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Abbott, ANZUS, and the dilemna of the mid-sized super power ally

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Pop Quiz:

Has the ANZUS treaty ever been invoked and if so when, and by whom?

Answer: Yes. In 2001 by John Howard immediately following 9/11.

Howard who was visiting the US at the time, rushed back to Australia, and framed standing in front of the Australian flag, assured both the Australian electorate and the US population that the ant would rush to the aid of the elephant.

“I can’t think of a time in our shared history where we have been so close” he declared, a sentiment echoed by then US Assistant Secretary for Defence, Richard Armitage, who assured the government that, “Australia and the United States couldn’t be tighter, we’re joined at the hip.”

Whilst Howard was the first Australian prime minister to ever invoke the treaty, his response was typical of a nation with a long history of the fear of invasion.

Since colonization, Australia has in succession feared the French, the Russians, the Japanese, Chinese communists, Malaysian communists and Vietnamese communists.

The fear fueled the reliance on great powers such as Britain until the end of WWII, and then shifted to the United States; ‘our great and powerful friend’ as Menzies put it.

The alliance has been held in such high esteem by successive Australian governments that its response to requests by the US of military commitment to Vietnam in 1965 and the first Gulf War in 1990, were so rapid as to elicit debate about the extent to which the request was actively solicited before it was received.

In return for its willingness to commit troops to aid the US in its conflicts abroad, Australia has regarded itself as the recipient of an ‘insurance policy’ through which the fears of attack or invasion could be alleviated by the securing of a ‘great power’ guarantee of protection.

However, as critics such as Max Teichmann in 1966 (Australia; Armed and Neutral?)  and more recently Malcolm Fraser, have pointed out, the US has no direct obligation to come to Australia’s aid in time of military attack and from a realist perspective, great powers act accordingly to their perceived interests from a global perspective.

Whether a great power will meet its obligations of its treaties is always dependent on the the calculus of interest at the time.

Howard’s declaration marked another cycle of dependence by Australia on US approval in the formulation of Australian regional strategic policy and brought it full circle to that of the early years of the Cold War.

If Richard Armitage could claim that the US and Australia were joined at the hip, then the Gillard and Abbott government have cemented relations to shoulder and thigh as well.

In its ongoing fear of ‘abandonment’ by its super power ally, Canberra has allowed itself to once more become ‘entrapped’ in US foreign policy making and as Teichmann and Fraser point out, allow Australia to become involved in a war not of our own choosing.

It should be remembered that the same level of dependency on the US for directions during the Holt era produced a moribund policy platform for the Gorton and McMahon governments which continued to support US involvement in Vietnam despite changing international opinion and also failed to recognize Nixon’s intentions toward China.

The Abbott government’s agreement to allow Australia to become a ‘pivot’ in Washingon’s plans to confront China are reminiscent of Harold Holt’s ‘all the way with LBJ’ stance during the Vietnam conflict, and similarly to Holt, Abbott is running the very real risk of losing any flexibility in its future policy making decisions.

Abbott’s decision appears to be based on the hubris that Pax Americana will be ongoing and unshakeable in Asia for the remainder of the 21st. century a view supported by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, who stated that  that over the coming decades the United States ‘will remain the single most powerful state in the world.’

As the line from the song goes however, ‘it ain’t necessarily so’, and both Abbott and Bishop’s views fail to take into account the rise of not only China but also of Indonesia.

In it’s first six months in office, the Abbott government has displayed an attitude to both nations that maybe best described as aloof.

We’re happy to do business with you but otherwise keep your distance.

This outlook does not bode well for Australia and its role in the Asian Pacific region in the future. China could very easily suspend Free Trade Agreement talks as could Indonesia, leaving Australia isolated in the region.

The Abbott government should also remember that the abandonment or entrapment scenario inherent in alliances between mid-sized powers and their more powerful allies works both ways.

If for example, Australia should should find itself in tensions with Indonesia which flare into conflict, Washington may decide that it is not in its best interest to intervene and abandon Australia to its fate.

Should the reader feel that the above statement is fanciful, then they should familiarize themselves with the history of the alliance between the US and Taiwan during the first decades of the Cold War, when Taiwan’s ‘hip, shoulder and thigh’ dependency on the US raised the fear in Washington that the United States could become entrapped in a war with China on behalf of Taiwan.

As a footnote, Washington’s fears at the time were well founded.

Because geography makes Australia neighbours with Asia, the intelligent approach to foreign policy especially those related to defence, should rest on diplomacy and multi-lateral agreements.

In this manner Australia can play a significant role as an agent for stability as a non-aligned middle power which can make positive contributions to security, trade, economic cooperation and global security.

Any other approach, particularly one of entrapment in a alliance with a super power that can, and if necessary will ignore the ANZUS treaty should it threaten its own interests – is folly.


