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The U.S.-Australian Alliance in an East Asian Context: Speech By Peter Reith

This is the text of an address by Peter Reith, Minister for Defence, to the ANZUS Conference at the University of Sydney.

Speech by Defence Minister Peter Reith to ANZUS conference.

ReithIt is a great pleasure to ‘bounce the ball’ for the second half of this conference – although something of an invidious task: to reconvene our discussions first-up after last night’s dinner.

Our theme, I needn’t remind you, is the alliance between our two nations in its regional context. However, it is not a question of putting our alliance into this regional context; it is a matter of appreciating the extent to which our alliance is part of that context.

These reflections bring me straight to the two central points I want to make this morning. At the heart of the United States-Australian security partnership are the themes of engagement with the region, and consultation on how best to advance shared stability and understanding. Both of these themes characterise the history of the alliance, but now – perhaps more than ever – they are at its core. Let me note just in passing the emphasis the Bush Administration is giving to the Asia-Pacific Region, the priorities we have mapped out in our own recent defence review, and the current wide-ranging strategic and military review process under way in the United States. As both governments move ahead with these initiatives, consultation and engagement will remain vital elements in advancing our national interests and enhancing our partnership.

Policymakers always need to look forward. But it’s worth spending a bit of time analysing, and even celebrating, the achievements of the past. First, a bit of celebration. ANZUS is so much a part of our strategic heritage that it is easy to think of it as part of the natural landscape. That’s not so. It was the result of a very conscious, focussed and effective political and diplomatic effort. It was, from the outset, entirely an Australian initiative. In fact it was overwhelmingly the achievement of one man, Percy Spender. It was undoubtedly the most significant diplomatic initiative ever taken by Australia up to that time. And it was a long shot.

Spender met discouragement at every turn – in Canberra, in Washington, and especially in London. But he met that discouragement with two great qualities. One was an absolutely clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, and why. Spender was one of our great strategic thinkers. A clear-eyed realist of the old school, he understood Australia’s long-term strategic interests as well as anyone. He placed those strategic interests at the centre of his policy. And he was prepared to look at radical approaches to preserving them.

What Spender proposed was radical. Contrary to myth, Australia had not thrown out the British strategic relationship after the fall of Singapore. In 1951 most Australians still saw Britain as the main guarantor of our security. A security treaty with America was a radical idea. Much is made of Menzies’ reservations about the proposal – too much, I would argue. It was after all Menzies who had, on his first day in office as Prime Minister in April 1939 laid out an agenda for independent Australian diplomacy in the Pacific, and posted our first diplomatic representatives abroad.

But the true measure of Spender’s radicalism can be gauged by the response of Evatt, who criticised the treaty when it was presented to Parliament as ‘un-British’.

The second asset Spender had in the battle for ANZUS was a wonderfully agile and ruthless tactical sense, combined with relentless determination. He was not just a strategist, he was also a great lawyer, and he showed all the advocate’s skill in shaping arguments and seizing opportunities to push his case. Many of our foreign ministers have been lawyers, but Spender perhaps more than any other combined the vision and instincts of a strategist with the skills of a lawyer to create an extraordinary mix.

He was also, we should note, supported by an exceptional group of officials, including the late Sir Arthur Tange, who was entrusted by Spender with the promotion of the ANZUS concept in Washington. Spender was generous in acknowledging the contribution made by Tange, Watt and others to his achievement.

So I think we should pause to celebrate this first, great achievement of Australian strategic policy and diplomacy for what it is – one of the great Australian achievements of our first century.

But the historical record also provides opportunity for analysis as well as celebration. The point that most strikes us today as we look at the origins of ANZUS is one that is most relevant to this conference: the treaty was conceived from the outset as a regional arrangement.

ANZUS has always had both regional and bilateral [or trilateral] aspects. The balance between the regional and bilateral aspects of the Treaty has changed, especially since we adopted a policy of self-reliance in 1976 – twenty-five years ago this year, a nice numerological coincidence. The regional aspects of ANZUS have become more important to us still over the past ten years since the end of the Cold War, as we have wrestled with the evolution of a new security order in the region. And on current evidence the regional aspects of ANZUS are the ones which will dominate both debate on the treaty and the conduct of policy over the coming years.

But I would argue that ANZUS has always been more about the security of our region than about the direct defence of Australia. It was regional in its original conception. The ANZUS Treaty we have today came about as a result of Spender’s inability to achieve what he really wanted, a region-wide security organisation involving all the significant powers. Like many ambitious regional security architects who have followed him, he was told it was not possible, so he fell back on a trilateral arrangement.

But the imprint of his larger ambition is still there. It’s most obvious in the last preambular recital and in Article VIII: “Pending the development of a more comprehensive system of regional security in the Pacific Area”. Today we skip over that language as diplomatic boilerplate, but to Spender it was serious policy.

The fact that Spender’s original aim was a regional security arrangement is important to our understanding of what he was trying to do in negotiating the ANZUS Treaty, and of what he achieved.

