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Beijing Calling

Beijing Calling

How China is testing the alliance

Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?

This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.

Australia and the United States share the same strategic imperatives. Historically, each nation has sought absolute security by dominating its landmass and securing its ocean approaches. But the geography of the Pacific makes safeguarding these maritime approaches difficult. Unlike the Atlantic or Indian oceans, the Pacific hosts a continuous girdle of islands along its western shores, running from the Aleutians in the north, through Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia, to Polynesia in the south. Islands are potential bases from which military power can be projected, by missiles and aircraft as surely as by wooden sailing ships. Despite the vastness of the Pacific, American and Australian strategists have remained preoccupied with the vulnerabilities and opportunities presented by this huge island chain.

At the same time, and despite their wariness of Asia in security terms, both America and Australia have been inexorably drawn towards Asia by their commercial interests. American traders took advantage of the Napoleonic Wars to build trans-Pacific trade in the late eighteenth century. The profits they made transformed Boston, New York and Philadelphia into glittering metropolises and financed the growth of America’s first giant companies and banks. As its power grew, the United States did not seek its imperial sphere in Asia, but equal access to all spheres. From Matthew Perry’s Black Ships entering Tokyo Bay to John Hay’s Open Door Policy advocating China’s territorial integrity along with commercial access for all, the ability to prosper from the economic potential of Asia has been a strategic priority for the United States.

Asian demand for Australian products has been a confounding challenge to Australia’s Empire loyalties since before Federation. Trade underpinned its rapid rapprochement with its wartime enemy Japan. Later, even as it refused to recognise communist China, its wheat sales to the People’s Republic grew stubbornly. Access to Asian markets has underpinned much of Australia’s post-Empire prosperity.

But these commercial opportunities carry a hidden cost, altering regional power dynamics. The challenge, for the United States and Australia alike, has been how to maximise the economic benefits of engagement with Asia while forestalling the geopolitical consequences of the region’s vitality and growth. The priorities for both countries are maintaining commercial access and political influence in Asia; keeping the great Pacific archipelago in friendly, or at least neutral, hands; and preventing regional domination by a hostile power that could use Asia’s resources to menace North America and Australia. But while their imperatives align, the two nations’ capabilities do not. The United States has ample power but lacks proximity to Asia; Australia has proximity but lacks the power to shape regional outcomes. Both countries seek to influence the continental and archipelagic orders from afar, but with different advantages and disadvantages. In the alignment of strategic priorities, and in the complementarity of geography and capabilities, lies the geopolitical essence of the Australia–United States alliance.

The alliance has evolved in response to changing imperatives in Asia. What brought Australia and the United States together, long before a formal treaty was signed, was Japan’s mounting power and aspirations in Asia. The steady growth of its control over North-East Asia between the 1890s and 1945 translated into island bases in Taiwan, and in the Ryukyu, Marshall and Caroline island groups. Its thirst for markets and raw materials led to invasions of Manchuria and China, and designs on British, French and Dutch colonies in South-East Asia. As it seized European and American colonies, Japan promoted an anti-Western nationalism within an exclusive, imperialist Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Meanwhile, Japan’s army and navy raced down the island chain, invading New Guinea and Solomon Islands in 1941, within weeks of the attack on Pearl Harbor. For Australians, the folly of relying on the British Empire for protection became manifest. Hong Kong and Singapore capitulated, with 15,000 Australian soldiers captured. As Australia’s northern cities were bombed, most of its armed forces were fighting in the Mediterranean. The war in Europe was given priority over the Pacific conflict, and it was only through open defiance of British strategy that prime minister John Curtin brought Australian troops back to New Guinea. As Australians fought a vicious jungle war against the Japanese, the British and Americans blithely planned the postwar order in the Pacific at a summit in Cairo. Australian and American forces regrouped in Australia, and soon the archipelago that had enabled a lightning Japanese advance became its vulnerability as American forces leapfrogged fortified islands and advanced towards Japan, leaving thousands of imperial troops marooned behind the battlefront. As Japan’s soldiers retreated or surrendered, they left in their wake a virulent revolutionary nationalism that would see China, northern Korea and northern Vietnam install communist regimes, and anti-colonial struggles break out elsewhere.

