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Beazley: US gets more from alliance

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26 October 2009 09:46

Consider this striking proposition: the balance of advantage in the US-Australia alliance 'has shifted to the Americans'.

The view is that of Australia's next ambassador to Washington, Kim Beazley. Note, he is not saying it is shifting towards the US but 'has shifted'. To put it bluntly, Beazley is arguing that the US now gets more out of the alliance than Australia. This is a big departure from how Australia has usually thought about ANZUS since the alliance came into formal effect in 1952.

Coming from someone as rusted-on to the alliance as Beazley it amounts to quite a call. Certainly, it is an interesting (provocative, courageous) starting point in Washington for the new ambassador to argue that Australia is doing more of the lifting than the US. 

The Beazley assertion is in the article he contributed to the supplement on Defence published in last weekend's Australian (which isn't online at time of writing). The former Labor leader and Defence Minister starts the piece by concentrating on what Rudd and Obama can do together. So far, so ambassadorial.

Then Beazley goes on to do one of the things he does best: think deeply and pointedly about the alliance. He posits 'a subtle change in power relations in the Australian-American alliance' as it has evolved since the end of the Cold War. When he gets to the point, though, it isn't that subtle a change. Here's the key passage:

Our collaboration is much deeper, but it needs to be. In an era where regional capabilities are advancing and peer powers to the US are emerging, what was important before is now critical. We make a key contribution to American capacity in our region, particularly in intelligence and through our effective diplomacy. However, the balance of advantage in the alliance has shifted to the Americans. Likewise, the American focus is away from our region, though its interests in it are substantial. Getting this point across to them, particularly while pursuing our own views on regional architecture, is a challenge.

How will Australia use the claim that it carrying more than just an equal share of the alliance burden? The Beazley thought process takes him immediately to Afghanistan, 'where we are the biggest contributor outside NATO in an area well outside our strategic sphere of interest…meeting our ally's concerns as well as our own.' These points are offered in support of the Rudd Government having 'ruled a line' under any extra commitment to Afghanistan.

Rehearsing what will be a tough case to win in Washington, Beazley finishes with a checklist of what Australia brings to the alliance, presumably shifting 'the balance of advantage' to the US side of the ledger:

  • The joint facilities in Australia.
  • Australia's 'enormous' contribution to the mutual intelligence effort in the region.
  • Australia's role in the 'relatively good' counter-terrorist outcomes in Southeast Asia.
  • Australia's 'useful' capacity in the South Pacific.
  • The Australian Defence Force is among the most interoperable with the US.
  • Australia has shown 'substantial' willingness to spend on the ADF.
  • Australia has a diplomatic and policy profile in the Asia Pacific.

Having set down the list, Beazley concludes: 'We have something to trade'. Or, at the very least, something to argue in Washington. And perhaps an argument he might lose.

The US wouldn't have to spend very long drawing up an equally impressive list showing how it puts more into the alliance pot than its smaller ally. What price extended nuclear deterrence, the 7th Fleet, and the investment in hardware and software that makes Pine Gap? Oh, and no matter what price Australia pays for the Joint Strike Fighter, it will still be only a fraction of its true development cost.

There is one other point in support of the Beazley case that the ambassador doesn't touch on (at least in public). The Rudd Government is going along with the US military hedging strategy against China. This is a classic example of Australia embracing the alliance at the expense of other options. The China case is close to Beazley's best card for claiming that the alliance balance of advantage is shifting to America. No wonder he keeps it close to his chest.

Photo by flickr user Tim Riley, used under a Creative Commons license.

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