Secretary's Speech: The United States Alliance and Australian Foreign Policy—Past, Present and Future

Sydney, 29 June 2001

Speech by the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,
Dr Ashton Calvert, to the University of Sydney conference,
The United States Alliance and East Asian Security

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you this morning on the United States alliance and Australian foreign policy.

I want to thank Sydney University for its initiative in organising this important conference.

I am glad that my department has been able to contribute to the arrangements, along with the Department of Defence and the US Embassy in Canberra.

The distinguished range of speakers and guests here today reflects the fact that nearly 50 years after the ANZUS Treaty was signed on 1 September 1951 it remains at the heart of one of Australia’s most important and vibrant bilateral relationships.

The formal security undertaking enshrined in the ANZUS Treaty is a commitment by each of the parties – in the event of an armed attack on any of them or their island territories or their armed forces in the Pacific area – to act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.

Much has been made over the years of a perceived difference between this commitment and the somewhat more specific formulations used in the NATO Treaty.

I belong to the school of thought which considers the two treaties as having equal status as regards the quality of their security commitments.

This is a commonsense interpretation reinforced by the public statement by President Truman in April 1951 that the guarantees in ANZUS would be modelled on those in the NATO Treaty.

Why has the ANZUS Treaty – at least as it applies between Australia and the United States – endured so successfully?

Part of the reason, I think, is that its security commitment is timeless and not defined by reference to any particular threat or circumstance.

More importantly, the treaty has received over the years  strong bipartisan support in both countries as the formal expression of a strong working alliance based on shared values, a close congruence of strategic interests and a proud history of defence cooperation. 

This, for me, explains the vitality of ANZUS and its relevance in the decades ahead.

For Australia, the alliance with the United States makes a fundamental contribution to our defence preparedness and capabilities.

We benefit from privileged access to US defence technology and from valuable intelligence-sharing arrangements.

For its part, Australia contributes to strategic stability and US early warning and intelligence capabilities through our hosting of the Joint Facilities at Pine Gap.

Australia’s relationship with the United States is, of course, much broader than just a defence alliance, important as that is.

ANZUS is at the heart of a broad and mature bilateral relationship that brings mutual benefit across the whole spectrum of both countries’ interests.

For 50 years the alliance has underpinned a close and effective foreign policy partnership marked by a shared commitment to democracy, regional and international security, and an open world trading system.

Australia and the United States have worked together to promote our common interests in all parts of the world, and above all, in the Asia-Pacific region.

This morning, I should like to focus particularly on the foreign policy context of the ANZUS Treaty both historically and in the period ahead.

Comparing the circumstances surrounding the birth of the alliance with the challenges and opportunities that Australia and the United States will face in the Asia-Pacific region in the future underlines for me the great versatility and continuing relevance of the ANZUS alliance.

The historical origins of ANZUS

It is worth recalling that ANZUS was negotiated and signed at a tumultuous time in world affairs.

It was a period of considerable international and regional uncertainty.

The full dimensions of the Cold War confrontation were becoming apparent in Europe and the Middle East. 

Closer to home, most of our Asian neighbours were struggling to break free from colonial rule.

Between 1947 and 1949, India, Pakistan and Ceylon gained independence from the United Kingdom in turbulent circumstances.

After a violent struggle, Indonesia achieved independence from The Netherlands in 1949.

Indo-China was in turmoil from 1945 onward, with France engaged in a losing battle to reassert its colonial authority.

In Malaya and Burma, insurgents locked horns with colonial authorities, and Burma declared independence from Britain in 1948.

Communists seized control of China in 1949.

The Korean peninsula was divided between two mutually hostile camps—and full-scale conflict broke out when North Korea attacked in June 1950.

Japan’s future was a major preoccupation in the region.

In Australia, the perils of the Second World War had made us look more to the United States, rather than Britain, as our primary ally and partner in the region.

The United States was by far the world’s richest and most powerful nation, with similar values to ours and a high level of strategic engagement in the Asia-Pacific.

