The value of a strong US-Australia alliance

The enduring alliance with the United States remains Australia’s most important defence relationship. Close economic and cultural ties between the nations also continue to flourish and significantly benefit Australia and the US. The historic US-Australia partnership is unique, resilient and enviable among other nations. 

Former Australian prime ministers Malcom Fraser, Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating have each consistently argued for a recalibration of our alliance with the United States. Fraser, a former Liberal prime minister who passed away in 2015, was a major critic of Australia’s military alliance with the US and the implications for our relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Fraser called for Australia to forge an independent strategic posture apart from the US, arguing that the defence risks of our close relationship with the US outweighed any possible benefits. Likewise, previous Labor prime ministers Rudd and Keating have both asserted a need to scale back our alliance with the US government, in favour of stronger relationships within Asia. 

Though the positions of these outspoken former prime ministers might indicate division within Australian foreign policy community, our most recent Foreign Policy or Defence White Papers reflect the Morrison Government’s clear commitment to deepening Australia’s long-standing alliance with the United States and keeping this relationship at the centre of Australian security.  

Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a robust relationship underpinned by shared democratic values, common interests and strong cultural affinities. The US-Australia partnership is formally recognised in the ANZUS treaty, which has seen significant military coordination between the two nations. The relationship extends much further, however, securing an economic boost for America and Australia and a wealth of cultural exchanges in areas such as health, science and education. For these reasons, Australia should continue to foster and strengthen close cooperation with the United States to secure a safe, prosperous and enlightened future for our country.  

Defence and Security

The history of Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a close military alliance which has served both American and Australian national interests. The ANZUS Treaty, concluded in 1951, is Australia’s foremost security treaty alliance. While the ANZUS Treaty was created in the wake of World War II when the risk of invasion from Japan was still live in our collective memory, our military relationship has since deepened due to the ANZUS Treaty and ensures that Australia continues to develop its military alongside the strongest in the world. The US-Australia Force Posture Agreement signed in 2014 and the 2015 Joint Statement on Defence Cooperation have instructed the annual rotation of US Marines to Darwin and enhanced rotations of US aircraft to Australia. The Talisman Saber is a biennial military endeavour between the two militaries, enhancing our respective combat readiness and interoperability of our forces. This project reflects the progressive, forward- thinking military relationship that America and Australia have managed to create that is responsive to modern security threats. 

Our relationship with the strongest military in the world provides Australia with privileged access to information and high-end military equipment. This has allowed Australians to foil at least a dozen domestic terrorist plots since 2014, break up transnational crime networks, and stop money laundering and illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people. Our military alliance with the US assists the Australian Defence Force as it responds to security threats and provides an added edge for us within the Pacific region. As China continues to rise, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda, the muscle of the US Armed Forces can be leveraged as a counter-balance to China and shape a stable, prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Australia is a small population, with limited military force in a culturally diverse region. For this reason, it is important that hubris does not stain foreign policy, leading us to think we are better or more powerful than we really are. Our military relationship with the United States has ensured that Australia remains a secure, free and open state in a region where this is not the status quo.  

Trade and Investment

Australia and the United States are not only strong military allies. Our economic partnership is critical to our interests. While Australia’s trade relationships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, has lead to unprecedented growth and prosperity, the United States remains Australia’s most indispensable economic partner. Our economic relationship encompasses extensive two-way investment supporting production, growth and jobs in both countries. The United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has served as the basis of our bilateral trade relationship since the agreement came into effect on January 1, 2005. Under the FTA, all tariffs have been eliminated for products exported from the United States to Australia. The FTA has led to the growth of trade and investment in both countries. The United States is the largest foreign direct investor in Australia, accounting for nearly 25 per cent of foreign investment – more than the next two countries – Japan and the UK – combined. The foreign capital provided by the United States is a crucial driver of employment, economic growth, and also the ability to export. Ultimately, foreign investment facilitates Australia’s trading relationships by providing the necessary capital and know-how for production of goods and services.

Innovation and Cultural Exchange

Australia and the US have successfully established and maintained partnerships that benefit both states. As part of the Australian National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Australian government has established a ‘Landing Pad’ in San Francisco to facilitate cooperation by US and Australian entrepreneurs. Australian scientists, researchers, and innovators enjoy maximum access to America’s world-class innovation ecosystem, and US academics and researchers travel to Australia to share their findings and learn from Australian counterparts. US and Australian government agencies also work together to advance global environmental goals. Zoos and universities in the United States and Australia are working collaboratively to save threatened species, such as the iconic Tasmanian Devil.

The United States and Australia also share best practices, personnel, and technology and equipment to combat wildland fires. In 2017 Wildland Fire Management Agreement was signed, building on 15 years of close collaboration. The United States and Australia also work together to build and strengthen health system capacities, including addressing antimicrobial resistance, human resources for health, and infrastructure within the Asia Pacific region. A recent example of this strong coordination was demonstrated in a call between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicating plans to coordinate responses to the coronavirus in the Pacific. With President Trump’s recent decision to halt funding to the WHO this may make further funding available to strengthen bilateral and regional health coordination between the United States, Australia and their allies.  

A special relationship worth preserving

US presidents and officials have often referred to Australia as America’s closest friend and most trusted ally. This reputation is consistent with the special treatment and benefits Australian’s receive within the United States. For instance, the E3 visa is a United States visa only available to Australian citizens created by an Act of the United States Congress. Approving 10,500 slots for Australians each year, this visa is exceptional and signifies America’s appreciation of our alliance. In 2013, Ireland called for the E3 visa to be shared among Australians and the Irish, but these calls have so far been resisted in Congress. Then-Australian Ambassador Joe Hockey and the Embassy’s congressional liaison team successfully advocated for a change in the language of the first version of the proposed E3 amendment to ensure this outcome. Australia succeeded in Congress because of our historical defence bond and strong relationship with America.

Nonetheless, the narrative that Australia must choose between China and the United States has gained considerable traction in the media in recent years. At the heart of the story is the notion that Australia is economically beholden to China—a perception that China encourages. While there is no denying that escalating competition between China and the United States carries risks, Australia can continue to enjoy a strong, multifaceted partnership with the US whilst trading with China. The argument that Australia is at a cross-roads and somehow at the behest of China is weakened by the fact that China and the US have closer economic independence than China and Australia. Australia’s significant trade with China provides few, if any channels for the PRC to coerce Australia economically. The Chinese are not purchasing Australian commodities because they want to cultivate a friendship or drive a wedge between Australia and the United States. We are a supplier of choice to the Chinese as we have proven ourselves to be an efficient and reliable supplier by international standards. If China does not buy our commodities, someone else will. Research by Shiro Armstrong on the China–Japan relationship—a relationship marked by deep mistrust and periodic heightened tensions concluded that “trade has not been diminished or disturbed by politics to a significant extent”.

If Japan and a host of other countries in our region including South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan can enjoy growing trade with China while maintaining a strategic relationship with the US, surely Australia can do the same. Australia’s foreign policy debate needs to progress beyond an unhelpful focus on binary alignment choices toward a deeper dialogue about the practical challenges that China’s influence poses for alliance management. In saying this, it would be beneficial for the US and Australia to build a more resilient coalition where we discuss areas of divergence in our approach to China. This will secure productive, US-Australia relations and a united front on future foreign policy.  

Shared history, values, and prosperity have allowed the US-Australia alliance to thrive for the better part of a century, furthering both states militarily, economically and culturally. It is within our interests to maintain and grow the US-Australia partnership to ensure both nations can work together to tackle geo-political challenges with force and unity.

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