The geopolitics of the Pacific region remain under US control
The regional security agreement between the US, Australia and New Zealand continues to be an important treaty in regional geopolitics. It was preceded by a number of historical factors and the decline of Britain’s global role following the Second World War.
Australia and New Zealand were British colonies for a long time, but, from the late 18th century onwards, these two countries began to develop close ties with the US. Whalers and sailors went there from the US and trade boomed, leading to the development of a rather similar political mythology about the founding of “white nations” practised in conquering indigenous peoples.
In 1940, the US recognised Australia as an independent country from the United Kingdom. Two years later, the US did the same for New Zealand, and the three countries’ armed forces united in the war against Imperial Japan. All three countries played a crucial role in Japan’s surrender in 1945, and the experience had a profound influence on them both individually and collectively. More than a million US troops were stationed in Australia and New Zealand during the conflict. While Ralph Peters believed that Americanisation should initially happen via McDonalds, and then via US bayonets and bullets if necessary, Australia and New Zealand’s experience of Americanisation was the opposite. America’s soft power penetrated these countries by way of hard power. There were a huge number of US soldiers in these two countries, which had a combined population of just 8.6 million, and these soldiers fundamentally changed the lives of small-town communities, from music to domestic rituals. More than 17,000 women from Australia and New Zealand went to the US as the wives of American military personnel.
In 1949, the Maoists prevailed in China, and this extended the Cold War to the whole of the Pacific region. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 further increased US fears over the spread of communism. But there was one unresolved problem preventing the formation of a cohesive pro-American bloc. Australia and New Zealand still felt threatened by an “aggressive” Japan. Washington wanted to rebuild Japan quickly in order to help “protect democracy and peace” in the North Pacific. Therefore, the US imposed an alliance treaty on its former worst enemy. Naturally, when talk of this came to light, Australia and New Zealand greeted it with extreme hostility, which the US State Department called “great suspicion and disapproval”. So, the three countries worked out a compromise that would allay Australia and New Zealand’s fears.
This compromise was the tripartite ANZUS treaty. It was signed in San Francisco on 1 September 1951 and entered into force on 29 April 1952. The treaty obliged its signatories to recognise that an armed attack in the Pacific against any one of them would endanger the peace and security of the others. It stated: “The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific.” The three countries also pledged to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
Exactly one week later, a security treaty was signed between Japan and the US. Thus, the US killed two birds with one stone: it extended its influence over its former partners in the fight against Japan and also over its former antagonist.
For more than thirty years, the treaty’s implementation went without a hitch. Immediately after it was signed, troops were sent to fight in the Korean War. Then, New Zealand and Australia sent troops to Malaysia, after which all three countries took part in the Vietnam War. In 2001, New Zealand sent transport aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft and frigates to the Persian Gulf along with a small number of soldiers. Peacekeeping forces were also sent to Afghanistan. And, despite the fact that New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark openly criticised America’s justification for the war in Iraq in 2003, New Zealand sent engineering troops to Iraq following the 2003 invasion. However, these troops were officially involved in reconstruction efforts in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1483 and were not combatants.
Attempts to revise policy in Australia
Australia came close to withdrawing from the agreement in the 1970s. The fact is that, during the Gough Whitlam years, Australia became a near-independent state for a brief period between 1972 and 1975. He abolished royal patronage, moved Australia closer to the Non-Aligned Movement, supported “zones of peace”, and opposed nuclear weapons testing.
Whitlam also believed that a foreign power should not control his country’s resources and dictate its economic and foreign policies. In drafting the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, his government raised the question of who actually owned the island-continent’s vast natural wealth. But Whitlam also knew that, despite the position he held, there were direct US and UK agents in his country – i.e., a fifth column – so he was in a high-risk area. For this reason, he issued an order the day after his election stating that his team should not be “vetted or harassed” by the Australian security services, which had, and still have, ties to Anglo-American intelligence. When his ministers publicly condemned the US bombing of Vietnam as “corrupt and barbaric” actions, a CIA officer in Saigon said: “We were told the Australians might as well be regarded as North Vietnamese collaborators.”
The governor-general of Australia, Sir John Kerr, who had links with the CIA, played a crucial role in Gough Whitlam’s removal. When Whitlam was elected for a second term in 1974, the White House sent Marshall Green to Canberra as ambassador. Green began his career in the US Navy and was known as “the coupmaster”. He played a major role in the 1965 putsch against President Sukarno in Indonesia. Between 5 May 1969 and 10 May 1973, Green was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. It is rather strange that, after such a high-profile post, President Nixon should send him to Australia, but it makes clear his extraordinary role.
The Americans and British began working together on the “Whitlam problem”. In 1975, the prime minister discovered that the CIA and Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency were operating against him and intended to inform parliament about it, but Governor-General Sir John Kerr got involved in Whitlam’s removal and effectively sacked him. Since then, there have been no further attempts to restore Australia’s political sovereignty.
Friction with New Zealand
New Zealand’s only divergence from the ANZUS treaty is with regard to nuclear weapons. In 1986, New Zealand initiated a nuclear-free zone in its territorial waters and refused entry to US nuclear-powered ships and submarines, so its participation in the treaty was suspended. However, New Zealand resumed key areas of the ANZUS treaty in 2007. Then, in 2010, New Zealand and the United States signed the Wellington Declaration, putting an end to the previous 25 years of friction with the ANZUS treaty, followed by the Washington Declaration in 2012, which “strengthened the defense relationship by providing a framework and strategic guidance for security cooperation and defense dialogues”. On 20 September 2012, during a visit to New Zealand, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the United States was lifting its 26-year ban on visits by New Zealand warships to US Department of Defense and US Coast Guard bases around the world. In the same year, US marines received training in New Zealand, and the New Zealand Navy participated in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) with the US.
On 16 November 2011, US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard met in Canberra to unveil plans for a new and sustained US presence on Australian soil. The deployment of 2,500 US troops to Darwin was announced.
China identified as the new enemy
Now, because of China, the US is increasing its focus on the Pacific to such a level that it is being compared to that of the Second World War era. Two recent bipartisan bills in US Congress address Chinese influence in many areas, including security, scientific research, and China’s economic, political and military activities.
As part of related efforts, the US military has announced plans to build new bases in three strategically located Pacific Island countries. These are the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau, which were under UN jurisdiction but were actually being governed by the US. Today, they are independent states, but the US still has considerable influence, of course.
The ANZUS Security Treaty is fundamental to America’s anti-China strategy. Both Australia and New Zealand are significantly increasing their defence spending in such a way as to further integrate the three countries’ armed forces. Also key is an intelligence sharing agreement, the so-called Five Eyes alliance, which includes Canada and the UK. In addition, the US and Australia are part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, together with Japan and India, which is also designed to counter China’s growth in the Indo-Pacific region.
In mid-2021, military tensions arose in the Pacific around Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea. The US had initiated a number of exercises in the region. Operation Pacific Iron was carried out in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands with a demonstration of impressive air, land and sea power. Australia also hosted a biennial joint exercise known as Talisman Sabre, involving 17,000 troops from the US and allied countries.