What J.K. Galbraith famously called the conventional wisdom is a powerful thing to behold. There are few better local examples than the belief that the military alliance with the US is vital for the security of Australia and the stability of the wider Asia-Pacific region.
Given that this idea is also overwhelming supported by both the general public and – more predictably – the defence establishment in Australia, one would have thought it needed little reinforcing. And yet there is a veritable army of commentators and analysts who continually fret about the health of the ANZUS alliance and the possibility that it might be neglected or in disrepair.
The latest example of the ANZUS-boosting genre has been jointly produced by the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The series editor – Andrew Carr – promises the reader that the report will reflect “the different viewpoints of the authors”. If it does, then I’m afraid I missed it. The most striking feature of this review – like so many others before it – is the remarkable uniformity of opinion.
The ostensible rationale for this “candid audit” is the rise of China. At least the authors are not mealy mouthed about actually saying so. And no doubt there is something to fret about in this context. China’s recent behaviour has been alarming, especially for its smaller Southeast Asian neighbours. The question, as ever, is what is to be done?
Predictably enough, the authors are in no doubt. Australia is still what Des Ball called a suitable piece of real estate, and not just as a spy base. Now Australia’s great strategic significance is as a:
… sanctuary from China’s anti-access/area denial capabilities.
Equally predictably, playing the part of a creditable alliance partner will involve spending vast amounts of money on new hardware to facilitate “interoperability”. This is apparently vital in the event that we need to do our bit again in far-off places – or “combined expeditionary operations”, as we apparently call them these days.
The authors are clearly scandalised that Australia has recently:
… behaved fairly openly as a free-rider in the relationship.
What is more surprising and remarkable, perhaps, is that the authors are also clearly aghast at the idea that people such as the late Malcolm Fraser should have the temerity to question the value of the alliance:
… in no other US-allied capital do former leaders engage in such blatant questioning of the alliance with the United States. What are Americans to make of such statements, and how can Washington and Canberra align their China strategies?
The possibility that Australians might actually want to have a debate about, or even have a different, independent position on some of these issues is not one that is entertained in the report.
On the contrary, “it is only natural” that the thinking of the US and Australia on key issues will converge, and so it should, the authors clearly believe. The key here is developing “coherent and sustainable China strategies” and ignoring the “accommodational mutterings” (sic) of public figures who are not on message.
One assumes the authors have Hugh White in mind as he has provided some of the most sophisticated – and plausible – alternatives to the sort of quasi-containment strategies outlined here. Given that the authors claim to favour an open debate, it might have been useful to directly engage with some of White’s ideas, if only to demonstrate why they think we shouldn’t take them seriously.
As it is, this report contains few surprises for anyone who has been taking even the vaguest interest in defence issues of late. All of the usual justifications for the alliance are trotted out including the inherently implausible idea that Australia exerts a major influence over strategic thinking in the US. We are assured that the Americans are now apparently worried about “abandonment by Canberra”.
One of the most potentially novel, important but underdeveloped aspects of the report was the idea that the US and Australia as “staunch defenders of the neoliberal order” ought to try and “shape China’s expectations”. Perhaps so. At the very least, it is implicit recognition that the economic and ideational aspects of relations with China are potentially as, if not more, important than the more traditional strategic considerations that predominate here.
In the absence of war geoeconomics will arguably be the main game. In the presence of war between the US and China not only will Australia’s military contribution be entirely redundant, but so too will all the carefully calibrated calculations and strategising that underpin this document.