Testing times

The centre of international power is returning to Asia, but what does that mean for the US-Australia alliance?

Michael J Green
Zack Cooper
Brendan Taylor
Peter J Dean

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

13 July 2015

China’s rise poses the first test of the 21st century for the US-Australia alliance.

After two centuries of relative weakness, the centre of international power is returning to Asia, where it resided before the industrial revolution. As resident powers on either side of the Pacific, the United States and Australia have much to gain from Asia’s ascent. And as architects of the international order, much is at stake.

The United States and Australia have played a major role in helping China to rise, and the benefits of Beijing’s growth are substantial. Since opening and reform began four decades ago, China has brought hundreds of millions out of poverty and joined Japan as an engine for regional economic growth. China 
is Australia’s top trading partner and the United States’ second, behind only Canada. China’s mass gives it the potential to play a vital role in reinforcing international peace and prosperity.

However, the risks associated with Asia’s ascent are also becoming more evident.  Six of the world’s nine nuclear-armed powers are in the Indo-Pacific region (the United States, Russia, China, North Korea, India and Pakistan). China’s rapid military modernization has positioned China as the world’s second largest military spender. Elsewhere in the region, from India to Southeast Asia, countries are responding to China’s military modernization by developing their own military capabilities, leading to concerns of a regional arms race.

Moreover, China has used its newfound political, economic and military might to intimidate smaller states. Chinese pressure in the East China Sea, South China Sea and the Himalayan Mountains is increasing tensions throughout the region. This ‘Asian paradox’ – that economic cooperation and security competition have grown in tandem with each other – is unmistakable. Indeed, most US allies in the Pacific now trade more with China than with the United States (though reciprocal investments with the United States dwarf capital flows involving China). At the same time, surveys suggest that nearly all regional states prefer a US–led order to a Sino-centric order.

Image by ResoluteSupportMedia on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/isafmedia/3996873375/

Do the complexities of Asia’s ascent mean that the United States–Australia alliance is now entering its twilight years? Leading Australian political figures now debate whether this paradox presages the termination of the region’s US–led alliance system. Some Australian leaders worry that Washington has grown distracted by crises in the Middle East and Europe, inhibiting the heralded ‘pivot to Asia.’ Other Australian officials are growing worried about China’s rise and the potential for entrapment in a conflict by the United States. This anxiety dates back to at least 2004, when Foreign Minister Alexander Downer surprised Washington by stating that Australia’s obligations under the ANZUS Treaty would not extend to a Taiwan Strait contingency. In 2014, Defence Minister David Johnston made an almost identical claim with reference to the East China Sea. In short, some in Canberra are growing concerned about entrapment by the United States.

Meanwhile in Washington, some policymakers are becoming worried about abandonment by Australia in the event of future tensions with China. When Australia’s 2013 defence budget fell to its lowest levels since 1938 (when measured as a percentage of GDP), US concern grew. Debates in Canberra have some senior US officials quietly questioning whether Japan may replace Australia as the most trustworthy US ally in Asia. This concern in Australia about entrapment and in the United States about abandonment is the main challenge for present day alliance managers.

These trends represent a reversal of sorts for the alliance. For much of Australia’s history, its leaders have been nervous about abandonment by its primary ally (initially Great Britain and subsequently the United States). Australia’s record of fighting alongside US forces in every major conflict since the First World War is due in part to the desire to ensure 
that London and Washington would remember Australia’s sacrifices abroad and come to its aid if needed.  At the same time, the United States has viewed Australia as 
indispensable and has seldom worried about Canberra’s support.

Alliance tensions are on display today due to the fact that China’s expanding military capabilities and increasingly assertive behavior has raised the risk of regional conflict, despite growing economic interdependence. During the Second World War and the Cold War, both allies embraced the risk of entrapment because 
they had no other choice. Today however, some question whether the alliance remains necessary in the midst of Asia’s ascent. This ongoing debate is a symptom not only of different national circumstances, but also of the lack of a shared strategy for shaping China’s rise.

Image by MojoBaron on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mojobaron/7989880473/

Image by MojoBaron on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mojobaron/7989880473/

We believe that current trends only reinforce the importance of the alliance, and that its future is as bright as its past. In the post-Cold War era, US alliances have not shown signs of decay – quite the opposite. In public opinion polls US allies in Asia consistently express strong support for their security relationship with the United States, and most states in Asia have sought to strengthen rather than dilute those ties. This is particularly true of Australia.

The institutional and ideational foundations of the United States–Australia alliance are deep and enduring, but no alliance should be taken for granted – particularly during periods of major structural change such as that now transpiring in Asia. We suggest three areas of priority for leaders in Canberra and Washington. First, the United States and Australia should ensure that their focus remains on the Indo-Pacific, even while cooperating on out-of-area missions that are critical to military interoperability. Second, the alliance should serve as a central hub for Asian regional order and architecture, helping to connect not only the United States and Australia, but other allies and partners such as Japan, India, and Indonesia. Third, the alliance should focus on leading in the management of shared maritime challenges, particularly those posed by Chinese activities. By working together and embracing these priorities, leaders in Canberra and Washington can drive the alliance forward to meet the emerging challenges of an ascending Asia.

This article is an edited extract from a new report launched today, ‘The ANZUS Alliance in an Ascending Asia’, the latest paper in the Centre of Gravity series produced by the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University.

