Paul Keating once remarked that before his creation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation leaders’ summit in 1992, an Australian prime minister basically showed up to only two international summits: the Pacific Islands Forum and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Since then, the list of global forums demanding a prime ministerial presence, along with the plethora of new arrangements and alliances that Canberra has joined, has becoming dizzying.
So far this year, Anthony Albanese has attended at least 10 global summits and bilateral meetings, and there’s more to come. He is in Washington for a state visit and an as yet unconfirmed trip to Beijing is also on the cards.
Along with the alphabet soup of Asian regionalism in which Australia partakes – for example, APEC, ASEAN and EAS – there’s been a flurry of new acronyms that hold a suite of agreements and partnerships that make it even harder to keep up with.
Here’s what you need to know about Australia’s most important alliances, and why we value some above others.
Which countries does Australia have alliances with?
Australia has been signing up to strategic global alliances since the Five Eyes intelligence network emerged in 1946 as a result of World War II.
Then came other long-standing security connections, such as the ANZUS treaty, signed in 1951, and the Five Power Defence Arrangement of 1971.
More recent formations include the Quad partnership, comprising India, the US, Japan and Australia, and the AUKUS Agreement of 2021, which looks to deliver Australia not only the capability of nuclear-powered submarines, but also access to US technology around AI, cyber and quantum computing.
Since 2022, Australia has also formed part of NATO’s Asia-Pacific Four partners (along with Japan, South Korea and New Zealand) that have twice met on the margins of recent NATO meetings.
There is no question that this flurry of new arrangements is working with China in mind, and has been grafted on to a strengthened US-Asian alliance system.
Given Australia signs up to alliances and yet will rarely abandon them, a complex web of trade and security agreements envelops Australian diplomacy, agreements, alliances and treaties with many countries.
Here’s my definitive list of Australia’s top alliances by prerogative, from one to nine.
Are some alliances more important than others?
The clue to working out which alliances take precedence is the one word that describes it. A “treaty” takes the cake over a “partnership” or “dialogue”, both of which provide more general frameworks for discussion and co-operation rather than a list of formal obligations.
A treaty carries a set of binding agreements between nations and, as DFAT notes, “gives rise to international legal rights and obligations”. In the course of history, treaties – like that at the Palace of Versailles in 1919 – have been used to frame the peace following a war.
Having said that, not even the ANZUS treaty gave Australia all it wanted when it was signed by the Menzies government in 1951, which was a NATO-style declaration that “an attack on one is an attack on all”.
Instead, the treaty set out a commitment to consult – that’s code for a high-level conversation between respective heads of government and other officials – in the event of a military operation in the Pacific area.
Has a treaty with Australia been put to the test?
The ANZUS treaty was put to the test in the early 1960s when tensions arose between Australia and Indonesia over the fate of West New Guinea and Indonesia’s confrontation of the Malaysian Federation.
At that point, given the real concern that Australia would become involved in a military conflict with Indonesia, Australian officials endeavoured to get Washington to commit American military forces in the event of war with Jakarta. Those attempts failed.
Australians found then that the US did not necessarily share their interpretation of what ANZUS obliged America to do. President John F. Kennedy told Australian officials privately that the American people had “forgotten ANZUS”.
It might be said that the effort of recent governments, certainly since John Howard, to give the US more in terms of access to Australia for the US military, is in some ways connected to residual, but largely unspoken, doubts about America’s commitment to the defence of Australia. The aim is to make the defence of Australia an integral part of the US’s Asia strategy.
Arguably, the presence of Pine Gap near Alice Springs – the most important US intelligence facility outside the US – and the rotational presence of US marines in Darwin and other US military forces and logistics in northern Australia – have answered these doubts in the minds of some influential policymakers.
What is a (comprehensive) strategic partnership?
The proliferation of strategic partnerships and comprehensive strategic partnerships that Australia has announced in recent years is a phenomenon in itself: Canberra has an SP or CSP with ASEAN, Indonesia, India, South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Singapore and China. It has a Special Strategic Partnership with Japan.
