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The Australia-US Alliance in the Trump Era

By Denis Bright

The arrival of President Trump must surely justify a complete reappraisal of Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper. While acknowledging the vital importance of both China and the US in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific Region until 2035, the White Paper comes down with the following dogmatic conclusion:

A strong and deep alliance is at the core of Australia’s security and defence planning. The United States will remain the pre-eminent global military power and will continue to be Australia’s most important strategic partner. Through this Defence White Paper, Australia will seek to broaden and deepen our alliance with the United States, including by supporting its critical role in underpinning security in our region through the continued rebalance of United States military forces.

The stability of the rules-based global order is essential for Australia’s security and prosperity. A rules-based global order means a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules which evolve over time, such as international law and regional security arrangements. This shared commitment has become even more important with growing interconnectivity, which means that events across the world have the potential to affect Australia’s security and prosperity. The Government is committed to making practical and effective military contributions to global security operations to maintain the rules-based order and address shared security challenges where it is in our interest to do so.

Department of Defence Online 2016:15

The architects of the ANZUS Treaty (1951) had no inkling of the possibility that a US presidential demagogue with a majority in both houses of congress might return to the America First Strategies of bygone eras when the US was involved in its own territorial consolidation and industrialization.

After the New Deal Era and the successful conclusion of the Second World War, America First Strategies were no longer needed. The US had become the undisputed global superpower. Softer international diplomacy could prevail at least before the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945.

In 1951, the UN Charter was still a binding commitment for like minded representative democracies in negotiations about future military commitments. Democratic consultation was still the buzz word.

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 III Australian Treaty Series 1951-52).

However, since the Vietnam War Era, the federal LNP conveniently generated the belief in the value of ongoing strategic loyalty to the prevailing US administration. The old caveat of consultation was replaced by the brash All the Way with the USA misinterpretation of the Australia-US Alliance.

These reservations about consultation have largely been forgotten by most national opinion leaders on both sides of politics.

1 The Value of Transparent Consultative Mechanisms

In 1984, Prime Minister Bob Hawke responded to concerns from within the Labor Caucus on the lack of transparent consultation within the ANZUS Treaty.

Former Prime Minister Fraser had made a commitment to President Reagan about the need for involvement by the RAAF to test the accuracy of test firings of Trans Pacific MX Missiles to impact on targets in the Tasman Sea. Did such missile tests foreshadow the recent North Korean efforts at national aggrandisement?

A consultative body known as the Australia United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) first met in Canberra in 1985 to overcome the lack of any transparency in this strategic relationship.

New Zealand had already left the formal ANZUS Alliance over its opposition to visits by nuclear armed ships to its ports.

Former Defence Minister Kim Beazley who attended the first meeting of AUSMIN in 1985 still seeks to continue the old strategic certainties from the 1980s.

The challenge now is how we use that connection to influence American policy in our region where all our friends and allies are deeply disturbed by what they heard from the GOP nominee. Trump’s campaign positions translated into administration policy would result in the suspension of America’s leadership of the post-World War II liberal international project. Originally, the project focused on global free trade, a rules-based system for the global commons, and a comprehensive Western alliance under a system of American extended deterrence. More recently, those priorities have been joined by an effort on nuclear disarmament and a coordinated response to climate change (Kim Beazley in The Strategist Online 18 November 2016).

The Trump style in international relations with its Shakespearean overtones of divine right principles really has no place in the ANZUS Treaty. It has become a political appendage over almost seventy years of mutual commitment.

As the Cold War intensified, Prime Minster Menzies assured Australians that the dangers of a resurgent Japan had now been replaced by the threat of communism at home and in countries like Japan and the Philippines where US troops were stationed (Adelaide Advertiser 3 September 1951 on Trove Online).

2 When Presidential Tweets Replace AUSMIN Communiqués

President Trump’s style of diplomacy overturns the conclusions from the last joint AUSMIN Communiqué.

Noting that 2015 marks the tenth anniversary of the Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, both countries welcomed the dynamism and diversity in the economic relationship, including significant business engagement and substantial two-way investment, which serve to boost productivity, innovation and economic growth.

The United States and Australia reiterated their intent to work together to deepen regional economic integration, and welcomed conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). They agreed to continue working toward bringing TPP into force in order to reduce business costs, and to promote growth, job creation and higher living standards across the region (AUSMIN Online from Boston 13 October 2016)

Australia’s commitment to China’s alternative Indo-Pacific Free Trade Zone simply offers a better and fairer commitment to the AUSMIN Communiqué.

