The Australia-United States defence alliance

Dr Nathan Church, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

Key issue 
An enduring alliance with the United States (US) remains Australia’s most important defence relationship and continues to act as a crucial force multiplier for Australian Defence Force (ADF) capability. However, increasing financial constraints, the rise of China and the uncertain nature of the US rebalance within the Pacific all pose important questions about how Australia will further consolidate its relationship with the US across the next decade and beyond..

Financial constraints

The Australia–US alliance is often described as being founded on shared values and bonds of friendship, but this ultimately means little without tangible evidence of collaboration. One of the clearest examples of Australia and the US working together has been the defence relationship, the symbiotic nature of which ensures an increasing array of information sharing, personnel exchanges, combined exercises and shared engagement with partner nations across the Indo-Pacific. These, among others, are clear advantages to Australia which flow from the defence relationship with the US.

Yet despite the Australian public’s continued enthusiasm for such collaboration, the alliance is fundamentally unequal, with the US shouldering a far heavier financial and operational burden by virtue of its size. The Global Financial Crisis and resulting sequestration of the US defence budget has further highlighted this point as, over the coming years, Australia is likely to be asked to do even more as a US partner. However, the ADF will almost certainly struggle to absorb any new demands without additional resources.

To engage with some of these challenges, Australia and the US have made recent progress in finding new collaborative efficiencies, evident in the Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty ratified on 16 May 2013. Only the United Kingdom has a similar arrangement with the US, and its benefits are substantial—reducing red tape, minimising procurement delays and improving data sharing. Such arrangements also make it easier for Australia to gain access to advanced defence technologies, which it would be unable to develop domestically.

Although such initiatives will continue to provide Australia with unique levels of access and engagement with the US, this will not change the fact that Australia will continue to leverage US defence capabilities unevenly, no matter how politically unpalatable this notion may seem. Expectations management will be crucial in navigating the alliance relationship in the future, but increases to Australia’s defence budget would probably do much to increase US confidence as well.

Rise of China

Over the past decade, Australia’s need to contextualise its alliance with the US appropriately has come into stark focus, because of China’s increased economic power and strategic influence. Australia’s enduring diplomatic ties with the US and increasing economic links with China have led some commentators to question whether Australia will eventually have to choose between them. Although the Australian Government’s answer has been a resounding ‘no’, China’s growing dominance, particularly in Southeast Asia, will undoubtedly challenge the status quo, and accordingly, have an impact on the Australia-US alliance.

The biggest challenge for Australia will arguably be whether it is sufficiently adaptable to respond to whatever the US (and China) determine as the way forward in their own diplomatic relationship. Although the Australia-US alliance has effectively served the interests of both nations for decades, the US will continue to prioritise its own intrinsic national interests, and it is these (largely strategic) factors that will determine its future dealings with China.

Accordingly, commentators have contended that the US alliance will be forced to evolve, whether Australia likes it or not, especially as the Asia-Pacific is in ‘a state of strategic flux’. But with expanding roles in key multilateral regional forums, Australia and the US also have strong opportunities to engage with China—and other regional partners—to work through this uncertainty and strengthen areas of cooperation.

Implications of the US rebalance

Australia’s welcoming of a rotational deployment of US Marines to Darwin as part of the US rebalance into the Asia-Pacific provides a further example of the growing US alliance and highlights the geographical significance of Australia for the US. This deployment will likely benefit the Australia-US defence relationship through exposing the respective militaries to combined training and interoperability. However, the question of how this ongoing (and expanding) deployment will be financed in the long-term remains unresolved, which potentially risks complicating any political goodwill created.

The Darwin deployment poses further questions as to the extent to which the US rebalance into Southeast Asia will be fully implemented. For example, the US could attempt to further leverage Australian bases to deploy additional military personnel and capabilities within the Indo-Pacific region. Although studies have shown that the current Marines deployment to Darwin has had no adverse social or economic impact, any substantial expansion could change this—and make it harder for the Australian Government to demonstrate a net benefit.

Conversely, other global foreign policy challenges could work to dilute the rebalance, or at least limit its progress. The continued conflict in Syria has emerged as a further complication to US foreign policy plans. Other similar flashpoints in the future could continue to divert further resources and momentum from the overall rebalance mission.

Australia cannot take US engagement in the region for granted. As such, commentators have called on the Australian Government to take a proactive approach, especially in the realm of humanitarian and disaster response (HADR) capability. Through emphasising HADR as a regional engagement tool (or even establishing a regional HADR centre) Australia could provide leadership and experience—while partnering with the US—to provide productive and non-threatening multilateral regional engagement opportunities.

Further benefits to Australia would include the ability to build on momentum from previous HADR successes (such as the response in 2011 to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami) and maximise use of new ADF procurements—particularly the two soon-to-be-delivered landing helicopter docks (LHD).

Further reading

H White, ‘Power shift: Australia’s future between Washington and Beijing’, Quarterly Essay, 39, 2010.

A Shearer, ‘Uncharted waters: the US alliance and Australia’s new era of strategic uncertainty’, Lowy Institute for International Policy: Perspectives, 17 August 2011.

J Bleich, ‘The future of US and Australian collaboration: how we remain the lucky alliance’, Sir Robert Menzies Lecture 2012, Sir Robert Menzies Lecture Trust, Monash University, 2012.

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