Australia should have careful faith in ‘great and powerful’ friends

Author: Alexandra Robson, ANU

If Australia was situated in the North Atlantic Ocean, neatly between the United States (US) and Western Europe, much of the anxiety that has defined Australian foreign policy would be alleviated. This anxiety, based on enduring feelings of vulnerability and isolation, has historically driven Australia to seek protection in alliances with powerful and culturally similar states. Today, Australia’s security is underpinned by our alliance with the US. The 2016 Defence White Paper identified this alliance to be at the core of Australia’s security and defence planning as we confront the challenges posed by the changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region.

These dynamics include heightened strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific between Washington and Beijing, competing territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas, and intensifying militarisation and grey-zone activity. Peace in the region is so fragile that the absence of major conflict has been attributed to luck. However, in facing an increasingly dangerous security outlook, our closest security ally is located approximately 15,000 km from our shores. As Washington battles the tyranny of distance in maintaining its primacy in Asia and the costs of great power war increase, Australia must prepare for the possibility of a US withdrawal from the region. A failure to do so and an overreliance on the US would be a mistake. 

Australia’s first ‘great and powerful’ friend was the United Kingdom, who we looked to for security beginning from European settlement right up to the Second World War (WW2). This relationship had its roots in our membership of the British Empire, and Australians’ historical sense of kinship to Britain. But as Britain’s hegemony faded and its military support against potential Japanese invasion during WW2 could not be guaranteed, Australia turned to the US for protection. After the bombing of Darwin in 1941, then-Prime Minister John Curtin famously announced this recourse in the Melbourne Herald —’Without any inhibitions of any kind I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.’

History therefore shows that despite the benefits Australia receives from the US alliance, turning towards our ‘great and powerful’ friend should not be our only defence in the event of war. The deterioration of the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific and the liberal order we have relied on for regional stability and prosperity, represent the greatest threats to Australia’s security since the bombing of Darwin. And just as Britain had lost its ability to provide protection to Australia in 1941, we cannot count on Washington maintaining a presence in Asia to the extent that we prefer.

Conflict between America and China, the world’s two economic powerhouses both armed with nuclear weapons, would have catastrophic global consequences. An American withdrawal from Asia may very well occur if Washington calculates the costs of such a conflict to outweigh its benefits. These costs will inevitably rise as Beijing strengthens its maritime capability to rival that of the US. Driven by great power ambitions, Beijing has been building up its maritime forces into a war-winning, blue water navy. It has adopted a naval strategy inspired by Alfred Thayer Mahan, one of the most consequential American strategists of the nineteenth century. 

Mahan argued that great power status and economic prosperity are dependent on command of the seas. By having a strong navy that can operate globally, a country can project its influence and power across the world. Much of America’s primacy has been based on its control of the seas, and now Beijing, aspiring to become a hegemon itself, is following the same strategy. If Beijing develops its navy to the point where it can seriously challenge the maritime capability of the US, America may choose to withdraw from Asia. This could be a real possibility, especially in a situation where China’s military forces become strong enough to deny access to the East China and South China Seas.

In April, President Joe Biden announced that all American military forces would be pulled out of Afghanistan by September. Since then, the Taliban relentlessly advanced across the country, and has now taken control of Afghanistan. This should signal a warning to Canberra — if Washington can abandon Afghanistan, who is to say that it won’t do the same to Taiwan? It may happen, especially if defending it against Beijing becomes perceived as too great a burden. This would have grave implications for Australian security. It should remind us that if the time comes when we need the help of our ‘great and powerful friend,’ it may not be there. 

Alexandra Robson is a third-year undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of International Security and Bachelor of Public Policy at the Australian National University.