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The Australian National University

There is a high price for walking away from ANZUS

The ANZUS with the US is crucial, and as a good ally what's the advice that Australia should be giving to Donald Trump?

TRANSCRIPT: National Press Club Address, Professor Rory Medcalf and Sir Angus Houston

VIDEO: National Press Club Address, Professor Rory Medcalf and Sir Angus Houston (ABC IView)


Many Australians are troubled by Donald Trump and by the unpredictability of his presidency. But we need to remember that Australia's alliance with the United States is more important and enduring than any one administration.

In its first 28 days we have seen Trump tested by competitors. Russia has deployed cruise missiles in contravention of treaty obligations. There has been intense fighting in eastern Ukraine. North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.

After the resolution of the "One China" issue we can expect China to continue its assertive behaviour in the South China Sea.

On the other hand, Defence Secretary James Mam's has visited Japan and the Republic of Korea and provided reassurance to these key US allies.

His visit to NATO also emphasised the importance of the alliance and the, quite reasonable, need for members to provide 2 per cent of their GDP for defence.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's meeting with the President seems to have been a success; Japan is being pragmatic and strategic in keeping the alliance aligned with its interests.

Amid all this, Australians feel less secure.

It is clear that our wider interests will diverge with those of the new administration in Washington in important areas. Following the election of Trump and with his statements during and after the campaign, the direction of US power and engagement is uncertain. Although the President's inauguration speech emphasised economic protectionism, he also promised to "reinforce old alliances and forge new ones".

So if we were to offer an ally's advice to the new administration, foremost would be the need for the US to maintain a strong strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region. It is imperative that the US maintains the alliance system that has been so successful in underwriting regional stability. This requires not only US reassurance to allies but deepening new partnerships.

The US needs to engage with and make reasonable space for China. This is not about unlimited "accommodation" but about incorporating China into a region of many powers with a large measure of interests in common.

Chinese participation in counter-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea, the major RTJVIPAC multilateral exercise, the initial search for MH370 and the China-US Australia trilateral military exercise KOWARI all show this inclusive approach.

Similarly, as was the case with the sixparty talks in the mid-2000s, any negotiations to resolve North Korean issues will require China as an active and constructive participant. The reported restriction this week of coal exports to Pyongyang is a reminder that China can make a crucial difference.

For its part, Australia should do what it can to influence the choices of the United States to protect a stable regional order.

Some commentators in Australia have suggested that now is time to fundamentally recalibrate the alliance. Certainly, those who recognise the extraordinary and long-standing value of the alliance to Australia have some challenging tasks ahead. We need to steer Australia's policy settings to weather the uncertainties of this era: more resilience, continued progress to defence self-reliance, and a deepening of security ties with others such as Japan, India, Singapore and Indonesia.

However, now is not the time for Australian policy makers to change ANZUS or imply that we are ready to move away from the alliance. Going solo is not an option for Australia. The cost to us would be enormous. The government is committed to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. If we hypothetically lost the US alliance and the powerful security insurance it provides, we lose access to enormous advantages in intelligence and technology.

It is likely we would have to increase defence spending to 3-4 per cent of GDP.

That would have a dramatic effect on public programs like health and education.

The Australian government needs to do more to explain the mutual benefit of the alliance in interoperability, preparedness, intelligence, cyber and technology.

We should embed the alliance further in regional ties, confirming we do not need to choose between America and Asia. This means creative efforts at trilateral security arrangements with the United States and countries like Japan, India and Indonesia.

It is also time for the reintroduction of the 2007 quadrilateral arrangement between the US, Japan, India and Australia, not to contain China but to strategically align like-minded regional nations.

We can also step up our diplomatic effort to strengthen inclusive regional security institutions: the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meetings-Plus. We need to persuade America to invest further in these organisations, alongside its presence in the world's most dynamic region.

Present anxieties about the United States are understandable. But critics of the alliance have not put forward practical alternatives. In a connected world, our national interests are extensive and our capabilities cannot protect them all.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review and is re-published here with permission. Sir Angus Houston is a former Chief of the Defence Force and a Visiting Fellow at the ANU National Security College. Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College. It draws on remarks the authors delivered at the National Press Club on 21 February 2017. Please visit these web page to read the full text of their address:




The National Security College is a joint initiative of the Commonwealth Governmment and ANU.