The U.S.-Australia Security Alliance and Turmoil in the Indo-Pacific Region

In January of this year, Malcolm Turnbull made his first visit to the United States as the prime minister of Australia. Turnbull met with President Obama, as well as with business and defense leaders to discuss a range of international security and economic issues, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The main issue at the forefront of conversation was that of the U.S.-Australia security alliance, particularly with regard to China’s increased military aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. Though he has not wavered from his predecessor’s firm support for the partnership, PM Turnbull has taken a moderate view on China. During his visit to the United States, Turnbull remained impartial and urged all parties to refrain from further military build-up on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Hoping that the Chinese government will abide by international rules, Turnbull looks to maintain Australia’s lucrative economic ties with the growing power.

Turnbull, emphasizing the trade deal’s potential role in promoting stability in the region, said in an address to American business leaders meeting in the United States: “[The TPP] is a very important element in the maintenance of the United States as the credible, strong, and consistent enduring guarantor of the rules-based international order. It sets a very high bar. It encourages countries to reform.” Turnbull relayed confidence that the TPP can encourage Asian economies to open their markets in the future and thereby temper the South China Sea dispute.

Historically, Australia and the United States have shared a strong security alliance, formally cemented in 1951 under the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS). Since then, Australia has joined U.S. military efforts when necessary. The U.S.-Australia security alliance continues to enjoy domestic support both in Washington and in Canberra—contributing to the prolonged economic and security partnership between the two countries. However, in recent years, China’s rise has challenged Australia’s strategic positioning in Asia and posed issues for U.S.-Australia security cooperation.

Australia’s concern over its security in the Indo-Pacific region has increased due to China’s military build-up in the area. Antagonism between the United States and China, two of Australia’s most important partners, is creating uneasiness in the historically resilient U.S.-Australia security alliance, as well as in Australia’s economic ties to China. A clash between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific region could hamper Australia both economically and militarily. To prevent such a clash, Australia may be faced with the difficult decision of choosing one side at the expense of its relationship with the other.

Increasingly, China is asserting itself economically and militarily to wield greater clout in the international arena. It is also a major trading partner of every country in the Indo-Pacific region. In recent years, China has moved toward greater control over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean by enhancing its naval capabilities, militarizing islands in the area, and building artificial islands and port facilities throughout the Southeast Asian region. China justifies its actions by erroneously asserting its historical and sovereign right to the area.

The South China Sea has become a zone of competing claims, intensified by the fact that the region is rich in oil and gas resources and that more than $5 trillion worth of international trade is shipped through it annually. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan also make claims to the area.

Recently, the U.S. missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 13 miles of Triton Island in order to challenge the maritime claims of China, as well as those of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan. China’s military action is a potential obstacle to U.S. economic interests in the region, and the United States does not want to give the impression to its regional allies that its presence in South East Asia is weakening. Depending on how committed it is to its security alliance with the United States, Australia may find itself in a difficult position, should there be an outbreak of conflict between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Indeed, the Indo-Pacific region has become a potential stage for battle between the current world hegemon and China. History shows that hegemons do not give up their dominant positions easily and that rising powers press for greater influence commensurate to their growing capabilities. This pattern is also visible in the U.S.-China contest in Asia – particularly as the United States attempts to counterbalance China’s military aggression by enhancing its own naval presence in the region and strengthening its defense ties with traditional allies like Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

Independent of the U.S.-backed counter-balance strategy, the aforementioned U.S. allies have also forged defense ties amongst themselves in order to unite against China’s regional ambitions. This security framework is manifested in Australia’s historical and deepening ties with Japan, Japan’s deepening defense ties with India, and the beginning of the Australia-India defense relationship.

At the same time, China has become Australia’s biggest economic partner, a reality that recent Australian governments are having difficulty adjusting to in light of recent Sino-American antagonism. The Quadrilateral Initiative (Quad), a maritime security agreement between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, culminated as a reaction to the Chinese threat against the U.S.-Australia security relationship.

Although former Australian Prime Minister John Howard supported this security arrangement, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labour government re-assessed Australia’s participation in the initiative. China opposed the Quad in 2008 – on the grounds that the alliance aimed to contain the nation – and sent formal protests to the four member governments. The Australian government weighed the option of remaining in the alliance, while running the risk of severing its economic ties with China. Ultimately, Australia withdrew from the Quad, as did other members of the agreement.

However, the idea behind the Quad has resurfaced: the United States, Japan, and India have resumed joint naval exercises, and Australia has expressed desire to join the Quad if invited. This burgeoning containment policy by four major maritime democracies is bound to re-ignite anxiety in China. Though its members insist that the Quad is not a military bloc against the Asian powerhouse, but rather a strategic platform to develop a common thinking on shared security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region, China will nonetheless view the arrangement as a military pact designed to mitigate any attempt to dominate in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia may keep a low profile on the Quad to avoid antagonizing China, but the idea of joining the Quad will continue to appeal to Australia, particularly if a Chinese military threat becomes more serious. Australia’s desire to maintain its economic ties with China will remain an important factor in mitigating possible conflicts in the Indo-Pacific region; however, the unfolding balance of power game suggests that it will be difficult for Australia to maintain a stance that will appease both the United States and China.

Australia relies on the United States for its security, but should the United States be pushed to confront Chinese aggression and protect its allies and interests in the region, the U.S.-Australia security alliance will be greatly tested. In this case, Australia will have to make the excruciating decision of siding with its main security ally or its main economic partner.