The impetus to formalise the wartime partnership flowed from the experience of the Pacific War. For the United States, the brutality of the battles for Guadalcanal, Saipan and Iwo Jima led to a resolve to never again allow hostile interests a foothold in the Western Pacific. Its postwar planning included securing island bases along the archipelago, an early opportunity for Canberra to suggest a formal security partnership. The war had underlined for Australia the advantages of reliance on a friendly resident power rather than a declining, distracted and disintegrating Empire. It had also demonstrated the dangers of an unequal partnership. Great powers – even dear old Blighty – were haughty and selfish, prone to casually assuming the support of the colonies and smaller allies while refusing them input into strategy. Now, even as the dust settled after the Pacific War, Britain wanted Australian troops to return to the Middle East to guard against a communist thrust there, while the United States wanted Australia to agree to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Japan. Foreign minister Percy Spender’s price was a formal American security guarantee and access to the highest levels of Western strategic planning within the NATO alliance.

Australia got neither. The Australia, New Zealand and United States (ANZUS) Treaty binds its signatories to three commitments: to work together to strengthen their military capabilities, to consult on threats in the Pacific and to meet common dangers as their constitutions permit. No NATO-like joint command structure or shared planning process; no an-attack-on-one-is-an-attack-on-all commitment; no collective regional security guarantee. Nor was there any formal connection to NATO or to other American security commitments in the Pacific. The ANZUS Treaty was almost studied in its vagueness, reflecting Washington’s reluctance to provide carte blanche security guarantees to small and isolated allies that had yet to prove they wouldn’t drag America into their own local squabbles. But Australia agreed to the treaty, to taking part in a global containment of communism and to a non-punitive peace treaty with Japan, thanks to a quiet confidence that shared interests in Asia would allow it to build a more intimate partnership with the United States.

This was not a deluded position. The treaty had been preceded by the establishment of joint planning on maritime strategy between the three ANZUS allies. The March 1951 Radford-Collins Agreement committed Australia, New Zealand and the United States to the collective management of sea lanes in the Eastern Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. By the time the ANZUS Treaty was signed, Australia was also part of America’s most intimate intelligence-sharing arrangement. The 1948 UKUSA Agreement designated Australia and New Zealand, along with Canada, as second parties to an arrangement with the United States and Britain to share signals intelligence, and to divide the world into spheres of responsibility for collecting that intelligence. America’s and Britain’s NATO allies were given much lower levels of access and responsibility. Within five years of the ANZUS Treaty’s signing, growing instability in South-East Asia led to five-power consultations among the three ANZUS allies and Britain and France. This gave Australia access to the strategic thinking of NATO’s three most powerful members.

The challenge of Asia began to evolve, giving depth and substance to the alliance that the Treaty had not. By the 1950s communism was pushing forward in Asia more powerfully than in any other region, backed by an alarming alignment between China and the Soviet Union. For Australians, the prospect of a rerun of 1942, with Soviet-armed People’s Liberation Army troops taking the place of Imperial Japanese Forces, seemed all too real. In a conversation with US president Dwight Eisenhower in the Oval Office, Australian prime minister Robert Menzies sketched out a scenario describing the advance of communist control through South-East Asia that would become popularised as the domino theory. Australia committed forces to help Britain defend Malaya against communist subversion and Indonesian irredentism, and then sent troops to help America defend South Vietnam.

But as military historian Peter Dean observes, the world wars had changed the way Australia contributed to allied operations. There would no longer be major commitments of forces to coalition operations; Australia would deploy highly effective, niche capabilities on its own terms. It would gain maximum alliance advantage, and a right to be consulted, at a much smaller risk. The focus of Australia’s approach was to gain status as a significant American ally by virtue of its distinctive contributions to the United States’ global capabilities and Pacific strategy. Central to this was its agreement to host American intelligence facilities on Australian soil. The base at North West Cape in Western Australia was crucial to supporting the US sea-based nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union; Pine Gap in the Northern Territory to controlling US geostationary satellites; and Nurrungar in South Australia to supporting Eastern Hemisphere satellites.

Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?

This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.