Prospects for Establishing a U.S.-Australia-Singapore Security Arrangement: The Australian Perspective
It has been 60 years since the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS Treaty) came into force.1 Since its signing in 1951, Australia and the United States have fought together in the Korean War, Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.2 Recently, the alliance has been strengthened further when in November 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gilllard agreed to station a U.S. Marine Corps task force in Darwin, Australia,3 and again in March 2012, when Canberra and Washington revealed plans to establish a joint airbase on the Australian-controlled Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. However positive these recent developments are, future progress may be slowed by the issues Australia faces, both with its defense planning and because of less-than-ideal relations with its Asian neighbors.
Australia’s Strategic Concerns
While it is clear that Australia and the United States share a very entrenched and intimate security relationship, Canberra faces two glaring concerns that directly impact its commitment to the alliance with Washington. The first dilemma emanates from Australia’s defense planning. Canberra’s plans to adjust and strengthen the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) capabilities to conform to the 2009 Defence White Paper and Defence Capability Plan have been hampered, largely due to fiscal constraints. Canberra’s planned acquisitions outlined in the 2009 Defence White Paper, which includes 100 F-35s, Canberra-class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) vessels, and 12 new submarines, seems too ambitious. Not only do these acquisitions stretch the already-tight defense budget, but itis also questionable whether they truly fit with Australia’s security environment and strategy.
One may argue that ANZUS lightens Australia’s defense outlays. Indeed, the U.S. Marine Corp’s presence in Darwin and the planned drone base in the Cocos Islands would further strengthen the alliance’s capabilities. However, the capabilities stationed (or planned to be stationed) in Australia do not substitute for the platforms Canberra plans to acquire. Hence Australia’s defense planning burden would remain more or less unchanged unless Canberra adjusts its defense proposals.
Second, due to its location, Australia is fixed to engage with its neighbors not only in Southeast Asia and Oceania, but also in Northeast Asia. Australia, however, faces numerous issues in its relations with the Asian states.6 Canberra has had an awkward relationship with Jakarta since the early post-WWII period, but especially since the secession of Timor Leste in 1999 and the Bali bombings in 2002. So although the United States has been building close relations with Indonesia in recent years, a lot remains to be done in order for Canberra and Jakarta to form a solid security relationship.
Perhaps the most controversial and serious dilemma for Canberra is its relationship with Beijing. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and many prominent defense analysts, including Hugh White, have expressed their concerns about this, arguing that if ANZUS attempts to contain or boldly deter China, this could incur severe economic consequences for Australia.7 Robert Ayson notes that, “Australia’s problem is that its robust stance towards the changing balance of military power in Asia is not integrated with its huge economic reliance on China.”8 Given China’s increasingly assertive behavior and military buildup in the region, Canberra may soon be forced to take a firm stance against Beijing in spite of its economic reliance on China.