Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 8

Shared strategic interests and political values tie Australia to the United States across the Pacific in much the same way as the Anglo-American alliance traverses the Atlantic. The U.S. is Australia’s most important military ally, with the 1951 ANZUS Treaty as the cornerstone of Australia’s defense strategy. Under Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative coalition government, Australia has established new benchmarks for loyalty to the U.S. by consistently supporting American strategic initiatives and policies at global and regional levels. In 2004, Australia became the first and only country in the Asia-Pacific to have a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S. That FTA is now further strengthened by a recent agreement on the joint development of a missile defense shield. Cooperation with the United States on missile defense is part of a much broader effort by Canberra to expand interoperability, military and defense-industry partnering with the United States, including joint military training with U.S. troops on Australian soil, and Australian participation in the development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

However, the possibility of a U.S.-China confrontation over Taiwan could confront ANZUS with its greatest challenge and is seen as having the potential to divide Australia and the United States. Much as Canberra would prefer a closer strategic partnership between Washington and Beijing, the reality is that many in the Bush administration view China as a long-term strategic threat and one that Australia will be expected to confront alongside the U.S. if future Sino-American crises over Taiwan and North Korea materialize. The nightmare scenario for Canberra is a military confrontation that would mean choosing sides and lining up with the United States against China. Even minimal Australian support (in terms of logistics or intelligence support) for the U.S. war effort is sure to invite maximum Chinese retaliation. China is now as critical for Australia’s economic security and prosperity as the U.S. is for its military security. The Howard Government places a high premium on relations with China, with which it is currently negotiating an FTA. The growing dependence of the Australian economy on China for sustained economic growth has significant strategic consequences. It limits Australia’s foreign policy choices and further restricts its freedom for action in disputes involving China over Taiwan, North Korea or WMD proliferation.

Calculated ambiguity

Much like the U.S., Australia has long followed a bipartisan “one-China policy” that calls for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question. However, Canberra’s alliance with Washington has emerged as a bone of contention with Beijing. Beijing has put Canberra on notice that China expects Australia to remain neutral should a conflict break out. For their part, several Bush administration officials have emphasized their expectation of Australian support for American forces involved. [1] Debate on Australia’s posture in the event of a conflict remains polarized between those who urge caution and are wary of “the American neoconservatives’ view of China”, and those who do not want to abandon the economically prosperous and democratic state to the bullying tactics of Communist China. Others advocate maintaining “calculated ambiguity.” Most argue that Australia’s response to any crisis would reflect how that crisis emerged, which would then inform any decision whether to, and to what extent, it would support the U.S.

Some influential Australians believe that the alliance must allow scope for disagreement, and that the U.S. should understand Australia’s non-participation in a future conflict across the Taiwan Straits. [2] (In the same manner as the U.S. understood Britain’s non-involvement in the Vietnam War or Canada’s in the Iraq War.) Australia’s rapidly growing pro-China lobby in the strategic community, media, business, and academia adds weight to this argument by contending that Chinese trade and commercial ties have now become too important to the Australian economy for Canberra to risk alienating Beijing over Taiwan, or other regional disputes that may rupture Sino-U.S. relations. [3] For its part, Beijing is also dangling the carrot of lucrative business deals (e.g., a $25 billion natural gas deal) and the promise of strategic partnership with Canberra in order to ensure Australia’s neutrality (along with South Korea and the Philippines). Whether Australia will get a free pass on Taiwan depends on the origins of the conflict and on whether Republicans or Democrats are in control of the White House at that time. In short, many Australians who stress that support for the U.S. over Taiwan should not be regarded as automatic also object to broadening the scope of the bilateral alliance to cover compulsory Australian participation in U.S.-led coalitions in defense of American global interests and strategy.

It was this line of thinking that led opposition leader Mark Latham to demand the withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas in 2004 and prompted Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to cast doubts at a press conference in Beijing in August of that year over Australia’s treaty obligations by claiming that it should not be taken for granted that Australia would side with the U.S. in the event of a conflict: “The ANZUS obligations could be invoked only in the event of a direct attack on the United States or Australia. So some other activity elsewhere in the world…doesn’t invoke it.” [4] Downer’s somewhat disingenuous interpretation of the treaty evoked a sharp rebuke from the U.S. State Department spokesperson who countered by saying that “Articles IV and V of the treaty specifically say that an armed attack on either of the treaty partners in the Pacific would see them act to meet the common danger. Critically, an attack in the Pacific is defined as including any attack on armed forces, public vessels or aircraft.” If the U.S. was defending Taiwan and its forces come under Chinese attack, it could be seen to invoke the treaty on a straightforward interpretation. U.S. ambassador Tom Schieffer also stated explicitly that “[W]e are to come to the aid of each other…if either of our interests are attacked in the Pacific.” After the U.S. officials reiterated Australia’s “pretty clear” obligations under the ANZUS Treaty, Howard corrected his foreign minister and Downer quickly backtracked, stressing that Australia always maintained a position of not commenting on the position it would take.

