Australian prime minister Scott Morrison didn’t waste much time when Joe Biden won the US election. Less than a week after Biden’s confirmation as president-elect, Morrison invited him to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), describing the treaty as “the bedrock of our security foundations in Australia since that alliance was first established.”
The Australian ruling class has long championed the US alliance as being vital to Australia’s defense. In the name of that alliance, Australian soldiers have fought battles on almost every continent on Earth. Yet Australian military analysts and multiple defense white papers agree on a point that should already be obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of geography: Australia is hardly a likely target for invasion.
So why maintain ANZUS? It’s common, especially on the Left, to view Australian foreign policy as an extension of US foreign policy. To be sure, many of Australia’s military adventures have defended and extended American imperialism. However, as historian Tom O’Lincoln has argued, it’s incorrect to see Australia simply as a US proxy.
Rather, Australia’s ruling class harbors imperialist ambitions of its own. Australia has always participated in aggressive US wars with the expectation that Washington will reward it in the local arena.
The Birth of Australian Imperialism
In the mid-nineteenth century, the ruling classes of Britain’s Australian colonies started to develop their own colonizing ambitions. Having dispossessed and massacred Australia’s First Nations and grown rich on wool and gold, the colonial ruling class turned its gaze outward, to the Pacific. They began to dream of a highly profitable mini-empire stretching from Papua, through the Solomon Islands, to Fiji.
In 1869, the Age newspaper asked that if Britain could rule India, “Why should not Victoria make the experiment of trying to govern Fiji?” In 1883, Queensland governor Thomas McIlwraith — acting independently of Britain — ordered the annexation of southeastern Papua. London reluctantly acceded, declaring a protectorate.
Almost simultaneously, Germany seized the northeastern portion of Papua. Overnight, the island became a site of colonial rivalry between the Netherlands (which controlled Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies), Germany, and Australia. To gain leverage, Australia’s ruling class looked to the mother country.
In the following decades, Australia eagerly paid its dues to Britain, contributing fighting men to British colonialism in New Zealand, Sudan, and South Africa. When World War I erupted in Europe, Australia’s Labor government committed troops. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher declared that Australia would fight for the colonial metropolis “to the last man and the last shilling.”
Despite the tone of Fisher’s rhetoric, Australia’s ruling class was not just acting out of sentimental loyalty. Before Australians landed at Gallipoli or fought on Flanders fields, they seized German Papua. When the victors divided the spoils four years later, Prime Minister Billy Hughes spared no effort in securing a mandate over the colony.
US president Woodrow Wilson was exasperated by the insistence of Hughes on his Papuan prize and described the diminutive Australian as a “pestiferous varmint.” For Hughes, such verbal taunts were a small price to pay for realizing Australia’s long-held ambition of dominating eastern Papua.
Turning to America
When World War II broke out, Australia honored its obligations to empire by dispatching troops to defend British holdings in the Middle East and North Africa. Busy facing off against Nazi aggression, British forces were in no position to oppose Japan’s sudden onslaught in the Pacific at the beginning of 1942. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan easily captured Hong Kong and Singapore, effectively ending British power in the Pacific. The Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and Malaya were the next to fall.
There’s a persistent myth that Australia was under immediate threat of Japanese invasion in 1942. Peter Stanley, the former head of research at the Australian War Memorial, has disputed this narrative. The sheer size of the Australian landmass meant that Japanese forces, already thinly spread, were in no position to attempt an invasion. Indeed, Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo was firmly against any suggestion of landings in Australia.
As a result, Japanese strategists sought to neutralize Australia by occupying surrounding islands instead. It was Australia’s sphere of influence in Papua and the Solomons that was under threat rather than the Australian mainland. Seeing this, Prime Minister John Curtin sought assistance from the only viable guarantor: the United States.
Although Pearl Harbor had temporarily crippled its naval strength in the Pacific, the United States possessed an overwhelming superiority in industry and resources and could face the war with supreme confidence in victory. Curtin announced in late December 1941 that his country “looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”
Australia withdrew soldiers from North Africa — against British objections — to defend Papua. Soon, US troops and ships joined the fight. Japan was halted first at the Battle of the Coral Sea and finally at the Kokoda Trail. Nationalist historians present the defense of the Kokoda Trail as Australia’s Battle of Britain, a heroic victory that saved the nation against all odds. But since Australia was never truly at risk of invasion, the comparison is hardly apt.
Australia’s burgeoning empire was saved, and the Australian people believed they had seen off the prospect of certain invasion. In the process, a realignment had occurred: Australia’s ruling class now looked to the United States rather than Britain for aid.
Testing the Alliance
After WWII, Australian foreign policy focused on Indonesia’s struggle for independence from the Netherlands. This led to differences with the United States. Although the Indonesian leader Sukarno was primarily a nationalist, Western leaders feared that his new postcolonial administration would fall under the sway of the Soviet Union and Maoist China.
