Australia: Walking the strategic tightrope?

Stuck between bigger powers

Daniel Fazio

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, The World

18 October 2019

Scott Morrison and Donald Trump like to say that they have a lot in common, but the real challenge is Australia’s capacity to safeguard its national interests amidst the growing geo-strategic tensions between the United States and China, Daniel Fazio writes.

The fanfare of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to the United States and his warmth with the president failed to mask the potential problems facing the Australian-American alliance in an increasingly uncertain geo-political world.

The Australian-American relationship that Trump and Morrison lauded has indeed strengthened significantly since the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, not least because the two nations have had overlapping geo-strategic interests.

The relationship is very close, but also highly unequal. Indeed, Morrison alluded to this at the start of his US visit, saying that while the US has many more powerful friends, they do not have a more “sure and steadfast” friend, than Australia.

Understandably, the US and Australia have sought to shape the relationship to suit their respective interests. As the alliance’s junior partner, Australia has needed to be the more agile actor in creating and exploiting opportunities to maximise the benefits it has gained from the relationship.

Since the inception of ANZUS – the mutual defence treaty governing the alliance – a key problematic aspect of the relationship has been differing US and Australian views about the role of its security-defence component.

More on this: Australia in an age of instability

The US has regarded Australia as a link in its Asia-Pacific alliance system, the ‘hub and spokes’ as John Foster Dulles, the American negotiator of ANZUS, labelled the regional alliances he was instrumental in creating.

Conversely, ANZUS has been the central pillar of Australia’s foreign and defence policies since 1951. The US and Australia have been able to manage their differences over the purpose of their alliance because of their shared geo-strategic interests.

Australian policymakers publicly contend that ANZUS signifies a formal American commitment to defend Australia, yet the text of the treaty is deliberately ambiguous about this.

Nevertheless, underlying the historical co-operation between the two nations has been Australia’s ongoing goal to maintain visibility in Washington, partly because of lingering Australian uncertainty about the precise nature of America’s ANZUS commitments.

Australia involved itself in the Korean and Vietnam wars and in Afghanistan and Iraq in part because it deemed it was in its best geo-strategic interests to make itself visible to the Americans when the US sought allies.

Canberra hoped this ‘insurance policy’ would maximise, if not guarantee, future American protection should Australia be threatened.

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This was evident during Morrison’s US visit. Despite the strong personal chemistry between Morrison and Trump, the different US and Australian views on China and Iran meant it was not a seamless interaction.

Australian policymakers are increasingly concerned about the repercussions of the continuing trade war and the geo-strategic tensions between the US and China for Australia’s security and economic interests.

Similarly, Canberra is fully aware of the political and economic implications of a conflict with Iran and has no wish to become involved in another Middle Eastern war.

Morrison’s public statements urging the US and China to resolve their differences and commending Trump for his ‘restraint’ over Iran reflect Australian concerns about the consequences of increasing US tensions with China and Iran.

Australia’s recent commitment of forces joining with the US and Britain to safeguard the major shipping routes in the Persian Gulf is the latest manifestation of Australia’s historic calculation that responding to an American call for allied help maximises its capacity to co-opt US power for Australia’s geo-strategic interests.

However, it is a contradiction. Sending forces to help the Americans patrol the Persian Gulf while hoping to avoid conflict with Iran reflects the limits of Australian influence and its reliance on the US.

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Morrison knows Australia may face unwanted and difficult choices but he is also aware that Australia can do little to influence the US or China.

However, in this uncertain, unstable era, Australia’s security and economic prosperity remains dependant on the relative certainty of its geo-strategic alliance with the US and its economic engagement with China.

Morrison’s commitment to an Australian partnership with the US in the long term goal of sending a mission to the Moon and Mars promises Australian access to American technology, research, and knowledge. More broadly though, it is another avenue that keeps Australia visible and useful to the Americans.

Morrison’s American sojourn can be seen as part of Australia’s ongoing strategy to achieve its interests by exerting maximum influence on the US and China.

This is Australia continuing a clear strategy: seeking to do everything at once. It aims to maximise the benefits of its geo-strategic relationship with the US, and its economic relationship with China, knowing it may have to make unprecedented and unwanted choices in this uncertain and rapidly changing global era.

Australia needs to constantly remind the more powerful Americans and Chinese that it matters to them and that they, therefore, cannot totally ignore Australian interests.

Morrison’s behaviour is fundamentally an example of this, and Australia’s success with this strategy is far more important to Australia’s future than the distraction that was his chumminess with the president.

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