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WHY THE AMERICAN ALLIANCE IS IMPORTANT
An article almost identical to this was published in The Age on November 29th, 2000.
In the lead up to the Defence White Paper, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has asserted in his Dunlop Asialink lecture that our alliance with the USA through ANZUS is not only of little value but positively dangerous. Yet the arguments he advances are unconvincing.
True, any action taken by the US in some future crisis will not necessarily coincide with our wishes – no ally can bind itself unconditionally into the future. Indeed, even friends have the odd fall-out from time to time. But ensuring that Australia survives is in the national interest of the US not simply because of the ANZUS alliance or our long-standing friendship. A failure by the US to support Australia would cause obvious concern for its other alliance partners.
Incidentally, contrary to Mr Fraser’s argument, the obligations under ANZUS are basically similar to those under the North Atlantic Treaty. In each case the trigger is an armed attack on any party and the obligation is to act to “meet the common danger” (ANZUS) or “restore and maintain security” (NAT).
With East Timor, the ANZUS obligation was not formally in point because Australia was not under armed attack. Despite this, to suggest that the US was “remote and appeared to be standing back” reveals a failure to understand the crucial help it provided both militarily and politically.
Militarily, the US provided communications and intelligence assets, helicopter mobility, and strategic lift for many of our fellow participants. They were of high military value in themselves and the accompanying US servicemen were an important display of US interest in the success of the operation. With the knowledge of further, over-the-horizon, support if required, this greatly reduced the risks of interference from the 35,000 Indonesian soldiers in East Timor when we first arrived.
But the US also provided crucial political help, notably through Defense Secretary Cohen’s special visit to Jakarta and US assistance in persuading Indonesia to accept an international force. It also encouraged others to participate in the force and helped obtain solid Security Council authority for it.
In short, far from illustrating that ANZUS is of little value, East Timor was a splendid example of the opposite! It is unlikely we could have undertaken the venture without the US support.
Mr Fraser also notes that the US intelligence received under ANZUS is “not completely an open book”. But whatever it is that we don’t get (which we’ll never know), what we do get is vastly greater in scope and value than we could hope to obtain on our own. That includes much raw intelligence that adds to our own.
And what of the argument that ANZUS is positively dangerous to us because of Pine Gap and the potential for Chinese “revenge” against any support provided in a US- China dispute over Taiwan?
Australia knew that Pine Gap was high on the Soviet target-list during the Cold War. We rightly accepted that as part of our contribution to the Western defence effort. If China were to adopt it as a “first-rate target” as part of a US national missile defence system, should we take a different attitude today? A US protected by an anti-missile defence system would surely be even more of a deterrent against Chinese action against either the US or a US ally.
As to the consequences of a US-China dispute over Taiwan, China must know that it could not win a war with the US over the issue and neither Taiwan nor the US has an interest in provoking it. Moreover, even if war were unimaginably to break out through US or Taiwanese foolishness – indeed perversity – could that only be won by the US deploying a long-range nuclear weapon strategy, as Mr Fraser hypothesises?
One can think-up extreme Taiwanese doomsday scenarios in which a US withdrawal into semi-isolation in its own hemisphere left America’s allies exposed to a vengeful China. But, important as our Asian relationships are, Australia’s political and defence strategies must partly be based on our national interest in supporting the world’s leading democracy and private enterprise economy.
Of course, Australia must also increase its own defence capacities: successive governments have been negligent in allowing those to be depleted. But we need to recognize that like-minded allies can and do play important roles in any crisis situation. It is difficult to envisage any country other than the US having a significant role in that regard in the foreseeable future.
Des Moore is Director of the Institute for Private Enterprise. His public service included a year’s research at the Royal College of Defence Studies.