First, it challenges the idea that Spender was simply trying to replace our old dependence on Britain as a strategic guarantor for Australia, with a new dependence on the US. Spender’s aim was much more ambitious: for Australia to take the lead in designing a security architecture for the whole region.

Second, Spender’s regional vision infused every critical aspect of the text he negotiated with the US. It therefore continues to shape Australia’s strategic policy and our relationship the US today and into the future.

This is perhaps most clear in the way the treaty text defines the geographic reach of the treaty. It was Spender who sought to give the treaty the widest possible reach, and it was he who pushed to use the broad and imprecise phrase ‘Pacific Area’. His reasoning was plain – Australia had strategic interests throughout the Western Pacific, not just in the direct defence of our own territory, and he wanted ANZUS to support them all.

Critics of the treaty, at the time and ever since, have made the mistake of seeing the extension of the treaty beyond our nearest neighbourhood as a bad bargain for Australia. They have said that in return for an undertaking to help defend Australia, Australia is committed to defend US interest throughout the rest of the region. But Spender’s vision was right: the wider interests protected by ANZUS are as much Australian strategic interests as American.

Moreover the wide geographical reach of ANZUS was important to Spender’s vision that ANZUS might still one day prove the foundation stone for his original, wider vision. He constructed ANZUS so that it could, one day, form the basis of an inclusive regional security grouping involving countries throughout Asia that would put into action in our part of the world the principles of the UN. That vision still seems unattainable, but one cannot help but admire the spirit that impelled it.

But the East Asian region then, as now, was characterised by significant, even dramatic change. By September 1951, when the Treaty was signed, the commitments to ‘effective self-help and mutual aid’ had assumed greater, more immediate prominence than the wider ambitions of inclusion. These commitments determined that the alliance must encompass nations that already shared as much as the United States, Australia and New Zealand. And those commitments remain central to the US-Australia alliance today. In our recent White Paper, and the report of the consultation process that preceded it, these elements are reaffirmed in popular support and far-reaching policy planning. There the same interdependence is declared between a commitment to a changing, dynamic region, a distinct national role for Australia, and an alliance with the United States.

I don’t need to rehearse here the range of United States-Australian cooperation detailed in Defence 2000, but I do want to underscore that our strong support for American engagement in the region complements and reinforces our commitment to an inclusive and cooperative approach to regional security. Many Australian citizens who participated in the consultation process, while emphasising the vital importance of ‘the region we live in’, also fully appreciated that the kind of Defence Force we need to fulfill our commitments to ‘self-help and mutual aid’ is dependent on the technology access, and scientific cooperation, provided by the US alliance.

In fact Australia’s ability to shape the regional security environment is substantially dependent on our defence relationship with the US which facilitates the development of ADF capability and professionalism. The Howard Government recognises that the type of ADF that we require is simply not achievable without the technology access provided by the US alliance.

Australia’s standing as a close ally and the priority the US accords to increasing the degree of interoperability between our armed forces, has been recognised in the US Defense Trade Security Initiative (DTSI) in May 2000 and in the Statement of Principles for Enhanced Cooperation in Matters of Defence Equipment and Industry signed in July 2000.

  • DTSI opens the possibility of substantial exemptions from regulatory mechanisms for arms and technology trade with Australia. Only the UK shares these advantages.
  • The Statement of Principles emphasises the shared intent to enhance cooperative research, development, production and procurement.
  • A treaty-level agreement between the US and Australian governments concerning export controls to facilitate access to control of defence systems is at an advanced stage of negotiation.

These arrangements will give Australia even better access to US military technology which gives us a vital edge in capability and operations. One of these vital and sensitive areas is in submarine technology. US Navy assistance with hull, mechanical and propeller technology has been critical in improving acoustic performance and overcoming significant shortcomings in the Collins Class.

The alliance, then, remains a bilateral partnership in a regional context – a region we see from our own complementary perspectives. If American attention focuses first on North-East Asia, ours is on South-East Asia. These divisions, of course, do not obscure the basic interdependency – economic, political and strategic – of East Asia in general, or the widespread appreciation across East Asia of the US’s contribution to the balance and stability of the region. One of the vital contributions our alliance can make is to articulate this interdependency, and to seek ways of thinking – of engaging – across narrower regional divisions.

This balancing role, as I have already noted, cannot be unchanging, and the Bush Administration has begun the thorough and careful process of assessing its future needs and objectives – many of which we are discussing at this conference.

Australia has always and will continue to be a voice of counsel in setting these engagement priorities, of getting the interdependency and balance right. Our support for US engagement, necessarily, has some very concrete dimensions. The most obvious of these are our bilateral exercising and training programs, for example, which do so much to keep our forces at the height of their capabilities and to assist US presence in this region. Another example would be our burden-sharing in the field of intelligence. These activities are of great, often irreplaceable, value for us both.

While the Bush Administration might be canvassing some adjustments in its regional force structure and forward basing arrangements, we are confident that such areas of our cooperation remain of fundamental value. And as the Administration considers its priorities and options, we look forward to discussing its evolving vision of regional engagement, and what it will mean for all of us.

