America: Australia's Dangerous Ally

Australia should not embrace America, writes its former prime minister, but preserve itself from Washington’s reckless overreach. 

January-February 2015

If shooting starts between China and Japan, then it is not possible to say with any certainty that calmer heads will prevail and that serious dangers will be averted. Such a dispute could easily lead to a long, drawn-out war, which the United States may well not win. If over many years the United States could not win in Vietnam, despite the resources poured into that particular war, how could it possibly win in a contest with China? If, moreover, Australia were to become involved in such a contest, we would become a defeated ally of a defeated superpower. Such an outcome would place Australia at great risk, leaving it without a friend in our entire region. And unlike America, we cannot retreat to the Western Hemisphere in this event.


AUSTRALIA HAS been far too quiescent and passive. After 1990, Australia could have exhibited a greater degree of strategic independence, but did not. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Australia still had the capacity to make its own decisions about peace and war. We did not have to follow America. We were not committed purely because America was committed. In other words, up to that point, we had maintained the integrity of Australia as a sovereign nation, despite our close relationship with the United States. Up to that time, facilities on the Australian mainland did not, and could not, commit Australia to follow America into a war. These developments have occurred in the years since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Through a series of missteps since 1990, we have become progressively more enmeshed in American strategic and military affairs. This has been achieved by close collaboration between our armed services, and with the agreement of both major Australian political parties. It is a mistake. Major issues were never put to the Australian public. It was just assumed that these steps would be good for Australia. There was never a debate.

The idea of interoperability of our armed services is something that has, of course, been assiduously promoted by the United States. It has influenced many decisions relating to military operations, including the kind of equipment that we procure. It has in part influenced the appointment of the Australian Army’s Major General Richard Burr as deputy commander of U.S. Army Pacific, in charge of sixty thousand American troops, and the part-time deployment of a frigate as part of the USS George Washington’s escort. It is also relevant to our dependence on U.S. satellites for communications.

There are, however, two factors that tie us more closely than any of these events to America’s military machine and strategic objectives. The first is the U.S. military base in Darwin. If U.S. leaders wish to use the air-ground task force from Darwin to attack some target—to use it in support of their defense commitment to Japan, for example—they will not ask an Australian prime minister first. They will do it, and Australia will be told about it later. There is nothing new or unique in that. It is the way a great power behaves. But the consequence of that is that we can hardly say we are not complicit in the actions of that task force when it has taken off from Australian soil.

More important still are the changed purposes and operations of Pine Gap. This used to be a largely defensive facility. It was, more than anything else, an information-gathering operation of significant importance. Changes in communications and weapons technology, and their application to a great variety of U.S. weapons systems, from drones to longer-range missiles, have altered the character of Pine Gap. Information from Pine Gap is also used for missile defense (which China regards as vitiating its nuclear deterrent) and for targeting a range of modern offensive missiles. This would give Pine Gap a new and urgent relevance if a conflict between China and Japan involving the United States developed into a serious crisis. It is Pine Gap, above all, that makes it impossible for Australia to say that it is not involved.


THUS, STEP by step, discreetly, even secretly, successive Australian governments have allowed a situation to develop in which if America goes to war in the western Pacific, we will have no option but to go to war as a direct consequence. If Australia sought to stand aside, it would not be believed. We have never before been in such a situation. This situation is not compatible with Australian integrity or with Australian sovereignty. Australians do not realize that America’s capacity to declare war and include us is far greater than the power Britain had over the Dominions.

No foreign power should have that control over Australia, and certainly not a United States whose values are different and whose strategic decisions have been shown to be ill balanced and dangerous. Australians are unaware that the wars in which we have followed America were outside the terms of the ANZUS Treaty. Our commitment to the United States ties us to its values system and denies us the opportunity to decide our own fate.