A Test for the Australia-US alliance

The controversy over Prime Minister John Howard’s slagging

off of US Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has hardly

simmered down before Australia gets ready to face another, with the arrival tomorrow

(Feb. 22) of the US Vice President Dick Cheney to thank Canberra for its

military contributions to the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.

Cheney’s visit will require careful managing by both Howard and Cheney. The

American vice president arrives at a time when Howard, who has let no daylight

show between him and the US

over the Iraq

war, is running far behind the opposition Labour Party’s new leader, Kevin Rudd

in the polls. Rudd favors a gradual troop withdrawal from Iraq. Ominously for the combative

prime minister, even the bookies have him running far behind Rudd.

Never one to step away from a fight, however, Howard Tuesday offered to send

another 70 advisers to Iraq

to complement the 1,400 Australian troops already there. He raised American hackles last week by

attacking Obama on a local current affairs television program over Obama’s

recommendation of a 2008 deadline for US troop withdrawal. “If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq I

would put a circle around March 2008 and pray as many times as possible for a

victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats,” Howard said

While Howard may want to use the Cheney visit to argue that

his Labor Party opponent, Kevin Rudd, is weak on security, he will not want to

let himself be painted as a lackey of Washington.

Critics are bound to try to make comparisons with the Vietnam War Prime

Minister, Harold Holt, who welcomed former US

President Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Australia

in 1966 by saying Australia

was “all the way with LBJ.”

And Cheney, perhaps the most hawkish major figure left in

the Bush Administration, will want to avoid any comments that result in him

being accused of interference in domestic politics. Cheney already raised a

ruckus on his stop Tuesday in Japan

by snubbing Fumio Kyuma, Japan' s outspoken defense minister, in the wake

of Kyuma’s criticism of US

war strategy in Iraq

Cheney’s arrival appears certain to drive debate about Australia-US

relations to the top of Australia’s

political agenda. The debate really is becoming a test of positions over the US

alliance and security. With an election to be held by the end of the year,

Howard wants to portray the opposition Labor Party’s policy as being at odds

with Australia’s

national interest.

The problem for Howard is that

Australians long ago began to turn against the war. As long ago as February

2005 – two years ago – 53 percent of respondents to a Newspoll/TheAustralian

poll said they wanted to bring Australia’s

forces home. More and more Australians are arguing that Howard’s strong

relationship with Bush has resulted in him taking a partisan position not in

the interest of Australia’s long

term relations with the US.

"I would say the greatest current threat to the quality of the alliance

would be a sense in the United States that Australia had deserted her in her

hour of need,” Howard says, arguing that if the US were seen to be defeated in

Iraq, the loss of American prestige and the boost to Al Qaeda linked terrorism

would be harmful to Australia’s interests and security.

To get some bearings on this debate, it’s important to look at the nature of

the alliance. To many in Asia, Australia

may seem locked in step with the US in international relations. This

is not the case. The alliance is certainly a central part of Australian foreign

and defense policies. But this does not mean independent positions, if not ones

at odds to US

policy, are not taken.

The Howard government has differentiated Australia’s China policy from the

US over Taiwan, for example, and, earlier, at the time of the 1997/98 Asian

financial crisis challenged Washington over what it saw as the inappropriately

severe economic “adjustment” policies of the International Monetary Fund and

World Bank being imposed on Indonesia.

But Australia has never gone

as far as New Zealand in

taking issue with the US

to the serious detriment of the alliance. New

Zealand’s policy of not allowing nuclear powered or armed

warships to enter its waters since the mid 1980s has led to the US suspending its links with New Zealand under the ANZUS

security treaty. Wellington

nevertheless contributed NZ military forces to the 2001 Gulf War, the US invasion of Afghanistan

and army engineers for reconstruction in post invasion Iraq.