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  2. Kaye Lee

    “In it’s first six months in office, the Abbott government has displayed an attitude to both nations that maybe best described as aloof.”

    I don’t think we can call it aloof. We have actively gone about pissing them off.

    – We don’t need Indonesia’s permission to turn back boats
    – We invaded their sovereign waters…accidentally…lots of times.
    – We aren’t sorry for spying on the President’s wife
    – We called in the Chinese Ambassador to castigate him for China’s no fly zone over the disputed islands
    – We keep saying Japan is our best friend and talking about defence collaboration with them

  3. edward eastwood

    I was trying to keep it ‘nice’ on a Sunday afternoon Kaye Lee, but yes you are right, we have gone about pissing them off and it will boomerang in the future.

  4. mark delmege

    I tend to agree with your conclusion, But a few points on the text if you don’t mind.

    So much of what passes as ‘common knowledge’ is based on falsehoods. We could all list a dozen if we thought about it long enough. I’ll name two and I suspect most here will think I’m off with the fairies but such is the power of group think….
    Like WMD’s and Iraq – false flags and false narratives shape much of how most people view the world.
    The opener here began with 911. Most people I have discussed this with begin to question the official line – once they understand that a third building – the 47 story Building 7 at the World Trade Center was also demolished in New York that day. All three falling impossibly and perfectly into their own footprint – like magic. And then there are the professional bodies such as Architects & Engineers , Pilots , Intelligence and Military and even Firefighters who though their own professional organisations strive to highlight the truth of what really happened.
    Though not a temporary ‘art installation’ this evocative, transformational event has permanently changed the lives of millions of people in dozen of countries. Today it is still virtually Verboten to discuss the details anywhere seriously in the MSM or even in polite company.

    Similarly I don’t take seriously the(official line) hoopla surrounding Obama’s alleged pivot to Asia that has been so roundly accepted by both the Gillard and Abbott governments and a non questioning media.

    I’m sure I have said it here (AIM) before – US marines training in Darwin are more likely to serve time and fight wars in Africa than anywhere in the Asia Pacific region. But creating that racist bogy of China is far more media savvy than alerting the world to the new colonial conquest now underway for control of African resources and markets. It’s much easier to sell a potential threat to the public than an aggressive criminal smash and grab operation.

  5. john o'callaghan

    It took the Americans till 1917 to enter world war 1,they didn’t enter world war 2 till they were attacked by the Japanese in 1941,and these were both major world wars,so anybody who thinks they will rush to our aid in an asian conflict will be sadly dissapointed.

  6. mark delmege

    You know don’t you that Pearl Harbor was no surprise – In fact it was just what they wanted (and planned for) to galvanise public support to enter the war. No surprise at all – it was the whole point of the blockade of Japan prior.

  7. mars08

    …a view supported by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, who stated that that over the coming decades the United States ‘will remain the single most powerful state in the world.’

    What does that even MEAN? The state with the biggest bestest guns? The state most likely to use violence to get what it wants? The state with the most influence? The state best qualified to mediate solutions? The state best equipped to buy international support? The state with the greatest flexibility to achieve it’s goals? The state that inspires the people of the world and leads by example?

    I suspect that Julie is just impressed by America’s capacity and willingness to blow stuff up….

  8. paul walter

    I wonder at whether the US relationship with Australia has not actually turned toward some sort of extortion racket, given the history of defence procurements over recent times.

    I wonder at the obsequiousness of Lib Lab toward the US, most recently demonstrated in the confirmation that Australia would still commit to purchase of the joint strike lemon, despite all of the history of the last decade. Is it graft, black mail or what, involved in this?

    The US has better aircraft it could sell Australia but so values us that it wouldn’t sell a genuine aircraft to us.

  9. Edward Eastwood

    That’s not a bad summation Paul Walter, over the decades what was a treaty that stated both partners agreed to ‘consult’ each other in times of crisis (see attached link for full text of ANZUS treaty), has gradually morphed into a ‘pressure’ agreement.

    I don’t know if I’d go so far to call it extortion – but in truth, it’s not far far from it.

    Much of this pressure has been allowed to build by successive Australian governments, especially the Holt governement and carried through to Gorton and McMahon.

    In order to justify Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, the myth of the US rushing to Australia’s aid during WWII was propagated and built upon, until the myth became accepted as fact.

    The real fact was that after being kicked out of the Philippines, MacArthur had nowhere to go and Australia was the nearest land based air craft carrier from which the US could plan a counter attack.

    The US aid to Australia in WWII was pragmatic and not altruistic, but this is not to say that Curtin didn’t welcome the help.

  10. Edward Eastwood

    Heath; I be more than happy. You can e-mail me through The Mugwump Post.

