The Australian-United States Relationship is Overdue for a Radical Rethink

When one looks at a map of the world, Australia is prominently displayed at the southern end of the great Asian land mass. Then one looks at other statistics and one sees that Asia and China in particular is of huge economic importance to Australia. China, for example, is Australia’s largest source of foreign tourists, largest source of foreign students, and third largest source of foreign investment. This is in addition to taking more than one-third of total Australian exports, more than any other nation by a substantial margin.

Then one looks at Australia’s actual conduct in respect of its Asian neighbours and immediately one is struck by what appears to be an attitude ranging from ambivalence to outright hostility. The clue to this schizophrenic behaviour lies in Australia’s historical past.

Until the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1941 and the resulting eclipse of British power and influence in the Asian region, of which Australia is a distinctive part, Australia had looked to the United Kingdom as the mother country. The shock of the United Kingdom’s speedy eclipse as a military power in the region forced an immediate reappraisal of where Australia’s future security lay.

The choice was to switch allegiance to and  maintain reliance upon the United States as the new Western hegemon. American troops almost immediately after the Japanese attack on Hawaii began to establish themselves in Australia. Although it remains a curiously undiscussed element of modern Australian reality, United States troops have been stationed in Australia ever since.

There are currently at least eight United States military bases located on the Australian mainland, yet with the exception of the United States spy base at Pine Gap near Alice Springs, and the recent addition of a naval base in Darwin (in large part a reaction to the leasing of Darwin Harbour to a Chinese consortium) the remaining bases are notable for their absence from the political and media debate.

The profound importance of Pine Gap was revealed obliquely by the coup mounted against the then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in November 1995, the day before he was to announce to the Australian parliament his government’s intention to close Pine Gap. It is another feature of the Australian geopolitical and media landscape that the association between the two events is carefully avoided.

For the first 70 years of the United States military presence in Australia it remained a largely bipartisan endeavour. What was occurring in the Australian economy, however, was a significant shift away from its previous reliance upon the United Kingdom to one more accurately representative of its geographical position. Twelve of Australia’s fifteen largest trading partners are Asian countries.  (the others being New Zealand, the European Union and the United States).

Despite the multiple changes occurring to Australia’s economic landscape (in the broadest sense) the mentality of its political leadership remained family oriented to the West in general and the United States in particular. One manifestation of that political commitment was Australia’s eagerness to participate in the United States’ wars of choice, first in Korea, then in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

It is simply laughable to suggest that any of these countries posed any kind of threat to Australia’s vital interests. Australia’s participation in these multiple wars of choice are best interpreted as down payments on the insurance policy that the United States alliance was said to represent.

The economic relationship with the United States has never matched the military and the reality of the past 20+ years is that Asia in general and China in particular has assumed a progressively greater role in Australia’s economic and social life.

To say this has created a profound ambivalence in the Australian psyche would be an understatement. Australia is now in the uncomfortable position of trying to maintain its relationship with a rapidly declining United States without disrupting its economic ties to China. The latter country is growing increasingly tired of Australia’s ambivalent wanting to have its cake and eat it too.

The United States never was what Australia fondly imagined it to be, but multiple trends over the past two decades have accelerated the United States’ relative downward spiral. The details of this downward decline have recently been outlined in an article by Larry Romanoff entitled “American Exceptionalism” and published in the UNZ Review 22 August 2020.

Romanoff details a long list of indicators demonstrating that the United States’ relative decline is both substantial and unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future. Romanoff concludes his long litany of areas where the United States has fallen behind a growing list of nations by noting that the United States has “for years been deservedly voted the world’s most hated nation, is widely reviled as the world’s greatest bully, and judged by all people-including Americans-as the greatest threat to world peace.”

Which raises the final question: why in the face of this reality and contrary to its overwhelming economic interest, does Australia persist in this profoundly unequal relationship with such a dangerous and dysfunctional ally?

Although the United States will be the last to admit it, their period as the world’s most important nation is well past its use by date. The world has moved on from the post-World War II era and among the many changes manifesting themselves is the re-assertion of China as the world’s most important nation.

China is highly unlikely to use that position in even the faintest duplication of the American era of 1945-2000, rabidly anti-China propaganda by the United States notwithstanding. Australia needs to recognise these multiple realities and focus on building its relationship with China and its Asian neighbours and to start a radical rethink of where its true interests really lie.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.