'Uncertain outlook strengthens alliance ties between us and US'

This edited extract from James Curran's Lowy Institute Paper Fighting with America first appeared in The Australian on 3 December 2016.

  • James Curran

This edited extract from James Curran's Lowy Institute Paper Fighting with America first appeared in The Australian on 3 December 2016.

  • James Curran

Fifty years ago, Australia witnessed the first visit to its shores by a US president. Lyndon Baines Johnson spent nearly four days in the country as part of a swing through the region on his way to the Manila Summit Conference, a meeting called to demonstrate the unity of America’s Asian allies in the midst of the Vietnam war.

The commitment of 8000 Australian troops to that conflict gave the US-Australia alliance new meaning. It sanctified the relationship at the height of the Cold War, elevated the president-prime minister relationship to an almost mystical level, and established a set of alliance rites and rituals such as lavish welcomes on the South Lawn and lofty toasts at White House dinners.

At the time, Johnson’s visit symbolised for many on both sides of the Pacific not only the high point of the relationship but the dawn of a new era in US-Australian co-operation in Asia.

On the morning of the president’s arrival in Australia, The Sydney Morning Heralddiscerned the “first faint outline of a ‘special relationship’ between Australia and the United States in the Pacific which may come to parallel the former special relationship between the United States and Britain in Europe”. These were heady times, and the rhetoric soared. But it was also a time of profound anxiety for both countries.

Australians and Americans were fighting in South Vietnam to contain what they saw as the expansionist ambitions of communist China. All the fears that Australian policymakers had held about Beijing’s intentions since the coming of the Cold War seemed to be coming true. After all, it was fear of China, along with concern over a rearmed Japan and potential Indonesian instability, that underpinned the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951.

From the time of the Korean war, the perception of China as the embodiment of militant and subversive communism had become the strongest strategic bond between Washington and Canberra. It underwrote the rationale for mutual defence relations. In federal election campaigns, luminous red arrows were being fired from the Chinese mainland towards Australia.

In October 1966 there was every reason for Johnson’s presence in Australia to be seen as the ultimate reassurance for a nervous nation. There was also tough talk. When Johnson privately addressed cabinet ministers, he stressed that he “had not come to Australia to ask for a man or a dollar”. But his listeners around the table would not have missed his subsequent statement, that “if the United States were to pull out of Vietnam tomorrow, other countries of Southeast Asia would quickly fall. And the aggressor would get to Australia long before he got to San Francisco.”

Only days after his departure, the US ambassador to Australia, Ed Clark, told the president that “the air in Australia is still charged” following his visit, and he was convinced that Johnson’s presence would “have a tremendous lasting effect on Australia’s thinking, on its economy, the policy in terms of Asia and elsewhere, and of course in US-Australian relations”. In early 1967, the US embassy in Canberra viewed Australia’s rock-solid support for US policy in Vietnam as evidence of “a bi-national US-Australian foreign policy in Asia” and a “reaffirmed and nearly total commitment to the alliance”.

This was surely the strongest that relations between the two countries had been. That moment and that era continue to exercise a powerful emotional hold over the way in which Australians think about the US alliance. What is less remembered, though, is that the glow from the visit did not endure for as long as ambassador Clark might have hoped.

Within a few short years, the triumphant rhetoric of the presidential tour was replaced by a considerable degree of private acrimony and bitterness in the relationship. Governments in Canberra chafed against successive administrations’ failure to consult them on matters considered vital to Australia’s national interests in Asia: military withdrawals from Vietnam, the future of US policy in the region and Richard Nixon’s bold move to bring China in from the international cold.

While the alliance was never fractured, there was nevertheless a consensus across the political divide from the early 1970s that with the virtual end of the Cold War in East Asia, Australia would from time to time need to practise a greater degree of self-reliance in its relationship with the US. Indeed, by this time both sides of politics were sensitive to the stigma associated with being seen as too pro-American. These episodes underline that the Australia-US alliance has never been fixed in stone, yet no one can question its endurance under many different governments and through many different circumstances. Few could seriously quibble with the fact it remains an effective deterrent to any power considering hostile action towards Australia, and that in recent years, as the American strategic gaze has again shifted to Asia, Australia has probably become much more important to the US than in the past.

The benefits the alliance provides — especially in intelligence sharing and access to military technology and defence capability — continue to be substantial. The simple truth is that Australian security would be a great deal costlier without the American con­nection, and it is in the national interest to continue to support the US contribution to global security.

Nevertheless, Lord Palmerston’s dictum that “neither friends nor enemies are permanent nor eternal” remains an essential truth about international relations worthy of continual reflection.

