-Pacific realign themselves to counter increased Chinese aggression.
Carr describes this as the “Robert Menzies model”, in which: “Australia provides financial alignment, public political support and private intelligence sharing. In return, the US shares intelligence and technology and provides an implicit assurance of protection of the Australian continent.”
Beyond the jingoism and consultation
The first port of Carr’s analysis focuses specifically upon the “celebrations of mateship” spruiked frequently by Canberra and Washington as the bedrock of the relationship, in doing so, Carr presents important question to inform a clear understanding of the future relationship: “What are we cooperating for? How do our goals overlap or differ?”
This is particularly relevant given the vague nature of the existing ANZUS framework, particularly Article III of the Cold War-era treaty, which 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 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, seemingly resulting in a broadening of the scope for the ANZUS Treaty, thus leaving future interpretations open to all parties.
These gaps are further expanded upon by Carr, particularly given the mercurial nature of US President Donald Trump, who has taken an increasingly transactional approach to alliances, with the ill-defined “expectation gaps” of the ANZUS Treaty a central focus.
“I think these gaps have grown large enough to be identified as four diverging strategic interests between the US and Australia. These are, to be clear, the fault of neither President Donald Trump’s bullying, nor the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party. Many are longstanding issues of Australian strategic outlook; we just haven’t needed to talk about them because things were easy in Asia. Now things are hard, and we do need to talk about them,” Carr explained.
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 President 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?
This becomes particularly relevant as both Australia and the United States come to terms with the growing limitations of the US against an increasingly capable and dedicated peer competitor in China.
Questions for Australia
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Donald Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
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 provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?