Fickle Friends: Securing the US-Australia Military Alliance

Battleland has an important article for Asia-watchers on the nuances of the 60-year old US-Australia alliance.

Raoul Heinrichs speaks an uncomfortable truth when he challenges the US to prove their commitment to Australia, and Asia, when actions have spoken louder than words:

“In some ways the United States has taken its eyes off the ball in Asia,” says Raoul Heinrichs, a Sir Arthur Tange scholar at Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

“It’s spent the last 10 years in Afghanistan chasing after bandits in mud huts while an emerging major power has been amassing advanced weapons and technology. It’s a dangerous situation and one that could lead to quite intense strategic competition.”

Heinrichs says Australia should reduce its reliance on the US, build up its own military capabilities and develop closer relations with China. Australia spends just 2.4 percent of its GDP on defense, compared to more than 4 percent in the US, and has a standing military of just 50,000 men and women.

Heinrichs says Australia failed to recognize the decline of Britain and rise of Japan prior to World War II, and was saved only by the timely intervention of the Americans.

“I’m not saying we should pack up the US alliance and shut it all down and head off to Beijing. But by depending on the (US) alliance to such a degree, we risk being drawn into conflicts we might otherwise stay out of, or be left to chance if our partners aren’t there when we need them, which has happened before,” Heinrichs says.

Combined with historical military ties to the West, it would seem that Australia would be a natural, and willing, security partner. The reality is different for the reasons Heinrich describes above. Proximity to China is a major driver for regional nations, and with US naval power trending in the wrong direction, Australia must not rely solely on the kind words of an ally. Oz will be forced to continue its awkward tight-rope walk of maximizing the economic benefits of partnership with China and the security benefits of alliance with the US.

The US not only needs to maintain strong security ties with Australia, it needs Canberra to remain economically and militarily powerful. Much of Australia’s economic power, and therefore military power, is bound up in its deepening partnership with China and the stability of a free and secure maritime trading network in Asia. In light of this, the US must take a nuanced approach to maximizing its military influence Down Under. This can be achieved with an engagement strategy focused on guaranteed access and familiarity with native military infrastructure rather than new bases and a permanent presence. Such a system will allow Australia to continue building both of its contrarian partnerships while diluting the vulnerabilities posed by US force concentration among its powerful, but constrained, regional bases.

Any buildup in US military forces on the Australian continent is for no other reason than to balance China, and Beijing is well aware. They are also aware of the inherent vulnerabilities in our current basing structure, giving the PLA only a few, concentrated puzzles, rather than a dispersed network of military assets that would stretch Chinese military planning and operational capabilities to the breaking point.

Engaging with regional partners and building bilateral alliances based on individual, mutual benefit, rather than institutional, ideology-focused multilateralism, would give the US access to a great number of smaller ports and runways throughout Southeast Asia. Further, this allows the US to military engage with these new partners without the need for a large fleets, permanent bases, and that is the focal point for Chinese propaganda and scaremongering. In the event of war, these airfields and ports would be instrumental in responding as well as diluting the threat to forward operating bases such as Guam.

The only base on US soil, Guam, is in the process of an important buildup, but the small island’s size limits both its power projection and defensive capabilities. During World War II it was known as “Fortress Guam”, but only after being recaptured from the Japanese and the realization of numerous wartime building programs. Okinawa and South Korea are significantly closer to the Chinese mainland and are therefore under constant threat by the PRC’s growing missile, air, and naval capabilities.

Australia is largely outside any Chinese threat, and its expanse provides space for movement and defense otherwise not afforded to the US in the Asian littoral. From its shores a powerful military will be able to project capabilities onto Asia’s most important SLOCs such as the Strait of Malacca, the myriad SE Asian island chains, and the South China Sea.

Although the cultural ties between Australia and the West may ultimately create the illusion of justification for permanent US bases, it would appear more strategically sound to continue maximizing its benefits from the US and China by allowing the US access to its current base system and joint training, rather than suffer awkward meetings with Beijing when they ask Canberra where its priorities lay.

Regardless, if the US can prove to Australia it can successfully engage with Southeast Asian nations that are similarly bound to Chinese economics and US security it will be more willing to provide space for the American military. Although Australia is a large nation with a powerful maritime history, its foremost interests–as with most nations–are in its long-term survival and economic prosperity. For the first time since before World War II, these two factors are pulling the Aussies in opposite directions. It appears that the US is better off strategically interacting with Canberra through familiarization and joint training, rather than hardened bases. This grants the US military immediate assets in the case of war, and allows Australia to stay balanced on its China-US tight rope.

The US will most likely be equally bound to Australia in a US-Sino war, requiring its distance and size to properly stage troops and host supplies bound for in-theatre operations and forward bases. World War II is no longer an instructive example given the range of modern assets such as jets, bombers, and ballistic missiles. Hawaii is too far away, and has no port of call outside of Guam, a major vulnerability if the Marshall Islands are under attack. Australia has the infrastructure and capabilities to host American strategic air- and sea-lift capabilities that are vital to any Asian war effort given the expanse of water over which the US must project.

The US-Australia alliance will become a major strategic issue in the coming years. It is time Washington got serious about its commitment to Canberra. If we are to build a powerful strategic partnership that maximizes gains for a historic ally, we must start now. 60 years of partnership is too great to lose in such petty circumstances.

Note: This inevitably comes with a host of other skills the US needs to dust off in order to be successful. First, it needs a more powerful and capable diplomatic corp able to simultaneously engage with various nations constructively and with tailored messages. Second, the US needs to go about the business of creating a foreign policy strategy in Asia, a contrarian exercise that I fear may be too much for our government to handle.


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Filed under Asia, Australia, China, Navy, Strategy, US Navy

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