• John McDonnell

Is the ANZUS alliance worth preserving?


Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS alliance. The alliance was the brainchild of Sir Percy Spender, who was the foreign minister in the Menzies government in 1951.


Spender was the only member of the Menzies cabinet to actively support the idea of the alliance. He believed that Australia could no longer rely on the British government for regional security.


Spender persuaded John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state in the Truman administration, to negotiate a brief 11 clause treaty, which was concluded in Canberra in August 1951.


From then the ANZUS alliance became a cornerstone of Australian foreign policy.


It was the basis on which Australia followed America into the Vietnam war, although as NSW solicitor general, Michael Sexton has revealed, US president Lyndon Baines Johnson never asked Australia to join the war. The so-called request was contrived by Australian prime minister Menzies.


There is only one instance when ANZUS has been invoked to justify Australia going to war and that was when we joined the Afghanistan campaign in 2001. The alliance was used by John Howard, as the justification for mobilising troops, following a call from George W. Bush from Air Force 1 shortly after the attack on the Pentagon.


The incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan that was mandated by President Biden has raised questions about the reliability of the United States as an ally.


Four former Australian prime ministers: John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, were recently interviewed by Paul Kelly for the ‘Weekend Australian’ and were all agreed that Australia needed to become more self-reliant and to take a more independent view of geopolitical issues in the Asia-Pacific region. The consensus was that the United States was riven by domestic political differences and was becoming more isolationist and preoccupied with domestic interests.


However, it is obvious that self-reliance would represent a challenge to the Australian political environment. If the assumption is that the biggest existential threat to Australia’s national security comes from China then a lot more resources will need to be devoted to defence. Developing the military capacity to deter China from launching an attack on Australia is likely to be very expensive. We would need to acquire a vast array of medium and long-range missiles as well as such arcane weapons as submersible drones.


At the moment Australia spends about 2 per cent of its GDP on defence. In contrast, China spends 8 per cent of its GDP on its military. If Australia wants to match China pro-rata, then it will have to quadruple its defence budget. Where will the money come from?


At the moment Australia has nearly a trillion dollars in debt and will run deficits for the next 45 years. If it wants to maintain an element of fiscal responsibility and expand defence spending, it will have to make cuts in areas such as aged care, disability care, health or education. This would be politically unpopular.


Another consideration when the future of the alliance is being considered is the fact that Australia and the US share infrastructure that is critical for any future conflict in the region. The most important of these is Pine Gap, which would be the nerve centre for any retaliation against a regional enemy. This offers Australia enormous leverage and protection. It also ensures that we receive large quantities of important intelligence from our membership of the Five-Eyes group.


In the recent Sky News program on the alliance, Joe Hockey asserts that New Zealand is a less than enthusiastic member of the ‘five-eyes’. He says that the Kiwis are ambivalent because they do not want to upset China. Former ASIO and defence boss, Dennis Richardson, denies Hockey’s assertion on the same program.


However, there is no doubt that NZ prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has reservations about the alliance and does not want to be seen as ganging up on China.


At the moment the ANZUS alliance is playing a subsidiary role to the quadrilateral pact between India, Japan, USA, and Australia. As the 'Quad' gains momentum, then it is likely to replace the ANZUS alliance as the basis of our national security strategy.


In the meantime, it is probably worth keeping the ANZUS alliance to ensure Australia has access to the latest military technology.