Our two countries were working together to build up the United Nations, to establish a more liberal world trading system through the GATT, and to promote global economic stability and economic development through establishment of the Bretton Woods institutions.

Australia and the United States were natural partners, and a security alliance was an obvious step in developing our relationship.

In his first major speech to Parliament on foreign policy in 1950, the then Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender, called for a defensive military arrangement between countries which had both a vital interest in the stability of Asia and the Pacific and a capacity to undertake military commitments.

Spender also saw wider aims for such an arrangement—the promotion of democratic political institutions, higher living standards, and increased commercial and cultural ties.

For all its compelling logic, a formal security treaty between Australia and the United States was achieved only after a protracted and determined effort on both sides. 

The treaty took shape against resistance in some quarters, particularly in London, and there was early hesitation on the US side to commit itself further in Asia at a time of considerable tension, and pressure on its resources, in Europe.

Spender negotiated the treaty on behalf of Australia, and probably did more than any other Australian at the time to smooth the path to ANZUS.

Neither he nor the then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, doubted that Australia’s national interests lay in a security pact with the United States.

But they did not just accept US terms—in the negotiations Australia pushed hard, and successfully, to forge an alliance that was firmly in our national interest.

I am pleased to announce that my department will publish in early September a volume of official documents to commemorate the treaty’s fiftieth anniversary, covering Australia’s contribution to the negotiation and ratification ofANZUS in the period from 1949 to 1952.

Present and Future

Looking at the period ahead, the ANZUS alliance will remain, I am sure, a fundamental component of Australia’s defence and international security policies.

In a broader sense, it also forms a basis for a strategic and foreign policy partnership that allows Australia and the United States to maximise a commonality of purpose in dealing with a range of challenges and opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region.

An abiding objective of Australia’s strategy towards the region is to encourage and support the long-term strategic, political and economic engagement of the United States in East Asia.

This is based on a robust and clear-sighted view of Australia’s own national interests. 

The ANZUS alliance itself contributes directly to this outcome and, in doing so, makes its own important contribution to regional stability and security.

It complements and sits alongside the important alliances the United States maintains with Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Taken together, these three alliances are fundamental building blocks for stability in the Asia-Pacific region and will remain so, I am confident, for many years to come.

As allies and diplomatic partners, Australia and the United States have to contend with a number of major policy challenges in the region in the period ahead.

They are quite different in detail from the challenges that confronted the Asia-Pacific region at the time of the conclusion of the ANZUS Treaty.

Nevertheless, as policy tasks they are just as demanding and entail stakes just as high as those of the challenges of 1951.

Both together and separately, Australia and the United States have to devise constructive policy responses to China’s economic advancement and rising international power.

We need to support and facilitate China’s successful integration into the regional and international economies, as well as encouraging China’s assumption of a leadership role which is responsible and takes due account of the legitimate interests of other regional players.

For the United States and China, managing the Taiwan issue in their relationship will be a particularly difficult test.

Australia and the United States have distinctive but mutually reinforcing roles in encouraging Japan to make a more direct contribution to international security in ways that reassure its neighbours and encourage regional confidence.

A stronger peacekeeping role by Japan is an appropriate example of this.

Again, the United States and Australia share an important strategic and diplomatic interest in encouraging closer and more constructive engagement by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with the international community.

Finally, South-East Asia is an area where Australia and the United States need to demonstrate sensitivity and innovation in nurturing and maintaining defence relationships which buttress democratic institutions, contribute to national resilience, and foster a basic sympathy and orientation towards western strategic purposes.

In these various tasks, I do not expect we shall see the ANZUS alliance at play in a direct way.

Rather, it will provide in the background a solid basis for Australia and the United States to consult, coordinate policies and maximise the effectiveness of our respective regional strategies.

And, if you stop to think about it, that is an eminently reasonable and desirable contribution for the alliance to make to the Australian and United States roles in the region. 

In all of this, Australia brings its own distinctive and independent perspective.

But our standing and influence in both the East Asian region and Washington are considerably enhanced by the ANZUS alliance.

And I am confident that these benefits to Australian foreign policy are ones that will endure.