Financial relationships between China and Taiwan are good and there is no reason to prevent Taiwan from becoming a participant.

The architects of ANZUS in 1951 had no inkling that the US would become a threat to Australia’s economic development and financial security.

3 Imposing Presidential Arbitrary Barriers to Australian Trade

In contrast to our commercial relationships with the US, trade with the current ASEAN-10 Bloc generates a hefty surplus on both commodity trade and exchange of services.

The benefits of Asian trade also extend to profitable relationships with China and Hong Kong. These benefits are summarised by Dr James Laurenceson for the SMH Online:

In fact, trade with China generates our largest trade surplus, worth $21.8 billion.

And there’s more, because our third largest surplus is with Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, which is worth another $7.2 billion (SMH Online 30 November 2016).

Dr James Laurenceson adds that the combined trade surpluses with China and Hong Kong for 2015-16 compensate for our trading deficit of $25.4 billion with the US.

Threats of hurting China by new US tariff barriers and the remilitarization of Taiwan are only going to upset the current stability of Australia’s excellent trading performance for December 2016:

Record surplus: Australia posted a record trade surplus of $3,511 million in December, up from the $2,040 million surplus in November.

China trade: Australia’s annual exports to China lifted from $76.2 billion to US$80.2 billion in the year to December- 23-month high and up 6.6 per cent on a year ago.

Economic growth: Commonwealth Bank group economists expect net exports (exports less imports) to contribute 0.8 percentage points to overall economic growth in the December quarter (The Bull.Com.Au 2 February 2016).

The losses from US imposed mercantilism are compounded by President Trump’s threats of a return to militarism in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific Region.

It is unlikely that President Trump himself is even aware that ANZUS was negotiated as an extension of the UN Charter with a commitment to peace in the broader Pacific Region rather than an America First Strategic Exercise.

4 The Costs of the New Militarization to Australia

Long before the election of President Trump most major US Allies in the Indo-Pacific Region were potentially breaching the ideals of ANZUS by ignoring the consequences of increased military spending.

Saudi Arabia’s use of newly imported military technology to take sides in the civil war in Yemen is hardly an extension of the UN Charter.

Australia had become the world’s equal fourth arms importer according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Yet this financial burden of defence spending is enthusiastically endorsed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) with the support of its corporate donors, some with the credentials of membership of the global military industrial complexes.

Journalist Paul Dibb endorses this commitment from the ASPI:

The Turnbull government’s defence white paper is more financially robust than any of its predecessors.

For the first time, we have a 10-year financial commitment of almost $450 billion that, if it is followed through, will deliver an Australian Defence Force that’s potent for its size.

(Paul Dibb in The Australian 11 March 2016)

Labor veteran Kim Beazley now favours appeasement with the new US Administration. This is a recipe for more costly commitments to global military industrial complexes which could precipitate a new century of international tensions across the Indo-Pacific Region.

There are more sustainable alternatives which are embedded in commitment to the UN Charter First and military action as a very last resort.

Do North Korea’s recent missile tests invite a military response and commitment to regime change?

5 The Challenges Posed by North Korea’s Missile Tests

Previous underground nuclear tests and a recent missile launches in North Korea pose a real challenge to the countries of the Indo-Pacific Region along with the nuclear threats to peace from India, Pakistan and Israel.

The new US Administration has already responded with urgent consultations with North Korea through the Security Council to prepare for more sanctions with the support of Russia and China.

The tensions on the Korean Peninsula are not just from North Korea.

According to NTI, South Korea tested a longer-range ballistic missile in mid-2015 which can hit all parts of North Korea.

South Korea has made progress towards the development of its own weapons of mass destruction.

South Korea first became interested in nuclear technology in the 1950s, but did not begin construction of its first power reactor until 1970. South Korea currently has 24 civilian nuclear power reactors in use and four under construction. Changes in the international security environment influenced South Korea’s decision to begin a nuclear weapons program in the early 1970s. Under significant pressure from the United States, however, Seoul abandoned this program and signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in April 1975 before it had produced any fissile material. Seoul is a state party to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Zangger Committee (Nuclear Threat Initiative [NTI] Online 2017).

Diplomatic progress has been made in the past to bring the Korean Peninsula back from the brink of continuing conflict:

In November 1991, President Roh Tae-woo declared that South Korea would not “manufacture, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons.” Two months later, North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In this agreement, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed not “to test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons,” and not to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” However, both sides failed to implement the agreement’s provisions relating to a bilateral inspection regime.