  11. chris

    John Howard did invoke the ANZUS Treaty in 2001 after and because of the 9/11 events. I doubt however that he had the legal authority to do so? See artocles III to V from The Treaty below:

    Article III

    The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific.

    Article IV

    Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.

    Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

    Article V

    For the purpose of Article IV, an armed attack on any of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of any of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.

  12. John Armour

    One thing Keating did get right:

    “We must find our security within Asia, not from Asia”

  13. Edward Eastwood

    You’re right John, it was one of the few things that Keating did get right.

    Unfortunately, the days of multilateralism and middle power diplomacy are long gone and so is the intellect and far sighted policies of Gareth Evans.

    On taking office for his first term, Howard almost immediately reverted to bi-lateralism relations and placed the US at the head of the queue.
    As for Minister for Foreign Affairs, starting with Alexander ‘Wotta’ Downer, Australian foreign policy could be unarguably summed up as in a steady decline as far as Asia goes

  14. mark delmege

    Gareth Gareth was/is a proponent for so called ‘humanitarian intervention’ he was probably one supporting the US/Nato/Al Qaeda destruction of Libya. A criminal act if ever there was one – backed all the way by the ABC and al Jazeera. Sadly Labor hasn’t produces any honourable leaders on the international scene since Whitlams time.

  15. mark delmege

    Exactly the same crimes that are being committed today in Syria and for that matter Iraq – And exactly the same lies by all the same players.

  16. Strobe Driver

    I think this is a very good piece of analysis and I would only add that Armitage said in the late-1990s (this is not word for word though a simple Google will get the exact wording) that if the Americans went to war with the Chinese over Taiwan and Australia didn’t immediately become involved then that would be the end of the ANZUS treaty. I believe Australians should not underestimate the utter contempt Americans have for Australia unless we ‘tow’ the American line, and with the rise of China this will come to the fore very soon. I too, have written about this issue on my blog geostrategicorbit. The above however is a very succinct and straightforward article.

  17. mark delmege

    But why would they go to war ? there is probably a many hundred billion ‘dollar’ two way trade and investment.

  18. Edward Eastwood

    Thank you Strobe Driver, I’ve enjoyed your recent pieces on foreign policy and Asia as well. By the way, I think that’s ‘toe the line’ and not ‘tow the line’.


  19. Edward Eastwood

    mark delmege; In a word – resources! Nations go war over resources. In this case, the US sees China as a threat to both its future resources and influence in the Asia – Pacific region, while the US sees China as a threat to its current resources and influence.

  20. mark delmege

    Yes I agree 100% with you on that EE and in the case of Syria because it is a bollard in the way of attacking Iran just like Ukraine was a bollard in the way of attacking Russia (knock them over and the next phase starts)- but really my comment was on why China and Taiwan would go to war.

  21. mark delmege

    And of course reducing Syria and Iraq to rubble also serves the considerable interests of the Zionists and Israel for further colonial expansion – which should never be underestimated.

  22. Edward Eastwood

    mark delmege; “Why would China and Taiwan go to war?” I’ll try and encapsulate this as briefly as possible Mark.

    When Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) fled the mainland for Taiwan following his defeat in the Chinese civil war, Jiang declared that his government the Guomindang – or Nationalists were the legitimate government of China.

    The US backed his claim in the UN and continued to provide Jiang with arms from 1949 onwards and still provide Taiwan with military hardware.

    During the 1950s tensions across the Straits of Taiwan often flared and during the Quemoy Crisis teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

    When Washington officially recognised the PRC in 1979 it was on the strict proviso that they no longer recognise Taiwan and break all diplomatic ties

    Australia was also beholden to the same conditions although Whitlam had recognized China in 1972.

    Under successive Guomindang governments, Taiwan regularly threatened to declare independence after abandoning claims to represent ‘the true China’ in 1991.

    Beijing insisted that Taiwan was a renegade state and took a hard line on ‘reunification’ resulting in the Straits missile crisis in 1995-96.

    Following the defeat of the Guomindang by Chen shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan’s claims to independence became much louder and the tensions between Beijing and Taipei was considered the major flashpoint for conflict between the two,
    especially after the US insisted on providing Taiwan with the Aegis missile system.

    Ironically, Chen was swept from government by a revitalized Guomindang which ran on the platform of ‘reunification’ with the mainland.

    Since then, Beijing and Taiwan seem to have settled their differences and appear to be working toward the status of Taiwan as an ‘Autonomous State’ much in the same way as Hong Kong.

    But unlike Hong Kong where Beijing rules quietly behind the scenes, Taiwan still receives tacit support from the US and this continues to be a thorn in the side of the PRC and in the future may still become a source of conflict between the two.

  23. mark delmege

    Yes indeed, EE, I understand these points, I think, as well as we can.

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