America's Southern Anchor?
Image Credit: US Navy

America's Southern Anchor?


Late last month, Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith gave a luncheon speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He addressed a number of key issues, including the 60th anniversary of the Australia-US alliance, the rise of India, China and the Association of Southeast Asian nations, and ongoing joint military operations in Afghanistan. However, as Benjamin Reilly, visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS, observed, one of his most important points raised failed to garner much attention: Smith’s assertion that Australia continues to serve as the ‘southern anchor’ for US defence policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Smith made the argument late in his remarks. ‘It’s…unambiguously in Australia’s national interest for the United States to be active and engaged in the Asia-Pacific as economic, political, military, and strategic influence shifts to the Asia-Pacific…In this century, the Asia-Pacific will become the world centre of gravity. Australia’s strategic value to the United States is changing. The balance of geopolitics is shifting and Australia is at the southern tier of that central dynamic.’

The timing and understated manner in which Smith addressed the point may be part of the reason why it didn’t attract significant attention. However, as Ernest Bower, Director of the Southeast Asia Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed in a recent article on US foreign policy in the Pacific, such points often don’t resonate because many US policymakers and others in the US foreign policy community simply fail to recognize the geo-strategic importance of Australia to US national security interests in the larger Asia-Pacific.

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Although specialists can cite numerous contributions by Australia to US National security interests in the region, these regularly fail to make the headlines. Some regional experts say this is because they fall outside the interests of all but a small circle of academic, civilian, and military experts. This shortcoming is further compounded by a lack of willingness on the part of the US Congress and the Pentagon to critically address these issues outside of prepared speeches, press releases, and reports.

The Pentagon's Defense Press Operations response to The Diplomat's request for an on-the-record reaction by the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Smith's assertion thatAustralia represents a geopolitical anchor for US defence policy in Asia-Pacific serves as a case in point. While reinforcing the strategic importance of the relationship, the response lacks candour and further demonstrates the controlled nature of the US policy message on Australia: ‘The United States and Australia enjoy a strong, enduring relationship; Australia is one of the United States' strongest allies. Australia is strategically located to address future challenges both countries face – combatting terrorism, ensuring freedom of navigation, responding to natural disasters, and enhancing stability throughout Southeast Asia.’ This makes it difficult for the formal and informal media to carry the message to the broader American public.

Perhaps for this reason, Smith peppered his speech with often overlooked but accessible examples of Australian contributions to US national security interests. ‘For almost 50 years, through the Joint Defence Facilities in Australia, we’ve made a significant contribution to United States national security by hosting or supporting some of the United States’ most sensitive and critical strategic capabilities,’ Smith noted as an example. ‘These include systems related to intelligence collection, ballistic missile early warning, submarine communications, and satellite-based communications.’ Such examples could prove useful for the few organizations that are invested in increasing public interest in Australia-US relations, such as CSIS's Pacific Partnership Initiative.

Some experts hope they also will influence Australian and US policymakers to support increasing the US troop presence in Australia. Supporters believe that the alliance’s strong tradition, coupled with the geo-strategic position of Australia’s northwestern and northern coasts (ex. Darwin and Exmouth) make Australia the natural choice for the positioning of new US strategic assets in Asia-Pacific. However, such support could wane as the US defence budget is downsized unless policymakers continually remind the Australian and US foreign policy communities of the importance of their continued investment in the relationship.

Unfortunately, during the question and answer period that followed Smith's speech, little critical attention was paid to the serious challenges facing the future of the Australian-US relationship – both at home and abroad. Some experts believe that this merely reflects the lack of expert familiarity with the challenges facing the alliance within the DC-based foreign policy community.

The Diplomat therefore reached out to a number of DC- and Singapore-based regional analysts to solicit their thoughts and observations on Smith’s beliefs in the strength of the long-term Australia-US relationship. These included:

Tan See Seng – Head of the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS);

Timothy Huxley – Executive Director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Asia);

Josh Kurlantzick – Fellow for Southeast Asia at Council on Foreign Relations;

Felix Chang – Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute;

William Martel – Associate Professor of International Security at Tufts Fletcher School.

