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The Australian National University

The Future of the US Alliance

Remarks to the National Press Club by Professor Rory Medcalf and Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK, AFC (Ret’d), Canberra, 21 February 2017


The future of Australia's alliance with the United States

By Professor Rory Medcalf, Head, National Security College
Australian National University

It is a real pleasure to be here today at the National Press Club. And a privilege to be speaking alongside Angus Houston, former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, who has contributed so much to this country.

As someone who began his own working life as a journalist, there’s no question in my mind that the professionals of the free media are the friends of the people, if not always the friends of the state.

And the tensions we see reported out of America at present are a reminder of the depth and strength of American democracy, to which the press and the other checks and balances are vital.

It is easy to be troubled by Trump, and the unpredictability of his Presidency. Many of us are.

But we are here today because what matters to Australia is our alliance with the United States.

Those who recognise the enduring importance of the alliance to Australia have some challenging tasks ahead.

One is to explain and advocate the alliance regardless of President Trump – and to remind at every turn that the alliance is more robust and lasting than any one Administration.

Another task of course is to look dispassionately at the facts, and to ensure that this remains true.

A third task is to steer Australia’s policy settings in a way that helps us weather the turbulence of this era.

Thus: more resilience, more self-reliance, a deepening and diversification of our security relations with others.

These include powers seeking a stable regional balance – like Japan and India – or likeminded partners in Europe and globally in protecting the liberal international order.

And a fourth mission is to do what we can to shape the choices of the United States – and of others – to defend regional stability.

It is hard to capture in one thought the multiple challenges ahead for the alliance.

No question, the debate is on.

The Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has reminded us that the United States is an indispensable power in our Indo-Pacific region.

Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, has said Trump marks an historic ‘change point’ – we need to prepare to advance Australia’s interests in a different world, with a different America. Yet still within an alliance framework.

The Greens, meanwhile, call for a ‘fundamental reassessment’.

Ambassador Hockey reminds America that talk of America First makes allies unsettled.

Paul Keating calls for a more ‘independent’ foreign policy, without detail on how things would change.

His former adviser Allan Gyngell warns that none of today’s policymakers has ever had to deal with global systemic uncertainty on this scale, and he’s right.

Strategist Paul Dibb says its time to expand our military forces and sharpen Australia’s defence self-reliance

Historian James Curran says we need to shed the sentimentalism that has cloaked and cloyed the alliance.

My ANU colleague Hugh White goes further and says, in effect, and however reluctantly, that Australia will now acquiesce to Chinese leadership in Asia.

It’s as if the emergence of Trump suddenly means that we don’t need to heed China’s own deep instabilities, or that fact that other key powers in Asia, such as Japan and India, are daily becoming more mistrustful of China.
Australia inhabits an interconnected multipolar region, the Indo-Pacific, a region too vast for any one power to dominate, not an American lake but not a Chinese one either.

Meanwhile at the National Security College, a team of colleagues has put out a report on how Australia should respond to Trump with a deceptively simple title, Don’t Panic, Don't Relax.

We concluded that the uncertainties in US policy are not just about Trump, but reflect real divisions in American opinion.

Security competitors will severely test US resolve and power, while allies will seek to hedge between US predictability and Chinese and Russian power.

Australia’s strategic policy response will need to be steady and based overwhelmingly on interests rather than values.

Australia will remain well-regarded in Washington but will need to work hard and creatively to convert goodwill to influence.

This point has been borne out by the response to the recent Trump-Turnbull phone call.

It had a silver lining for the alliances, with bewildered friends of Australia making their voices heard in Congress, business, the bureaucracy, media and beyond.

What to do?

Not only should Australia intensify efforts, beyond usual diplomatic and defence channels, to influence US political decisions on international issues that matter to us.

Australia should also deepen and diversify its security and economic partnerships in our Indo-Pacific region, building a strategic web with Japan, India and others to bind and complement US allies.

And there is a story to be told better at home.  Government and business needs directly to explain and champion the importance to Australia of our comprehensive ties to the United States, including in priority domains like cyber security, as well as in investment and defence.

Certainly there is a need to for better public awareness about the alliance. A few years ago I was involved with public consultations for the defence white paper, and encountered a universal criticism of government that not enough was being done to explain the alliance, its purpose, character or why and how it was changing.

This is especially in a post-truth era, where the new trend is towards mass misinformation by those opposed to liberal democracy and a rules-based order.

We saw Russia’s interference in America last year. We underestimate how vulnerable a country like Australia could be to sustained, well-resourced propaganda and misinformation aimed at undermining our security and the alliance.