Although North Korea has clearly violated the Joint Declaration, particularly in light of its three nuclear weapons tests (in 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016), South Korea never officially renounced its obligations under the declaration, and has called on the North to abide by the agreement. Seoul has been a participant in the Six-Party Talks since their inception in 2003, which are aimed at ending the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula (NTI Online 2017).

In the short-term, the US is proceeding with the installation of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems in South Korea which would be operated by US forces to complement shorter range Patriot missiles.

Australia supports both Security Council and US strategic responses to the North Korean provocations. The Russian foreign ministry described the launch as a “another defiant disregard” for UN security council resolutions, and a cause for “regret and concern” (The Guardian Online 13 February 2017).

These strategic responses still falls short of measures to seek a more permanent and peaceful resolution of the political tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

China is particularly willing to become part of the solution.

Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said: “All sides should exercise restraint and jointly maintain regional peace and security.” He told reporters in Beijing that China would take part in UN security talks expected later on Monday with a “responsible and constructive attitude”.

But the Chinese Communist party newspaper said US demands for Beijing to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear and missile programmes were pointless, unless Washington examined its own role in fomenting current tensions.

The Global Times said North Korea had been angered by the “very real” military threat from the US and its allies, and the imposition of tough UN sanctions. The editorial, published on Monday, said by insisting that China take action, the US and other countries were ignoring the “root cause” of Pyongyang’s provocative behaviour (The Guardian Online 14 February 2017).

Signs of instability in President Trump’s accountability were being played out when Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau visited the White House. President Trump’s national security Michael Flynn just tendered his resignation (ABC News Online 14 February 2016).

Details of the resignation of Michael Flynn were apparently deferred so that favourable media coverage of Canadian leader’s visit to Washington would not be interrupted. Emphasis in some media coverage focused on speculation about the significance of the differing handshaking styles rather than matters of real substance (CNBC 14 February 2017).

In the real world of geopolitics, both Australia and Canada have the capacity to assist in generating some real solutions to seventy years of strategic road blocks on the Korean Peninsula.

Inviting Russia and China as key trading and strategic partners with North Korea should be a crucial alternative to any return to Cold War Diplomacy in this sensitive region. Michael Flynn had breached diplomatic protocols by being too enthusiastic about phone calls to the Russian Ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak during the period prior to inauguration day (Sputnik Online 14 February 2017).

Threats to global peace by selective remilitarization of both Japan and South Korea should also be a stackable offence irrespective of whether it is before or after 20 January 2017.

This is letting down the spirit of the ANZUS Treaty which attracted bipartisan support from Dr Evatt as Opposition Leader in 1951.


Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in promoting discussion about progressive pragmatic public policies compatible with contemporary globalization.


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  1. John Kelly

    An extraordinarily detailed analysis of what may become one of Australia’s greatest geopolitical challenges.

  2. Jasper

    Thanks Denis! A very interesting analysis. This is a serious issue that cannot be ignored for th sake of national sovereignty.

  3. wam

    This is an area where i prefer to believe my dad’s mistrust of menzies and the septics.-

    ANZUS was signed in the middle of the korean war and was hot/cold war propaganda that had no compulsion for the septics to join us and all compulsion for us to join them. If that is the substance and trade is a consideration, who gives a rat’s about the spirit?

  4. John Kelly

    Interestingly, ANZUS has never been activated. I doubt it ever will.

  5. Shona

    The nonsense of waiting for the US to decide foreign policy must stop. It’s time for new policy makers to take charge.

  6. Leila smith

    Interesting & timely article Denis.
    The alliance is important to both countries, perhaps more so to the United States at this time in our history
    The U S is very dependent on our position in the region for bases & troop placement.
    Australia needs to maintain the alliance but also our independence

  7. Maria

    Denis, thanks for your well-written article on the geo-political situation in the Asia-Pacific and implications for ANZUS and the US alliance.

  8. Rubio@Coast

    Thanks for this timely article, Denis. Labor should be more critical of what’s happening with the Alliance under Trump. It places Australia at odds with China as we urge nearby countries to join our strategic crusades.

  9. Irish Neutrality

    The antics of Trump makes Irish neutrality more sensible. Already the US Secretary of State is demanding more spending on defence from Europe. Australia’s turn will be next.

  10. Pat

    Come on Aussies, be more independent and reach out to Asia to protect our future

  11. Paul

    Excellent article Denis! Thanks for sharing.

    It’s really important for Australia to get the balance right between being supportive to the US whilst also maintaining our sovereignty, common sense and good neighbour principles.

    Trump must be challenged – we cannot go along with whatever he demands Australia to do.

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