These arrangements are primarily a means of signalling an elevated bilateral relationship, greater trust and, in many cases, a certain level of strategic congruence.
Sometimes, these arrangements get “upgraded” from a strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership, which embellishes the post-visit press release. It might mean there’s more “content” added to the relationship.
After the strains of recent years, there is little meaningful content to the CSP with China, for example: it is a diplomatic gibbet swaying in the breeze. Yet intriguingly, even at the lowest point of relations with Beijing during the Morrison government, the prime minister and senior ministers would still refer to Australia’s CSP with China, at times even in Washington.
It is not known what the US makes of this usage, but for Canberra, it was a means perhaps of indicating there was a floor under the relationship with China.
Who don’t we have an alliance with?
Australia has never had a formal alliance with Britain. From the late 19th century, the colonies and then the Australian nation-state did seek greater access to decision-making in London, primarily because it felt officials in Whitehall did not grasp the full range of Australia’s Asian and Pacific anxieties.
But such moves from Canberra were inevitably rebuffed – even when Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley sought to create an Empire Council following the fall of Singapore in 1942.
One reason for the absence of a treaty with Britain, perhaps, is the view that such formality with London has never been considered necessary.
Remarkably, this kind of sentiment survived into the early 1990s. Around that time, Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans wrote that “Britain’s influence on Australia has been so extensive that it is difficult to apply the normal test of foreign policy to our relationship. The ties of history, kinship and culture are so pervasive that the relationship seems to exist independently of governments and their policies.”
While AUKUS is supposedly the harbinger of the return of post-Brexit “global Britain” to Asia, the reality is likely to be far less grandiose in the event of any serious military contingency in the region.
Has an agreement with Australia ever been broken?
In 1999, Indonesian president B.J. Habibie abrogated the Keating/Suharto 1995 Agreement on Maintaining Security after the triumphalism that Canberra engaged in following its role in helping East Timor secure its independence. That agreement, which carried ANZUS-style language, committed both countries to consult each other in the event of a military contingency.
The Lombok treaty Canberra and Jakarta signed in 2006 commits Australia to recognising Indonesian territorial integrity.
The other case here is New Zealand, which the US formally suspended from ANZUS in 1986 due to the refusal of its Labour government to allow US nuclear-armed or powered ships from entering New Zealand waters or docking at NZ ports.
If there was a conflict between two of Australia’s ‘partners’, which alliance would be prioritised?
In the event of war between the US and China, ANZUS will almost certainly be invoked. It would be almost unthinkable, given its alliance commitments, for Australia to remain aloof from it, even if Canberra could only send a niche military commitment.
In August 2004, then-foreign minister Alexander Downer created a diplomatic furore when he said publicly in Beijing that ANZUS did not necessarily commit Australia to siding with the US in a war over Taiwan. But then-prime minister John Howard quickly entered the fray to say that Australia did not comment on hypotheticals.
If a conflict between two of Australia’s “partner” countries – for example, Japan and South Korea – arose, the reality here is that, if Australia was unable to adroitly avoid taking sides, its alliance relationship with Washington is likely to dictate which side Australia would join.
What is Australia’s most problematic alliance?
While the Quad – the diplomatic partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the US – has defied expectations in terms of it becoming not only a leaders’ level summit but the new core of US-Asia policy – it has yet to be really tested.
India’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, underlines the residual limits to Quad solidarity. A contingency over Taiwan would likely expose that limitation even more dramatically.
Does Delhi have the stomach to contribute meaningfully to military contingencies in the Western Pacific? That’s debatable. And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s increasing illiberalism at home and strident Hindu nationalism are now creating even more problems for Quad partners. Recall that the Quad’s founder, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, originally referred to the grouping as a “democracy diamond”.
Are trade agreements also quasi security alliances?
Yes, we’ve only talked about security and defence alliances so far. The numerous trade groupings and agreements – in a world that looks to increasingly fuse economics with national security – often have defence ramifications or undercurrents too. But that deserves a whole other explainer.
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