In short, to be an effective partner in the alliance, Australia seeks to maintain and enhance our standing in the region. In the White Paper we have renewed our commitment to extend our exchanges with regional countries, and to project our perspectives more directly and clearly amid the fluid and often complex strategic relationships that are evolving in this part of the world. A similar opportunity – or responsibility – exists for the United States.

Our roles in regional engagement might not and can not be the same, but they must share the same objectives. The US-Australia alliance, as a part of the network of alliances across East Asia, is centred on regional security. Our objectives are not to constrain other countries from pursuing their legitimate objectives and interests. They are certainly not about denying the vitality, the dynamism or the uncertainties of change in East Asia.

This brings me to my second theme: consultation, and consultation of a distinct kind. For me, Australia’s alliance with the United States is characterised by the ease and openness with which we share our values, our perspectives and our differences. Again, let me give a little historical flavour to this point.

The ANZUS Treaty was signed in what the press of the day described as a ‘simple and dignified ceremony’ in the recreation hall of the Enlisted Men’s Club at an army camp, overlooking the Golden Gate bridge. I like that, just as I enjoyed the relative informality of our dinner last night in the University’s Faculty Club – and I congratulate our hosts on achieving that mood. The United States-Australia alliance lives in consultation, candour and refreshing informality.

That there should be ‘no elaborate organisation’ was a riding instruction for those drafting the treaty and creating its central feature: the establishment of a ‘Council’ to maintain a ‘consultative relationship’. This Council first met in Hawaii in 1952, and I note the remark made by Dean Acheson – then Secretary of State. Regarding that first meeting of the ANZUS Council, Acheson confided to President Truman that: “I decided that instead of starving the Australians and New Zealanders, we would give them indigestion.”

The menu was the state of the world – political, social, military, from ‘good governance’ through to capability. Over the years, I think Australian appetites have risen to the challenge, and I even think we are pretty good at exchanging recipes – no more so than when discussing East Asia. I won’t extend the metaphor, but I think the point is clear.

The US-Australian alliance exists in dialogue, in conversation, in consultations in which we listen, we respond, we express our views, and we state our preferences and concerns. It is certainly appropriate that we should mark the alliance’s anniversary with an occasion such as this.

One issue of today which effectively brings together both my themes – engagement and consultation – is missile defence. Let me take a few moments, in conclusion, to say something on this issue.

The renewed commitment of the Bush Administration to develop a defence against ballistic missile attack is attracting considerable debate. The Administration is currently engaged in developing its options and is consulting allies, friends and other interested parties, including Russia and China.

Australia’s position of understanding US plans to develop a limited missile defence system to defend against the potential threats posed by the proliferation of missile technology is well-understood, and increasingly shared by others. Equally well-established is our enduring role, extending back nearly as far as ANZUS – some thirty years – in the early warning business. Moving on from these givens, I want to make two points.

First, the concentration of the current public debate on National Missile Defence has been misleading. To begin, we don’t yet know what is being proposed, and little purpose is served by speculation. More importantly, we need to look at the wider compass of what a missile defence system might involve.

You will recall, I am sure, the image of the Iraqi Scud missiles being launched at Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. This image would chill any one thinking about what ‘engagement’ really means under pressure – about working together, or in coalition, to regain security and stability. Missile early warning information from the Joint Defence Facility at Nurrungar, now relocated to Pine Gap, was critical to defence against these attacks. The US used Patriot missile batteries to engage the Scuds. This was a rudimentary Theatre Missile Defence, a precursor, if you like, to one of the elements the Bush Administration is seeking to encompass in a more inclusive missile defence system. The security offered by that system was vital to the ability to hold a coalition together in defence of Kuwait. How much more vital would it have been if Iraq had been delivering weapons of mass destruction.

My second point relates to the R & D side of missile defence. From our role in early warning through to our objectives in intelligence and surveillance, and – again – the protection of our own deployed forces, I am not prepared to limit or foreclose our access to, or benefits from, missile defence technology. Much of this technology has wide application, not only to our own security, but to regional stability and international cooperation more generally. Any US missile defence system would contain technologies with generic applications that we are keen to pursue as we address ADF priorities in non-ballistic missile defence areas.

On these bases, I am committed to following through with the full and genuine process of consultation the US has begun with us, and with all directly interested parties, on missile defence.

Drawing my comments together, can I finish by saying that around these themes – these strengths – of engagement and consultation, the US-Australia alliance has proved remarkably adaptable in maintaining that realist-interdependence balance I referred to earlier. Australia, like many nations in East Asia, values the balance of power, the check on competition, that the US provides through its engagement in the region. We also seek to enhance the interdependence, and to respond to the complex forms of globalisation, that are also closely associated with the interests and influence of the United States.

Ours is a partnership as much as an alliance, and the closeness of fifty years shows no sign of abating – although it must, inevitably, evolve. Australians value their independence, and the United States values it in us: otherwise there would be little point in consultation, in sharing views. Both sides approach the relationship as one of shared interests and, pragmatically, for the benefits we can extract. This is why the partnership is still viable after fifty years. In that spirit, then, can I wish you a very full and challenging program for the rest of the day, stimulating your appetites rather than loading your plates.

Thank you.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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