So our politicians, policymakers and opinion leaders need to do more to tell the public precisely why and how the US backed alliance system is in our interests. This will require engaging directly with the arguments of those who criticise the alliance and who understandably worry about Trump.

 Often, what seems obvious to policymakers is surprising to the public, partly as a result of different access to information.

My own institution, the National Security College at the Australian National University, has a primary mission of education – we have trained 3,000 government officials in the past seven years. Many of our Masters and PhD students are serving or future policymakers.

We are dedicated to supporting high standards of policy thinking and policy-making.

So as well as contributing to the public debate, we provide a safe space for ideas to be discussed and debated, among officials and others, academics, business and international friends.

Thus we help with some of the forthright and trusted conversations that make alliances and partnerships work.

Last year, for example, we hosted the likes of former US Director of  National Intelligence Jim Clapper, and Commander of the US Pacific Fleet Admiral Scott Swift, for frank exchanges of views on global security issues.

Such conversations are a reminder that the alliance is deep, enduring and many-layered – it goes much beyond the President or the politics of the day.

The challenge ahead is how do we preserve and protect the alliance through a difficult phase.

It may well be a different world and a different America emerge from these years.

But the alliance will still have an enormous amount to offer Australia.

And we have to face the reality that for the foreseeable future we do not have other options.
Our interests are extensive and our capabilities cannot protect them all.
Australia provides security for a continent and its offshore territories.

We are the security provider of last resort for much of the South Pacific including Papua New Guinea.

We have zones of maritime responsibility across much of the Indian and Southern Oceans. We are responsible for 43 percent of Antarctica.

We rely acutely on lifelines of trade, investment, information and people across the Indo-Pacific.

We rely on a rules-based order in which the rights of small and medium powers are respected.

The fact that our interests outweigh our capabilities places a premium on partnerships.

And to attract and consolidate links with partners – including the US alliance – Australia needs credibility.

That means it needs its own core strength, its own capabilities, its own strategic weight. We need the capacity to do things for our own security – and to demonstrate this.

That’s why it makes sense for Australia to be able to contribute to regional and global coalitions for common security interests, whether the fight against Islamic States or shared humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

Governments are good at telling the public how strong and effective our national security is, how much our defence force is capable of doing.

But there is much our defence force cannot do alone.

And even with the ambitious but generally realistic plans under the Defence White Paper, limits will remain.

A degree of military self-reliance in combat is not the same as being able to operate entirely without our US ally – which will continue to provide much of the technology, interoperability, intelligence and targeting this self-reliance combat force will need.

It will be many years before our new regionally superior submarine fleet is operational.

Many American people and organisations have powerfully reminded us that their country – and the world economy – would not function without immigrants.

Maybe Government and Opposition have to be somewhat bolder in explaining to the Australian people just what would be the limits of Australia’s security without the United States.

It is easy and for some politically tempting to say we need to begin thinking about Australian security without America.

But this appraisal needs to be honest. It needs to include suggestions of what a viable national security strategy – defence, diplomacy, intelligence and social resilience – would look like without the United States.

Unfortunately, much of the commentary we hear is light on such practicalities.

The onus needs to be on the critics of the alliance to offer realistic alternatives. Likewise, friends of the alliance need to set out a realistic plan for helping Australia and the alliance adjust to the difficult times ahead.


The importance of the ANZUS alliance to Australians

By Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK, AFC (Ret’d)

75 years ago Australians faced unprecedented uncertainty.

Japanese forces had taken all before them as they advanced through Malaya, Singapore and the islands we now know as Indonesia.

They now presented a direct and lethal threat to Australia with daily bombing attacks on Darwin and attacks on many other towns in northern Australia.

In the blackest period in our history we were saved by US maritime power when a strategic victory in the Coral Sea removed the direct threat to Australia.

This was a watershed and under John Curtin’s strong leadership we established a strong dependent security relationship with the US.

After the Second World War in 1951, the ANZUS alliance was created and it has been the cornerstone of our defence policy ever since.

Following the Vietnam War, US foreign policy in Asia has been based on free trading, strong alliances, constructive bilateral security relationships.

The US has also maintained a strong military presence in North and East Asia and, in addition to ANZUS, strong military alliances with Japan and the ROK.

All of this has given Australia, Japan and the region more than 40 years of peace and stability which has enabled remarkable prosperity across the countries of the Indo-Pacific, most particularly China.

This is the achievement of the United States in our region.

In more recent times the US has strengthened its bilateral relationships with India and other South East Asian partners.

We have also seen the US pivot to Asia, announced by President Obama in Canberra in 2011 and intended to signal that the US was rebalancing its diplomatic and military forces towards the Asia-Pacific.