Back to Top
Join the APP Society

One Response

  1. dzbytek says:

    “The ANZUS Alliance in an Ascending Asia”
    This is the most important study for Australia security and development.
    My comments:
    Australia – USA military co-operation is crucial today due to traditional way of thinking about Australia’s future but it should be considered as one of options within long run strategy, important today but Canberra should take into account the following factors shaping the world of the future:
    1. Demography
    2. Competition for raw materials
    3. New technologies
    It is not the most important question the size – Australia is a country of continental geographic size, but population of 22 million is in range of rather smaller-medium in size European country and could not be compared not only to China or India, but also to other Asian countries. Only technology can counterbalance this disparity, but due to quick industrial development of Indonesia and South-East Asian countries and mainly mining profile of Australian production means that value of Australia as a partner will be diminishing if knowledge–based production will not be introduced on a big scale. Australia has ability to develop new knowledge base industry in the manner of Israel or Scandinavian countries, but must start as soon as possible.
    Second point, the most important for ANZUS future is not “Asia pivot” of Washington DC, but changing structure of US population. Barak Obama has been elected twice by Afro-Americans and Latinos. White population of the United Stated in 2013 presidential elections has been voting for Obama’s competitor – Mr. Romney – 59 per cent and only 39 per cent preferred black contender. Black population in 93 per cent voted in favor of Obama and the same has been in 71 per cent done by Latinos. Black and Latinos today compose adequately 12 per cent and 17 per cent of whole population, but because they voted in bigger numbers then their population share, Obama was unable to reclaim victory. Future mobilization of white is in vain – they share of population from the level of 61.8 per cent in 2015 to the level of 42.6 per cent in 2060 when Black share will augment reasonably from 13,2% to 14,7% in 2060 but Latinos increase is dramatic – from 17.8 per cent today to 31 per cent in 2060. Descendants of Asian origin (India, Vietnam, Korea etc.) increase their share from 5.3 per cent to 8.2 per cent, multiracial – from 2.6 per cent to 6.4 per cent (source: US Bureau of Consensus, 2015). Behind these figure we can see sea change of culture – US no longer will be country of prevailing Anglo-Saxon civilization – Mexican and others from south of Rio Grande Reconquista of former Indian lands means that in the second half of XXI century the typical US citizen will be colored and black, mostly catholic but in Indian way of practicing with roots in Aztec or Maya tradition. Moreover also elites will be different. According to Pew Institute Forum on Religion and Public Life (Landscape Survey “Religious Affiliation of American Public” Washington DC, 2014) in 2012 the highest level of education have Hinduists (75 per cent of total adult population has university degree), next are reformist Judaists (65 per cent) but members of Anglican Church only 54 per cent. Future generation of Americans will be Asian in mentality and this is not only “Asia pivot” of economic and military changing heart of Washington policy but mental change of ordinary and elite US citizen. USA will no longer will be European offshoot, like Australia or Canada, but more similar to India – also a country of English language, but only.
    For Australia it means that there will be no more special relations with USA on base of common culture – in contrary Australia will be an alien civilization, similar to European. Thus actual European Union experience is the best school to be observed. Europe is slowly abandoned, left to cope without US umbrella with challenges which in fact cannot be solved in a way usable in years of confrontation with Soviet Union.
    New challenges faced by developed world demonstrated that traditional solution of border security is not solving problem of growing infiltration of young people from Asia and Africa – uneducated, of culture distanced to civilizational progress, still of strong personal relations to their family, tribe, religion and therefore difficult to be assimilated in any innovative hungry society. The only opportunity for these people in their own countries as well as in any other is emigration. Europe is not able to stop them either,so absorbs them due to lack of real common policy able to invent solution. This crisis showed, that an alliance, even so closed like the European Union, facing such challenge, quickly disintegrates even against their own common interest.
    South and South-East Asia are regions of growing number of the same problem, and Australia is the best option for them. For any country millions of immigrants are crucial problem for security and stability and any Alliance could help.
    New technologies like replacement of crude oil and gas or much smaller demand create for oil reach countries situation of lack of resources forcing their population and millions of guest workers to emigrate to the places still enjoying stability.
    If the crude oil could be replaced, raw materials, like metals’ ore cannot – can anybody expect that in such situation China or Indonesia will be able to stop their own citizens to take over underpopulated, reach in resources country? Still it is only a black speculation, but it should be taken into account. It is strategic demand – for today, maybe next ten or twenty years at the best is not a real prospect, but reality which if happen must be met by ready.
    It is future scenario, but as written by Mr. Yuval Noah Harari from Hebrew University in Jerusalem (“Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind”) we must be prepared to the worse. Israelis feel the future world through their borders but maritime distances are manageable by determined people.
    Australia can use their developed human resources n alliance with countries in her region, endangered by similar situation – Japan, Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam – able to exist on their own (maybe apart of Japan, their strategy force them to co-operate more deeply). Together they are real force able to counterbalance China. India is desirable partner, but due to the fact that facing Islamist should be taken into account with care. I spent twenty years in South Asia, and India’s 150 million Muslims could destabilize this country together with Pakistan – the country on the brink of collapse.
    Best regards, Daniel Samotus – Zbytek

Back to Top

Leave your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Press Ctrl+C to copy

Republish

Close