Beyond shared values: Reassessing the Australia-US alliance

Shmuel Levin

Shmuel Levin has worked on improving security frameworks across the Asia-Pacific as a Policy Officer for UN SCAR and the Pacific Small Arms Action Group.

The Australia-US alliance carries significant security and economic implications for Australia. As such, any calls for a rethinking of the alliance must account for more than just issues of shared values.


The Australia-US alliance has often been characterised as one of shared liberal and economic values. As such, the recent US election results have left many Australians questioning whether Trumpism is indeed a shared Australian value. As the leader of the Australian Greens, Richard de Natale, has argued: ‘If there was ever a time to question our allegiance with the US, that time is now’. However, such an inquiry cannot be properly undertaken without also recalling just what it is that Australia gets from the alliance in terms of security and economic benefits, outside of any shared values.

First and foremost amongst these is Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty. This was negotiated in the aftermath of World War Two as Australia faced concerns about the spread of communism in Asia and a fragile post-War peace. While framed in deliberately ambiguous terms, Article IV states that Australia and the US ‘would act’ in the event of an armed attack on either Party. It should however be noted that despite Australia’s wishes, the final text of the ANZUS Treaty does not provide the same level of formal guarantees as per NATO, i.e. that an attack on Australia would be tantamount to an attack on the US.

But the mutual security benefits of the relationship extend beyond Article IV. Washington and Canberra share regular security communications with each other, and each year, the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) brings together the Australian Ministers for Foreign Affairs and for Defence with the US Secretaries of State and Defense, along with senior officials from both portfolios. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently stated in Parliament that the Australian government places ‘the highest priority on a positive relationship with the US because it is our strategic ally; it is our most important defence and intelligence partner.’

While much of this information is kept confidential, former Ambassador Kim Beazley has noted that joint Australia-US military facilities ‘are as intricate a part of the Australian order of battle as they are of the American... They are crucial for our information, our operations information, as well as our strategic operations… We are now seamless.’ Similarly, much of Australia's military equipment and technologies are American. As Mr Beazley argues, this provides two benefits to Australia. First, it is extremely cost effective, and second, it provides Australia with an otherwise inaccessible technological edge in Southeast Asia.

At the regional level, both the US and Australia have maintained a shared interest in the stability and security of the Pacific. In the aftermath of 9/11, this was primarily viewed through the lens of terrorism and events such as the Bali bombings. As time has passed, the Pacific threat has somewhat shifted to the possibility of countries such as Russia and China establishing bases and projecting power in the region.

Aside from geopolitical interests, both the US and Australia have economic interests in the region. US$1.2 trillion worth of US trade passes through the South China Sea, as does 91 per cent of Australia’s fuel imports, 60 per cent of Australia’s exports, and 40 per cent of Australian imports. In this regard, the US has regularly sent its navy on freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

More directly, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has also noted that the US is Australia’s ‘largest source of foreign investment and it is our second largest trading partner.’ Aside from past economic benefits, former Ambassador Beazley has also noted that it is worth considering Australia’s future economic needs. Whilst China is Australia’s largest trading partner, it only formed $70.2 billion – or 3.4% - of Australian investments in 2015. In contrast, $AUD 595 billion – or 28.6% - of Australian foreign investments are made in the US. Importantly, investment reflects a long-term future economic process.

In addition, it is likely that the future of Australia’s economy will see an increase in advanced manufacturing and technologies. As such, the US offers Australia comprehensive protection of intellectual property rights. By contrast, China has often been criticised for failing to enforce intellectual property rights and this has led to reluctance from rights holders in China.

Of course, all of this is subject to change under a Trump Administration. Notably, it has been suggested that a Trump administration may seek to weaken US involvement in Southeast Asia, and this may have been implicitly referred to by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s statements that Australia ‘would certainly appeal to any incoming administration’ to maintain its role in the South China Sea.

It should also be noted that the Australia-US alliance has, of course, come at significant costs to Australia. Not least of these has been Australia’s participation in multiple wars, from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that simply ‘cutting the tag’ on Australia’s relationship with the US as some have called for is likely not a zero-sum game.

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