From an Australian perspective, arguments for the alliance, as historian, Dr

Peter Edwards, says in a paper published by Sydney’s Lowy Institute, Permanent Friends?, include US military

aid in the event of a major threat; access to high level American policymakers;

access to American intelligence; access to advanced defense science and

technology; and economic benefits of access to US markets as gained under the 2005

Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. Associated with these is the case that the

alliance enables Australia

to bring US attention to its

region and matters where Washington

otherwise may not be concerned.

There is continuity here with Australia’s

earlier relations with Great

Britain. While Australia felt itself very

close to Britain and an integral part of the British Empire and then the Commonwealth

countries, governments also wanted influence in British policymaking to ensure

that Antipodean interests were protected.

And this could lead to disagreement and actions contrary to London’s preferences as

occurred in World War II. The then-Labor Prime Minister, John Curtin, fought

with the British leader Winston Churchill over the disposition of Australian

troops with Churchill wanting, unsuccessfully, to keep them fighting in the

Europe rather than being brought back to Australia to fight Japan in the


It was at this time that the foundations of the US

alliance were laid with Curtin declaring that, to ensure the country’s defense,

Australia “looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional

links or kinship with the United


Relations though with the US in the conduct of the Pacific war

and in post war planning were also not smooth. Canberra often felt it was being relegated to

the lower divisions and shut out of top level discussions.

Nevertheless, while Australia

continued after 1945 to maintain foreign policy and defense ties with Britain – as shown by military aid to the

British forces fighting the Communist Emergency in Malaya in the 1950s and in

the 1960s, the Indonesian “Confrontation” with the new Malaysia - the US was seen as now key to regional security.

A product of this was the 1951 Australia-New Zealand-United States Security

Treaty (ANZUS). Australia’s conservative

Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, insisted on this as the price for Australia agreeing to a peace treaty with Japan.

Australia and New Zealand primarily wanted insurance against a

resurgent Japan.

The US

for its part, with the outbreak of the Korean War, saw the spread of Communism

as the great menace. It agreed with the treaty in order to speed the rehabilitation

of Japan as an ally as well

as gain Australia and New Zealand

as clear allies.

Since then ANZUS has provided the framework for the alliance with regular

ministerial meetings and joint defense programs. (This has been on a bilateral

basis since 1986 with New Zealand’s exclusion). The treaty was invoked by Howard for the first

time in its history after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

But there are also arguments that the benefits for Australia of the treaty can be

overblown. There is no true security guarantee unlike the North Atlantic Treaty

Organization (NATO) where there are explicit mutual defense obligations. It has

been described as a treaty to consult rather than to defend. In keeping with

the security concerns at the time it was fashioned, ANZUS’s geographical focus

is the “Pacific Area.”

The parties agree to consult if there are security threats and co operate

over defense capability. An attack on any of the signatories would oblige the

others to "act to meet the common danger in accordance with its

constitutional processes." The treaty affirms that it is consistent with

the parties’ obligations as signatories to the United Nations Charter and that

they will refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of

force contrary to the purposes of the UN.

Whatever the limits of the actual treaty, since it was signed more than half

a century ago, Australia’s diplomatic,

defense, economic and other ties with the US have expanded and strengthened

enormously. The US alliance

has bi partisan support among the major parties in Australia. While Labor may be quite

critical in opposition, reflecting in part at least the influence of its often

anti American left wing, in office it has always affirmed its ongoing importance

– as indeed does Mr. Rudd now.

But this does not mean that governments or aspiring ones can count on public

support if they are perceived as subservient to the US. Former conservative Prime

Minister, Malcolm Fraser, has been outspoken in this regard, writing that “the

Howard-Bush relationship seems unofficially to have given ANZUS a much broader

scope. Australia

today acts as though it is unquestioningly and irrevocably tied to support of

American policy worldwide.”

Andrew Symon, an Australian, is a Singapore

based business consultant and journalist. In Australia he has worked as an

advisor in the Australian Parliament and a ministerial speechwriter.