Good progress has been made since 2011 with the implementation of the US Force Posture Initiatives.

We have increased numbers of marines rotating through Darwin and activities under the Enhanced Air Cooperation initiative commenced this month with the deployment of a squadron of F22 Raptors to RAAF Base Tindal. Clearly, there is still a lot more to be done to fully implement the initiatives.

The comfort of post-Cold War US predominance is under challenge on multiple fronts, most particularly from an assertive China in our region and a resurgent Russia in Europe.

In its first month we have seen the Trump Administration tested by competitors.

Russia has deployed cruise missiles in contravention of treaty obligations and there has been renewed 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 with continued development and militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

On the other hand, my former colleague and friend, Defence Secretary James Mattis has visited Japan and the Republic of Korea and provided reassurance to these key US allies.

His visit and the visit of Vice President Pence to NATO also emphasised the importance of the alliance and the, quite reasonable, need for members to provide two percent of their GDP for defence.

While in Europe Secretary Mattis also met with Defence Minister Marise Payne for what she described as an extremely positive meeting.

Secretary Mattis expressed strong support for ANZUS and spoke warmly about his former relationship with the ADF.

Prime Minister 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 some important areas, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Following the election of President Trump with his statements during and after the election campaign, there is uncertainty about the direction of US power and engagement.

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 in Washington, it would be, firstly the need for the US to maintain a strong strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Pulling back to Hawaii will leave a vacuum that will be filled by China who will see herself as the predominant power in the region.

Secondly, it is imperative that the US continues to maintain the long standing alliance strategy that has been so successful in maintaining stability and creating prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

This requires the US to not only engage alliance partners but also maintain the many bilateral security partnerships which the US has developed strongly through recent years.

Thirdly, 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 RIMPAC multilateral exercise, the initial search for MH370 and the China, US, Australia trilateral military exercise KOWARI, are all demonstrations of this inclusive approach.

Similarly, as was the case with the six party talks in the mid-2000s, any negotiations to resolve North Korean issues will require China as an active and constructive participant.

The reported restrictions this week of coal exports to Pyongyang is a reminder that China can make a crucial difference.

We need more cooperation and less competition.

In terms of Australia’s role we should continue to influence the incoming administration as to the importance and success of the current US strategy centred on regional presence, strong alliances and a web of trilateral and bilateral security arrangements.

Some commentators in Australia have suggested that with the change of administration in Washington we should recalibrate our alliance with the US.

However, now is not the time for Australian policy makers to change ANZUS or imply that we are ready to move away from the US Alliance.

We need it more than most people realise and as Alan Dupont has observed: ‘As the world becomes a more turbulent and dangerous place the value of the alliance for Australia will increase not diminish’.

Thirdly, we should explain and highlight the mutual benefit of the ANZUS alliance in terms of interoperability, preparedness, intelligence, cyber, technology and logistics and a whole host of other areas.

In recent years our contributions to the greater alliance good have been significant, most recently against Islamic State.

I might add that we are one of the few nations on the planet who, every two years, allow the United States to conduct a large joint and combined high end amphibious exercise to land in our territory.

Fourthly, we should strengthen our existing relationships with our regional partners.

This should be done bilaterally and in the case of Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia, trilaterally with the United States.

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

Fifthly, we need to support and assist in further development of the Regional Security Architecture.

The East Asia Summit, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meetings-Plus are all useful fora but they need to be developed further and made more robust.

We need to encourage the United States to invest further in these organisations, alongside its presence in the world’s most dynamic region.

It is critical that Washington continues to have a major presence in our region, and absolutely imperative that the ANZUS alliance continues.

There is no practical substitute for it.

Australia should also emphasise the importance of the other US alliances – in particular those with the Republic of Korea and Japan.

Going solo is not an option for Australia.

The cost of becoming fully self-reliant would be enormous.
The government is committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence. If we hypothetically lose the US alliance and the powerful security insurance it provides, we also lose access to enormous advantages in intelligence and technology and the other areas already mentioned.

It is likely we would have to increase defence spending to about 3-4% of GDP by my estimate.

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

To conclude, Australia should endeavour to continue to quietly engage and influence the Trump administration as to the success of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific and the importance of the ANZUS alliance to Australia’s security.

To this end I was delighted to learn yesterday that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is in to Washington to engage the Vice President, Secretary of State and other senior officials in the Administration.

I wish here success on this important mission because at the end of the day we must never forget that: US presence, alliances and engagement have given Australia peace, stability and prosperity for 40 years.






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