In response, Tan was quick to point out that Smith’s speech failed to address one of the main challenges to US defence policy planners’ long-term strategy in the region. ‘Australia…remain(s) important to the US in strategic terms; the ANZUS treaty is still in force. Given  Australia’s longstanding alliance with the US under the ANZUS treaty, its past willingness (at least under Howard) to act as America’s “deputy sheriff,” and its concern over rising Chinese power, it would seem Australia could, under the appropriate political, economic and strategic conditions, conceivably serve…as the southern anchor of US defence policy, he said. 'That said, the ongoing debate within Australian policy circles suggests the issue is by no means settled, not least for people such as Hugh White, co-author of Australia’s Defence White Paper 2000. For White and others, the shift in power from the US to China has already taken place in the Asia-Pacific. White thereby implies that Australia would need to consider seriously how best to reconcile its divided loyalties toward its biggest ally (the US) and its biggest trading partner (China). Should Canberra choose to narrow the gulf between its strategic and economic priorities in a direction that favours Beijing, it could complicate the effort by Australian defence planners to fit Australia within US defence policy.’

While acknowledging that Asia is highly dynamic, Martel appeared less concerned by Canberra's internal debates. ‘Alliances do not require perfectly aligned or convergent sets of interests. These aren’t central conditions for policies. Alliances are motivated by growing power,’ he said. ‘The United States is likely to build and expand on past relationships in the region – I don't see that changing. Strong relations with Australia … are likely to continue in the future.’ Martel also downplayed the emphasis on symbolic phrases like “southern anchor” in political speech. ‘I’m not worried where (US policymakers and military strategists) draw their lines (in the Asia-Pacific). Lines are defined by strategy – not the other way around. While lines are important tactically… (and) political, bureaucratic, and organizational forces drive defining geographic boundaries, they are less important strategically.’

For many of the experts, the question of a southern anchor for US defence isn’t a binary decision between the various states of Oceania and Southeast Asia. Instead, as Huxley points out, the future of US policy in the region may lie in multiple strategic anchors and buoys at the region’s geopolitical core and periphery. ‘I don’t believe that US policymakers think in terms of a stark choice or even prioritization between Australia and the ASEAN member-states…It must be blindingly obvious that the US shouldn’t place all its geopolitical eggs in the region in one basket, in light of the diversity of political forces at play there domestically and internationally. US policy in recent months seems to bear this out: efforts to enhance security relations with Vietnam, Singapore, and Australia, not to mention more obviously potentially fickle players such as New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia and allies Thailand and the Philippines.’

However, Kurlantzick cautions that the Australia relationship remains a special one. ‘I don't think that any ASEAN state can take the place of Australia. The United States has a close defence relationship with Singapore, albeit a quiet one, but Singapore isn’t going to be able to project force, in conjunction with the US, in the way that Australia could. So there isn't really a country in ASEAN that could take the place of Australia in what the US Defence Department wants Canberra to do. That doesn't mean ASEAN isn't important – particularly Vietnam and Singapore – just that the two aren’t interchangeable.’

Chang agrees. The United States and Australia have a close relationship that has spanned decades and endured many conflicts, from World War II to Afghanistan. Today, the United States has a level of common security perspective and military cooperation with Australia that’s far deeper than it has with ASEAN, as a group,’ Chang said. ‘That’s unlikely to change in the coming years. The recent deeper engagement between the United States and ASEAN comes after decades where many ASEAN countries preferred to keep the US at arm’s length – favouring regional solutions to regional problems.

‘Hence the US relationship with ASEAN needs to be built upon. And, from a structural standpoint, the United States will always find it more challenging to manage a relationship with a collection of countries than a single one. Thus, even as the relative importance of ASEAN may grow in US defence strategy, it won’t come at the expense of Australia.’

In the 60th Anniversary year of ANZUS, few analysts therefore believe that the Australia-US relationship is headed for radical change. In his speech, Smith addressed this point from the Australian perspective. ‘In Australia’s view, the United States has underwritten stability in the Asia-Pacific for the past half century and will continue to be the single most important strategic actor in our region for the foreseeable future, both in its own right and through its network of alliances and security relationships, including with Australia.’

However, as Martel observes, the Asia-Pacific region is evolving quickly. The future of the relationship therefore may depend upon more than just policy. It also likely requires a new generation of American foreign policy experts who understand both the risks and rewards present in the Australian-American relationship, as well as regular conversations between US military leaders and policymakers with the media and general public on Australia-US relations.

Eddie Walsh is a freelance journalist and academic based in Washington DC. His work has been featured by ISN Insights, The East Asia Forum, The Jakarta Globe, and The Journal of Energy Security. He is currently DC / Pentagon correspondent for The Diplomat and recently completed post-MA coursework at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS. He can be reached at [email protected].

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