Australian and American policymakers agreed on the need to oust the Dutch from the Pacific and create a friendly anti-communist regime in Jakarta, cementing US influence on the archipelago. But they were at loggerheads over western Papua, which remained a Dutch colony after the Netherlands recognized Indonesia’s independence in 1949.
While Indonesia laid claim to West Papua, the Australian ruling class could not stomach the idea of an Indonesian outpost within its sphere of influence. Washington, on the other hand, was more than happy to trade western Papua for Indonesian friendship.
Australia committed troops to the US-led coalition in Korea and signed the ANZUS treaty, but its hopes of US support over the Papuan issue were to be dashed. In 1961, Indonesia invaded the Dutch territory, and a subsequent US-backed sham referendum secured Jakarta’s control. It was a fait accompli, and Australia duly cooperated with the transition.
In 1965, the Indonesian general Suharto seized power after a failed coup that he blamed on the country’s communist movement. The subsequent Western-backed crackdown on the Indonesian left was brutal. Australian prime minister Harold Holt later joked about “500,000 to 1,000,000 dead communist sympathizers” — an estimate that tallies with the work of historians.
Although Canberra’s politicians and diplomats were delighted that the specter of a communist state in the South Pacific had been brutally exorcized, they were nevertheless disappointed by the lack of US backing for Australia’s position over West Papua. Their chosen remedy was to offer the United States more support.
Vietnam and After
Australia was one of the only nations to join the US war in Vietnam. In 1966, as the violence escalated, Harold Holt declared that Australia was going “all the way with LBJ.” In total, 61,000 Australians served in Vietnam, of whom 15,000 were conscripts.
The prospect of a communist Vietnam posed no threat to Australia. So why did the country join the fight? Tom O’Lincoln argues that Australian leaders, disappointed by Washington’s positioning in the standoff over West Papua, sought to lock the United States into an Asian commitment: “Winning in Vietnam was secondary, and safeguarding democracy came a dismal last.” As one senior Australian Army commander, General John Wilton, insisted: “It wasn’t a question of us being dragged in by the USA, it was us wanting to have the USA dragged in.”
Astonishingly and heroically, the Vietnamese people repulsed the onslaught, albeit at shocking cost. The Australian public initially supported the war by an overwhelming margin, but as it dragged on, opposition gradually grew. Mirroring events in the United States, the antiwar movement mustered some of the largest protests in Australian history, energizing other movements for Aboriginal rights, gay and lesbian liberation, and women’s liberation, as well as the trade union movement.
Faced with the prospect of military collapse in Vietnam and massive dissent at home, Australia, like the United States, withdrew its troops. Following the defeat in Vietnam, it was some time before Australia made a significant commitment to a US-led war effort. For example, Australia only committed a token naval force to the First Gulf War.
From Vietnam to Afghanistan
In 1975, Papua New Guinea gained independence, albeit under close Australian tutelage. Australian influence in the region was far from spent. To the present day, Australia has undertaken numerous interventions in the Pacific, utilizing soft and hard power to maintain a position of dominance.
After supporting the murderous Indonesian occupation of East Timor for decades, Australia then led the UN-sponsored occupation of the country after its people voted for independence in 1999. But this didn’t mark an end to Canberra’s trampling on East Timorese self-determination: its intelligence services spied on East Timorese officials to secure a lucrative oil and gas deal. During the “War on Terror,” Australia also intervened in former British colonies like the Solomon Islands to prevent the emergence of so-called failed states.
At the same time, the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq gave Australian elites a new opportunity to curry favor with their benefactor. Although neither country posed any threat to Australia, Prime Minister John Howard did not hesitate to commit soldiers to George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing.”
As academic Clive Williams explained:
The real reason [for involvement] is of course to show we are a willing ANZUS and Western alliance partner in order to be well regarded by the US and receive the defense and intelligence benefits that go with active membership of the Five-Eyes relationship. Afghanistan per se is of little strategic importance to Australia.
This time, unlike in Vietnam, the Australian ruling class has suffered no real consequences for once again committing Australian forces to a criminal war that has ended in complete failure.
Today, Australia is caught in the middle of growing tensions between the United States and China. While China bids for influence in the Pacific, Australia has made countermoves with massive investments in what Scott Morrison calls “our patch.” Even though there is still no credible military threat to Australian territory, Morrison has announced a colossal $270 billion spending package for anti-ship missiles that will project Australian military power throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
This is the context for the seventy-year anniversary celebrations of the ANZUS treaty. There will no doubt be plenty of rhetoric about “mateship” between Australia and the United States. But the idea that Australia’s friendship with America is about mutual defense is disingenuous. The US-Australian alliance is still Australia’s major trump card in boosting its regional power. And in return, Washington gains an eager accomplice for its imperial ventures.