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"A True Friend Down Under": Why Australia's Relationship With the US Can Harm Australia

01 Sep 2021
By Olivia Tasevski
he joint Australia/USA communications facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs in Central Australia.

The Australian government has long viewed its alliance with the United States as critical to its security. But should Australia continue to do so if it weakens its national security and bilateral relationships?

 This September marks seventy years since the signing of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) by the Australian, New Zealand, and US governments. ANZUS came to fruition after advocacy by Australia and New Zealand for a treaty with the US due to their fears of communist China and post-war Japan. It was signed by the US in exchange for Australia and New Zealand supporting a ‘soft’ peace treaty with Japan. Since this time, the Australia-US alliance has been at the core of Australia’s security and defence policy and has been supported by both Liberal and Labor governments. However, this alliance, within which Australian governments are often dependent upon and submissive to the US, has, at times, undermined Australia’s security and bilateral relationships.

Australia has participated in all major US-led wars since the beginning of the Cold War, notably in Korea, Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, thus demonstrating its subservience to the US. In a number of these cases, Australian governments contributed military forces in the belief that demonstrating that Australia was a “good” ally would be reciprocated by the US if this was required by Australia. In the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, unlike a number of other US allies, staunchly pro-US Prime Minister John Howard committed Australian forces to the invasion even though it was not sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council and thus the legality of the invasion was questionable.

In 2002, al-Qaeda-affiliated Indonesian terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) perpetrated the Bali bombings, which killed 88 Australians. The leader of JI subsequently argued that Australians were targeted in the bombings due to Australia’s alliance with the US and participation in the war in Afghanistan. In this instance, the Australia-US alliance and Australia’s involvement in US-led wars to present itself as a “good” ally directly undermined Australian security.

Additionally, the Pine Gap intelligence facility in the Northern Territory, a key part of the Australia-US alliance, also poses a direct threat to Australia’s security. Pine Gap has been run and funded by the US and, to a lesser degree, Australia since it began operating in the 1970s. The facility provides the US and Australia with key intelligence, including intelligence which is used by the US for drone strikes, which violate international law and have resulted in civilians being killed, notably in the Middle East. Its surveillance systems can also provide advanced warning of nuclear attacks directed at the US. As a result, if China and the US engage in a war, Pine Gap would likely be a high priority nuclear target for China.

In 2011, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that Australia would host 2500 US marines on permanent rotation in the Northern Territory. Unsurprisingly, Gillard’s announcement was viewed with hostility by China, Australia’s largest trading partner. This decision was also greeted with antagonism by Indonesia, the fourth-most populous country in the world, and a rising economic power and influential Southeast Asian state, which is also Australia’s largest neighbour. Therefore, Australia’s actions, and its dependence on the US undermined its relationship with two key Asian states and created another source of tension in its already volatile relationship with both countries.

Proponents of the alliance also argue that Australia can rely on US extended nuclear deterrence. Extended nuclear deterrence refers to the notion that the US would protect Australia with nuclear weapons if another state threatened or launched a nuclear attack against Australia, and such protection would deter nuclear attacks against Australia. In reality, due to the Truman administration’s preference for a limited security treaty, the 1951 ANZUS treaty only guarantees that the US and Australia will “consult” with each other if one of them is attacked. By contrast, the 1949 NATO treaty stipulates that an attack perpetrated against one state party to the treaty is viewed as an attack on all state parties to the treaty, who will then support the attacked state. Guarantees of US extended nuclear deterrence are also questionable as there is no public US government statement that the US would protect Australia with nuclear weapons if it experiences a nuclear attack or threat.

Beyond this, Australian governments’ reliance on extended nuclear deterrence is problematic as it demonstrates that Australian governments endorse nuclear weapons despite the immense human and environmental harms associated with them. It also highlights that successive Australian governments’ assertions that Australia is committed to nuclear disarmament are highly debatable.

Australian governments should rethink their fundamental assumptions about the alliance and the extent to which, in its current manifestation, the alliance benefits Australia. Successive Australian governments have, at times, criticised US government policies and demonstrated an ability to adopt policies which are in Australia’s national interest, rather than solely adopting policies to bolster the US alliance and demonstrate that Australia is, in the words of Gillard, “a true friend down under.” Australian governments would do well to adopt more policies which genuinely advance Australia’s interests.

Olivia Tasevski is an International Relations Tutor at the University of Melbourne. She specialises in American foreign relations and American politics and history.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.