Australian diplomatic nerves were stretched further by the passage of China’s anti-secession law in March 2005 allowing a military attack on Taiwan. Downer was quoted as saying that the ANZUS Treaty could be invoked if war did break out, “but that’s a very different thing from saying we would make a decision to go to war.” Many observers see Downer’s contradictory and ambiguous remarks as indicating a shift from the government’s clear-cut stand taken in 1996, when it supported the dispatch of two U.S. carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait in response to Chinese missile tests near Taiwan’s shores. This “shift” is attributed to China’s rapidly rising economic clout, its diplomatic offensive, and Beijing’s talk of closer “strategic partnership” with Canberra.

Discord over the dragon

Apparently, discord over the U.S. alliance, coupled with Downer’s remarks aimed at currying favor with the Chinese, led Beijing to conclude that Canberra could be weaned away from Washington through economic inducements and strategic coercion. This assessment lay behind Beijing’s decision to up the ante by publicly demanding in March 2005 that the Howard Government review its 50-year-old military pact with the U.S., warning that the ANZUS alliance could threaten regional stability if Australia were drawn into a Sino-U.S conflict. A senior Chinese diplomat and Director-general of North American and Oceania Affairs, He Yafei, told The Australian that Australia and the U.S. needed to be careful not to invoke the ANZUS alliance against China or else Sino-Australian relations would be severely damaged. This ultimatum apparently made Canberra realize a key Chinese negotiating tactic: “The more you give, the more Beijing asks for.”

But Taiwan is not the only issue over which the U.S. and Australia diverge. Washington opposes an Australia-China FTA that recognizes China as a market economy, and the lifting of the EU’s arms embargo. While the U.S. (and Japan) have protested strongly against the EU’s decision to resume arms sales to China, the official Australian position is that Canberra does not oppose ending the ban as long as it does not upset the balance of power in the region. China also has the potential to divide Australia and Japan, as Tokyo increasingly appears willing to risk China’s wrath, while Canberra seems reluctant to displease Beijing. Witness the joint U.S.-Japan declaration in February 2005 that indicates Japan’s commitment to provide military support to the U.S. if it uses force to prevent an armed takeover of Taiwan, and Tokyo’s recent decision to grant visas to Lee Teng-hui and the Dalai Lama despite strong opposition from China.

Tokyo’s all-out support for U.S. policy initiatives post-9/11 is turning Japan into the “Australia of Northeast Asia”. The Bush administration would like Canberra to coordinate its China policy with Washington and Tokyo. Since China is either the largest or second largest trading partner of Japan, Australia and the U.S., this gives the three Pacific allies enormous leverage, provided they use it judiciously and coordinate their policies. Canberra cannot pretend to maintain good relations with Beijing even as Chinese relations with two of its closest allies – the U.S. and Japan – turn increasingly acrimonious. Nor can Australia afford to entertain or preach the notions of neutrality and abstinence when all its current and future force modernization and force acquisition decisions will have the effect of tying it closely to the U.S. military.


Despite Beijing’s efforts to drive a wedge between Washington and Canberra, China is unlikely to succeed, as the U.S.-Australia relationship has now expanded into a global partnership that encompasses the transnational security issues of terrorism, proliferation, resurrection of failed states as well as the complex traditional security issues in the Asia-Pacific. As Australia becomes economically more and more integrated with China, it is strengthening its security ties with the U.S. to hedge its strategy in an uncertain Asia-Pacific. Changes underway in the Australian defense posture and Canberra’s decisions on missile defense, interoperability, force modernization and acquisition programs will have the effect of tying the Australian Defense Force even more closely to the U.S. military machine. None of Australia’s Asian relationships are as robust and strong as its American tie, nor can it match the scope and depth of the strategic benefits that flow from it. Much as Canberra would like to avoid choosing sides, there is little doubt that in the event of a conflict, Australia would side with the United States because sitting on the fence in regional affairs has never been an option.


1. These officials include Richard Armitage, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney.

The U.S. State Department spokesman and Richard Armitage quoted in John Kerin, “Downer retreats on Taiwan,” The Australian, August 20, 2004.

Roy Eccleston and John Kerin, “Bush team pushes to split Labor,” The Australian, July 8, 2004.

Steven Lewis and John Kerin, “Keating slams US official’s ‘thuggery’,” The Australian, July 9, 2004.

Richard Armitage quoted in Greg Sheridan, “What if Bluff and Bluster Turn to Biff?” The Australian, March 10, 2000.

2. Former senior defense and foreign affairs officials such as Paul Dibb, Hugh White, Stuart Harris and ex-Prime Ministers Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, and Malcolm Fraser

Former Howard government minister Warwick Smith, Paul Dibb and Hugh White were quoted in John Kerin, “Canberra’s catch-22: the US or China,” The Australian, May 8, 2004; and in “Flashpoint for a war,” The Sydney Morning Herald, July 14, 2004.

3. Major arguments of Australia’s pro-China lobby are critically analyzed in Greg Sheridan, “Between giants,” The Australian, March 19, 2005.

Also see remarks by Stuart Harris, Bob Hawke and Warwick Smith in “Flashpoint for a war,” The Sydney Morning Herald, July 14, 2004.

John Kerin, “China’s new envoy warns over Taiwan,” The Australian, July 29, 2004.

4. Downer quoted in Catherine Armitage, “Downer assures China on Taiwan,” The Australian, August 18, 2004.

Mohan Malik is Professor of Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the policy or position of the center or the U.S. Department of Defense.