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ANZUS: A buyer's market for Australia

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COMMENTS

6 July 2012 13:40

Andrew O'Neil's post on Australian anxieties about ANZUS abandonment reminds me of a conversation I had recently in which a colleague framed ANZUS as a 'buyer's market' in which Australia is the buyer. It's an observation worth exploring. All alliances evolve, and as Geoffrey Barker highlights, ANZUS has evolved too. So how has the balance of the relationship shifted this time? 

The pivot to Asia means that Australian political support for the US in international security forums is arguably less important. If the US wants to build consensus or coalitions on security issues relevant to Asia or otherwise, there are plenty of capitals it can call on for support. Lending a voice to an international political fight is one of the most cost effective ways European leaders could support the US right now. Australian support, while nice to have, is not essential to the US in the way it was on issues like Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Asia, political support from the swing states — regional middle or third tier powers such as Vietnam and the Philippines — arguably does more to shift political dynamics than an Australian expression of support. Australian support for US regional strategy is a given in Beijing and other regional capitals. Hence, deploying the Australian foreign minister in support of shared regional political objectives is less important now than it has been previously to the ANZUS alliance.

The Australian assets increasingly important to the US are real estate and military support.

Of the latter, it is mostly hard rather than soft power that is in demand. Because it has few alternatives elsewhere in Asia, the US has requested maintenance and logistical support in Fremantle and might one day want access to Cocos Island. There are few other neighbouring militaries or intelligence communities with the enhanced US interoperability, the regional relationships, and the political latitude to be employed widely in support of shared strategic objectives. As had been much discussed this week, our special forces units are in constant US demand, and other than New Zealand, there are few regional substitutes.

Additionally, Australia holds a greater emotional pull for Americans than other regional countries. A reasonable chunk of Americans I've met recently still somewhat strangely see Australians as a nostalgic, more liberated version of themselves; we are what Americans could be like if not encumbered by political correctness and globalisation gone mad. Without going into the socio-political analysis necessary to explain why these views are wrong, US goodwill towards Australians (which peaked somewhere at the end of the last decade) seems unlikely to subside.

Australia may never be in a stronger position to pursue its interest within the bounds of an alliance of shared security values. Though I'm not yet convinced it is the best strategic outcome, if Australia wanted to push hard for the leasing of US nuclear submarines, there is unlikely to be a better time than now to do it. Yet recent developments in ANZUS engagement seem to have been very much US-led and Australian endorsed. Perhaps we're not articulating what is possible in the alliance, right at the time that we have the best chance of seeing our national interests met.

Photo by Flickr user Simon Greig.

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