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The ANZUS Treaty at an Uncertain Time: Should We Rely On It?

08 Sep 2021
By Geoffrey Miller AO FAIIA
Australian Army Captain Sam Thackray presents 3RAR Parachute Wings to Command Sergeant Major Kirk Johnson as US Army Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Ellis watches on.

The ANZUS Treaty, now 70 years old, is relevant to how the United States and Australia position themselves to face coming critical global issues and a changed regional strategic situation. But it has a somewhat old-fashioned air. 

The 70th anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty has been the occasion of a lot of self-congratulations on the Australian side, both about its continued existence and about how it came into being in the first place.  There has also been advocacy of Australia increasing both its defence spending and its involvement with US policy deployments in the Asia-Pacific, in order to maintain US interest in the alliance after its humiliating departure from Afghanistan.  But the situation in the Asia-Pacific is complicated, not only in regard to China but also with the unavoidable prominence of “common” issues, like climate change and present and future pandemics. 

The ANZUS Treaty, signed on 1 September 1971, was very much a security treaty of its time.  In Article 1 the Parties – Australia, New Zealand, and the United States – undertook to “settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means…and to refrain…from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”  Subsequent articles were primarily concerned with the Parties’ reaction to an “armed attack” on any of the Parties, or its island territories, or its armed forces, in the Pacific.  Australia at the time saw it as an insurance against a resurgent Japan. The US saw it as the price it had to pay to get Australian and New Zealand agreement to a “soft” security agreement with Japan, aimed at the then USSR.  Over the years ANZUS has come to symbolise the wider relationship between Australia and the US. 

But now, 70 years after it was signed, the Treaty has a certain old-fashioned air.  “Armed attacks” are still conceivable in the Pacific, which now contains a different China, at least a potential and probably an actual “peer competitor” of the United States.  But all countries, including the strongest, now have to cope with other kinds of issue of enormous global significance and danger. To deal with these successfully, cooperation, not competition, is required.  The two prime examples are climate change and the present and possible future pandemics.  The United States suffered 2,400 deaths among its servicemen in 20 years in Afghanistan, while its current death-toll from 18 months of COVID-19 is over 640,000. 

Setting these issues aside for the time being, what more traditional “security” issues face the ANZUS Parties?  First and foremost is the new China, which is certainly challenging the US across a wide spectrum.  That spectrum includes the military, but also includes the economic and technological fields as well as governance and human rights.  

Indeed, it is hard to see any reason or incentive for China directly to commit such an act, which would simply invite a US response which  Chinese armed forces could not withstand.  But there is certainly a military edge to the argument about China’s growth, centred around two things, first the United States’ accustomed military predominance in the Western Pacific, and China’s wish to see that ended, and secondly the fact that, unlike the US and Australia, China does not see the current status quo in regard to Taiwan as acceptable for the long term.  Journals of Chinese government opinion, like the Global Times, carry articles canvassing scenarios of what the US might do “when” China uses force to re-integrate Taiwan, and this obviously raises the possibility of a clash between the armed forces of the two super-powers, in circumstances in which the provisions of ANZUS could be relevant. 

Could ANZUS be invoked the other way round, in the case of a Chinese attack on Australia?  It really is almost impossible to see any reason for China to take such action, but if they did, I think Australia could certainly count on American support, because such an action would represent such a fundamental change and challenge to the balance of power in the world. 

Nevertheless, a lot of Australian discussion of ANZUS and its future is cast in terms of the need for Australia to do more militarily itself while at the same time seeking to increase military cooperation with the United States. The objective is to strengthen Australia’s claim to a voice in US policy decisions and to persuade the United States to put cooperation with allies ahead of “America First” and, implicitly, to maintain a force in the Pacific to deter “the growing Chinese threat to Asia-Pacific security.”  

This is certainly a question receiving a great deal of attention, even more so since President Joe Biden seemed to signal a step back in America’s global stance when he said that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was “about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”  Some American commentators have welcomed the departure from Afghanistan as enabling the US to concentrate on “the real threat”: China. 

Although on the same day he separately spoke very warmly about Australia and ANZUS, Biden’s actions and statements about Afghanistan naturally raised concerns about the United States’ reliability and concern for allies. 

Of course, while Australia doesn’t want the United States to plunge into a chasm of introspection and withdrawal from the world as a result of what happened in Afghanistan, Australia doesn’t want it to leap into an unnecessary crisis with China, into which it could well be drawn, either.  The fact is that in a way the US and China each represent the other’s worst fear. For some in the US, China is the hot breath of unwanted, unaccustomed, and unrelenting competition.  For some in China, the US is simply determined to oppose its rise and prevent it from taking its rightful place in the world.

Fortunately, that is not the only tone that China takes in talking about the United States. In a recent telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly offered to have a dialogue with the US looking to a “soft landing” in Afghanistan, which should establish an “open and Inclusive” political framework.  He said that in the face of global challenges and regional issues the US and China should “carry out coordination and cooperation.” On the other hand, Wang has more recently been reported as saying that the US can’t expect China to follow its lead on climate change when bilateral relations in general are so poor. 

Those of course are only words, but they’re certainly to be preferred to the Treaty’s language of “armed attack.”  What is important to Australia, as a middle-sized country of the Asia-Pacific, is for both of these giants to draw in their horns, curb their mutual paranoias, and seek some mutually tolerable accommodation. This would have to include an understanding about Taiwan, and might even include effective cooperation on “common issues” like climate change, pandemics, and terrorism. That doesn’t mean that Australia should turn away from the US alliance, but it does mean that Australia should not give up its right, and duty, to come to its own conclusions on policy, and not so commit itself to enmeshment and interoperability with the US that in effect Australia commit itself to US objectives in advance.  Australian objectives are not always the same and, as recent events have emphasised, US decisions are not always right. 

Geoffrey Miller AO FAIIA is a former Australian diplomat and government official.  Geoffrey is a former national vice president of the AIIA, former president of AIIA NSW, and was appointed as a fellow of the AIIA in 2014.

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