The Australia-US relationship chang­es as regional and global circumstances change. Understanding this dynamic is the key to better embracing the challenges posed by the most complex and fluid strategic culture that Australians have faced since the end of the 60s. Donald Trump’s election as president serves only to reinforce the need for Australia to look afresh at its relationship with the US. Uncertainty about China’s rise is driving the US and Australia closer together — even closer, perhaps, than at the time of the Vietnam war. As Beijing seeks greater strategic space in the region, the tendency has been to see Asia’s future in zero-sum terms: that as Chinese power rises, so American power in Asia must accordingly wane. It is not inevitable, however, that as China grows the US will have to withdraw from the region: the sustainability of America’s presence in Asia is too often dismissed. But China’s strategic muscle is certainly testing US primacy in the region like never before.

For Australia, the equation is somewhat different. This is not the same China that fed Australia’s strategic anxiety in the 60s. It is the China that has underwritten Australia’s economic prosperity for much of this century, the China whose appetite for Australian commodities enabled the Australian government to steer a much smoother path through the global financial crisis. And it is the China that is so integrated into the East Asian economies that it cannot afford to put coercion of its neighbours above the imperative of domestic economic growth and Communist Party survival.

Still, it cannot be said that there is a consensus among US allies in Asia as to how to respond to the Chinese behemoth, especially as it engages in deliberate provocations in the South China Sea. Beijing’s progressive militarisation of these contested territories has only strengthened the US regional alliance system.

But even as these allies cleave more tightly to Washington’s embrace, they express doubts over America’s staying power. China’s maritime activities, along with its growing military arsenal, trigger certain anxieties in the Australian strategic mind. Former prime minister Tony Abbott’s private remarks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel concerning the motivation of Australian China policy — that it was driven by “fear and greed” — might have lacked the finesse of a formal diplomatic brief but they nevertheless revealed the brutally realist calculations driving some policymakers’ approach to Beijing. One factor, however, has been clear for some time. If tensions between Washington and Beijing increase, the practice of Australia’s diplomacy becomes that much harder. The US under Trump’s leadership will be looking for a much greater contribution to regional security from its alliance partners in Asia.

Expectations will rise from Washington and, accordingly, so will the pressure on Australia to do more: to take stands and muscle up. But there may also be times when Canberra looks to Washington to do more, especially if isolationist sentiment in the US strengthens.

There will be, as there has already been, disagreements over tactics and strategy, such as how to respond to Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, or how — with China’s creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — to deal with Beijing’s growing appetite for greater institutional heft in the region.

All of this is a natural result of an alliance that will be much more preoccupied with a part of the world where Australian and American interests coincide but also, at times, clash. In the recent past Australia found itself mainly fighting alongside the US in the Middle East, where Australia has few if any core interests and where it has generally been happy to follow the US lead.

But in Asia, where this nation’s core interests and perspectives are more sharply focused, Australia is likelier to find itself fighting alongside America and occasionally fighting — or at least arguing — with it.

Acknowledging this probability is critical to the long-term health of the alliance. It is more important than ever, therefore, to revisit one of the more abiding themes in Australia’s outlook on the world: namely, how it manages its relationship with the US.

As Michael L’Estrange, former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has remarked, “While the alliance is certainly familiar in the context of both its history and its current priorities, it is also new again — with new horizons, new contexts and new challenges.”

Trump undoubtedly adds a more uncertain dimension to this calculus: unpredictability about the future trajectory of US policy.

More than a decade of polling by the Lowy Institute on public attitudes towards the alliance has seen the occasional dip caused by reservations about particular incumbent or prospective US presidents, but support has generally been strong and consistent. This perhaps explains why the two major political parties not only compete with each other in their attachment to the relationship but why the rhetoric is being carried through into Australian policy.

So all-encompassing has the relationship become that historian Peter Edwards wrote with every justification in 2005 that the US alliance had evolved into a “political institution in its own right, comparable with a political party or the monarchy”.

But the present deepening diplomatic, defence and economic ties between Washington and Canberra do not sufficiently account for the emergence of what may be termed a new golden age in the alliance. Rather, it should be seen as part of a broader cultural shift in Australian national life since the mid-90s, and especially since 9/11.

Before that time, the governments of Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were virtually as one in committing themselves to the goal of comprehensive engagement with Asia. While ANZUS remained the central security arrangement for the nation in those years, these leaders did not attempt to give the alliance a more substantial content.

Alongside the transformation of the Australian economy, each in his own way was also engaged in a renovation of the nation’s political orientation, championing multiculturalism, reconciliation with indigenous Australia and, in the case of Keating, attempting to usher in an Australian republic.

To understand this transition there is a need to look beyond the myths that have come to envelop how historians and commentators write about the Australia-US alliance — in the past and today.

This edited extract from Fighting with America, Why Saying No to the US Wouldn’t Rupture the Alliance by James Curran, a new Lowy Institute Paper published by Penguin Random House, $9.99, out Thursday.