A New Strategic Song? ANZUS, the 2020 Australian Defence Update, and Redefining Self-Reliance


Is Australia taking steps toward a career as a soloist in the opera of Indo-Pacific deterrence? In 2020, the country has taken a long, hard look at the Indo-Pacific region, including the United States under President Donald Trump. Has it decided that its relationship with the United States is more about dashed expectations than 100 years of “mateship”?

Van Jackson’s piece The Risks of Australia’s Solo Deterrence Wager charts out an assessment of Australia’s new 2020 Defence Strategic Update in these stark new terms. He notes that “Australia, arguably America’s closest ally in the Asia-Pacific, has decided to prepare for a world in which it may not be able to count on the United States to protect it from China … [and that] the implied new purpose of Australia’s modernization bid is to deter China in limited conventional warfare on its own, without the United States.” Australia is, in this assessment, singing its own strategic tune.

In terms of its view of the regional order and the challenges this presents, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update certainly marks a step change in Australia’s strategic calculations. It is a recognition of what the former head of the Australian Office of National Assessments and founding executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Alan Gyngell, noted in 2018: “The post-war global order — the only one … [Australia’s] foreign policy has known — has ended. It’s not being challenged. It’s not changing. It’s over.”



But despite the relative decline of U.S. global power, the end to U.S. uncontested maritime supremacy in the Indo-Pacific, and the reactionist, erratic, and cavalier leadership of Trump with his disdain for longstanding U.S. allies, Australia is not going it alone. It may be singing a new strategic song, but it’s doing so in tune with the ANZUS alliance.

Compared to its most recent predecessors, this assessment paints a much darker and more dystopian view of the strategic environment. At its launch, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made analogies between the current strategic environment and the existential threats that Australia faced in the 1930s and 1940s. One media commentator noted, “If it sounds like war talk, that’s because it is.”

The update concludes that “major power competition has intensified and the prospect of high-intensity conflict in the Indo-Pacific, while still unlikely, is less remote than in the past.” It then sets out to chart a path to “shape” the region, “deter actions against [Australia’s] interests and, when required, respond with military force.”

The focus is on Australia’s immediate region (northeast Indian Ocean through Southeast Asia to the Southwest Pacific) and it moves to a denial approach. Previously, Australia had centered its self-reliant defense posture in terms of low-level threats to the north of the country from Indonesia. The emphasis is now on the potential for high-end conflict and the focus of the Australian Defence Force to grow its “self-reliant ability to deliver deterrent effects.” This means that many of the longstanding approaches to Australian strategy and its dominant way of war will have to change.

What the Defence Strategic Update does is put down some markers about the modernization of the U.S.-Australian alliance — something that should be welcomed across the Pacific where the call for allies to do more has been a feature of successive U.S. administrations and has become rather shrill under Trump.

Australia’s new approach goes a long way to meet White House expectations as it aligns to U.S. alliance expectations set out in the U.S. National Defense Strategy: that the United States “expect[s] allies and partners to contribute an equitable share to our mutually beneficial collective security, including effective investment in modernizing their defense capabilities.” With the onset of COVID-19-induced recession, Australia should also easily spend 2 percent of GDP on its defense. Furthermore, Australia’s prime minister made it clear to the Aspen Security Forum on Aug. 5 that “2 per cent of our GDP is no longer a target, it is a floor for us and we will spend even more.”

So, while the update maps out a re-evaluation of the U.S. alliance, one key point of continuity remains: the centrality of the U.S. alliance in Australian defense policy. This was reinforced at the recent Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) meeting in Washington, D.C.; for Australia, the relationship with the United States remains “the Alliance” with an emphasis on the capital A.

The concept of self-reliance within the alliance framework is core to how Australia understands its relationship with its “great and powerful friends.” This conceptual approach has dominated the country’s strategic thinking since the 1960s and has been evident in Australian strategic guidance since the early 1970s.

This is unequivocal in the 2020 update which uses the term “self-reliance” on a number of occasions. However, it is now being reconceptualized to mean: “build[ing] resilience” through increasing the “range and quantity” of “weapons stocks” in order to “grow the ADF’s self-reliance for delivering deterrent effects” and “to enhance the ADF’s self-reliance, including in the context of high-intensity operations.”

But self-reliance is not self-sufficiency. It’s not about going it alone.

As Professor Stephan Frühling has noted, “Australia [has] never sought (or could achieve) forces that would be self-sufficient — i.e., independent of allied intelligence, logistics and other support, or equipped with only Australian made material.”

The key to Australia’s alliance management has always been calibrating its level of self-reliance. This is the reality of being the smaller power in a profoundly asymmetrical alliance relationship that at its core — in the actual text of the ANZUS Treaty — commits neither side to anything more than to “consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific.”

There is no security guarantee — the text of the ANZUS Treaty makes this clear. This makes it very different from NATO. What’s more, the lack of a security guarantee is not offset by the United States basing a tripwire force in Australia (the U.S. Marine Corps presence in Darwin is a Marine Rotational Force and the U.S. intelligence installations are, in fact, “joint facilities”).

The ambiguity in the wording of the ANZUS Treaty is, however, not all bad. After a long period in opposition, the Labor government under Bob Hawke undertook a formal review of ANZUS in 1983 as part of its reassessment of Australian strategy. The review assessed the ANZUS Treaty as holding “significant deterrence value” as possible adversaries would have to try and evaluate the “basis and extent of U.S. military support … in the event of a major threat to Australia’s security.”

What the 1983 review also made clear was that it was the “coincidence of interest, rather than the provisions of the treaty which provides the basis for co-operation.” This point is critically important to how Australian strategists interpret the U.S.-Australian alliance.

