Can Australia Really Trust America?

Can Australia Really Trust America?

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by Raoul Heinrichs - 14 September 2011 2:08PM

In San Francisco this week, Australian and American leaders will mark the 60th anniversary of the US alliance. For Australia, they've been good decades. Indeed, the US alliance has served Australia so well for so long that it has come to be seen as an irreducible feature of Australian strategic policy.

Yet this is a dangerous assumption. As Canberra and Washington celebrate their historic partnership, it's important to remember that the origin of the alliance lies in the disastrous failure of Australia's previous alliance, with Britain, which was also seen at the time as a permanent and unlimited security blanket.

The analogy is telling. In the 1920s and 30s, Canberra's unwillingness to reckon with the decline of Britain and the rise of Japan — in particular, its failure to sufficiently bolster Australia's independent strategic weight to offset diminished British credibility — brought about the most acute crisis Australia has faced to this day.

Australia got lucky in that case. Yet today, as Asia goes through its next upheaval, Australia's instincts are unchanged. After more than sixty years, Canberra remains devoted to its small-power mentality, clinging (at increasing cost) to a great and powerful friend and hoping for the best.

New US military basing arrangements, to be announced this week, are symptomatic of this approach. For many Australians, an enhanced US presence in Australia is a beguiling prospect. Not only is it seen as a welcome symbol of Washington's enduring strength and resolve, but also as a more tangible expression of US strategic commitment.

The reality is somewhat different. In fact, Washington's sudden interest in Australian real estate says less about its resilience than about its relative decline. In particular, it reflects the way in which China's growing power has already begun hollowing out US military dominance, pushing back the boundaries of US primacy.

The logic is straightforward. Since US bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam face an increasing risk from Chinese missiles, they no longer constitute an indefinitely reliable sanctuary from which the US can project power. The countries of Southeast Asia offer no viable alternative. They also lie within China's military reach, and in any case are too shrewd to be prematurely enlisted in America's strategic plans at the risk of upsetting China.

So Washington is looking to Australia, partly with a view to consolidating its position in the Indian Ocean as a way of offsetting the less favourable shifts in the Pacific military balance.

Yet US basing is not necessarily cost or risk free for Australia, and Canberra needs to be attuned to the potential dangers. Because such bases are likely to feature prominently in US contingencies aimed at throttling China's energy supply from the Indian Ocean, they will beckon Chinese attention.

In this regard, US bases may create an incentive for Beijing, however muted at first, to transpose its military strategy into Australia's own neighbourhood, even if that takes a decade or so to happen. This would involve Beijing either expanding the number and range of its missiles or deploying them further afield, along with associated air and naval platforms, within range of US bases in Australia, much as it has with other US bases across the region.

US military basing entails political risks as well. While Australia already hosts a small number of joint facilities, a more extensive basing arrangement risks imposing further strictures on Canberra's ability to avoid becoming entangled in a crisis between the US and China (should one occur), including one in which Australia has potentially no direct interest and which its fortuitous geography —  far away from Northeast Asia, beyond an archipelagic screen — might otherwise allow it to avoid.

In this regard, Washington is being clever. It seems to be taking full advantage of Australia's current strategic dependence, locking in Canberra's political and military support early, thereby minimising the possibility of any future Australian realignment.

In short, Australia today finds itself in an uncomfortably familiar situation, though one it would prefer to ignore. The costs and risks of Australia's alliance are going up as the value of the alliance is coming down. Meanwhile, there are faint echoes of the 1930s: preoccupied with its alliance, Canberra is neglecting preparations for contingencies in which it may have to go it alone.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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