In the alliance’s long history, there have been a number of occasions, largely over Southeast Asian security issues, that the United States and Australia have not found a point of “coincidence of interests.” At times, the United States has specifically ruled out direct U.S. military intervention under the ANZUS Treaty, notably in West Papua in 1959, during the deployment of Australia troops from 1963 to 1966 to resist Indonesia’s policy of Konfrontasi (political, economic, and military pressures just short of war) against Malaysia, and in East Timor in 1999.

The nature of the ANZUS Treaty, Australia’s traditional anxiety over its security in Asia, and episodic periods of divergence of interests have stoked Australia’s fear that the United States would abandon the alliance. In 1976, after the 1969 Nixon Doctrine whereby the United States expected its allies in Asia to take direct responsibility for their own defense, the Australian defense establishment reflected that it “would not be prudent to rely upon U.S. combat help in all circumstances. Indeed … the threshold of direct U.S. combat involvement could be quite high. This is as it should be.”

This notion of self-reliance has to also be understood in relation to burden-sharing in the alliance. In the 1950s and 1960s, Australian policymakers realized that the country might have to play a leading role in Southeast Asia if the Cold War went hot and the United States was heavily engaged in Europe or Northeast Asia. After Australia led the East Timor intervention in 1999, it committed more broadly to “lead coalition operations in the South-West Pacific.” Australians are conscious that in the event of conflict in the contemporary Indo-Pacific, either by choice or necessity, Northeast Asia may well dominate U.S. strategic thinking and deployments of military force in the region.

Fundamental to the idea of a “coincidence of interests” and burden-sharing is the position of Southeast Asia in U.S. and Australian policy. To Australia, this is one of the two critical regions to its security (the other being the South Pacific). A persistent question for Australia is where core U.S. interests in Asia lie, and what role Southeast Asia plays. This is once again front and center as the 2020 Defence Strategic Update made the centrality of Southeast Asia to Australia’s security clear.

The role of Southeast Asia in U.S. policy has, more often than not, been a vexed question for Australia. In a 1950 speech, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson left South Korea and all of Southeast Asia, except the Philippines, on the wrong side of the U.S. defensive perimeter in Asia. Engagement in Southeast Asia was core to U.S. policy in the 1960s as a result of U.S. intervention in Vietnam. But this did not extend to Australia’s core concerns over Indonesia, where there was a fundamental disagreement between Australian and U.S. policymakers over the applicability of the ANZUS Treaty. After much deliberation, President John F. Kennedy delivered a blunt message to Australian Foreign Minister Garfield Barwick over Konfrontasi. Kennedy rejected the notion of U.S. involvement and stated, “People have forgotten ANZUS and are not at the moment prepared for a situation which would involve the United States.” As the historian James Curran has noted, “The American ‘forgetting’ of ANZUS hit like a thunderbolt. It punctured not only much of the rhetoric about an alliance forged in the crucible of the Pacific but questioned the foundational principle of Australia’s Cold War policy.”

Southeast Asia was once again out of U.S. policy priorities with the Nixon Doctrine, helping to driving the self-reliant defense of Australian doctrine. It was back in with President Barack Obama as his real “rebalance [was]…between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia,” while under Trump … well, no one really knows as the relationship between declared U.S. policy and the whims of the president seems at best tangential. What is clear is that right out of the box the Trump administration shot itself in the head with its Asia policy by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, recent U.S. actions seem to have recast U.S. policy towards the South China Sea, “upping the ante” with Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell asserting that the United States is “no longer going to say we are neutral on these maritime issues” and warning that “nothing is off the table.”

While the concept of self-reliance has been key to Australian defense planning since the early 1970s and can be traced back even further to the late 1940s, it has never been fixed. The continuity from its use arises from the principles of balancing sovereignty, strategic risks, and Australia’s understanding of where its “coincidence of interest” with its major power ally lie.

Unequivocally, though, the U.S. alliance remains core to Australian strategy. As the 2020 Defence Strategic Update makes clear, “cooperation between Australia and the United States is critical to Australia’s national security,” and “only the nuclear and conventional capabilities of the United States can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia.”

At the same time, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update states that “it is the Government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for our own security.” Conceptually, this is nothing new. What the 2020 update does is lay out the pathway for greater self-reliance in a strategic environment completely new to Australia’s national experience, while also being in lockstep with the U.S. National Defense Strategy.

The question is not of Australia going solo and singing a completely new strategic song, but how the U.S.-Australian alliance is recalibrated in this new strategic era. The recent AUSMIN meeting focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and issues such as countering coercion, cyber security, maritime cooperation, and rare earth minerals. However, as  Jackson has pointed out, the managers of the U.S.-Australian alliance should now also be working towards clarity in the relationship in key areas such as Australia’s denial approach, U.S. policy (and political stability), the division of alliance labor and the development of partnerships with other like-minded friends and allies. In addition, it is an opportune time, as the AUSMIN statement outlined, to take a much closer look at both U.S. and Australian force posture — including the potential of basing U.S. forces in Australia. Such developments are critical to the refinement of the U.S.-Australian alliance for it to meet the contemporary Indo-Pacific strategic environment. Doing so will ensure that the United States and Australia are both singing off the same strategic song sheet.



Professor Peter J. Dean is the chair in defence studies and director of the Defence and Security Program at the University of Western Australia. His most recent book, with Brendan Taylor and Stephan Frühling, is After American Primacy: Imagining the Future of Australia’s Defence.

Image: D. Myles Cullen