New Zealand Likely to Strengthen ANZUS

Trade relations with China notwithstanding, New Zealand is likely to intensify security cooperation with the United States.

While in Canberra and Washington, the sixtieth anniversary of the Australia New Zealand and the United States Treaty (ANZUS) was observed with much discussion, there was a marked silence in Wellington buttressing that the interests of the other two capitals coincidence with its own in the twenty-first century.

Sixty years ago on September 1, 1951, Australia, New Zealand and the United States signed the ANZUS Treaty which translated into effective military alliance during the Korean War, Vietnam War and much of the Cold War. The ANZUS Treaty reached in 1951 was a major regional multilateral accord aimed at effective strategic relations between the three countries. Despite having formed a major multilateral forum in the United Nations in 1945, regional multilateral initiatives like cooperation between the English-speaking Pacific nations couldn’t be compromised for effective promotion of peace and security.

With the ANZUS Treaty, the three countries vowed to come to each other’s aid in case any of them were attacked. New Zealand pulled out during the 1980s after the Rainbow Warrior incident near Auckland which culminated in now allowing American nuclear submarines in New Zealand waters. The military alliance between Australia and New Zealand has withstood time however.

Although it didn’t toe the American line from the 1980s onward, New Zealand did contribute to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The country’s Labor government supported the neoconservative policy of President George W. Bush in Afghanistan but not in Iraq in 2003 where Australia did join the “coalition the willing.”

There is now a conservative government in Wellington whereas Democrat Barack Obama is president in Washington. Despite the changes in government, relations have continued to improve, culminating in a declaration to establish a strategic partnership when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited New Zealand in November of last year.

The bigger question that’s arisen in New Zealand in what strategic space it finds itself in this century when there’s a possibility of a “Concert of Asia” emerging between Australia, China, India, Japan and the United States?

During much of its history, New Zealand was protected by foreign navies — first the British, later the American. The American defense umbrella, in fact, prevented Australia from becoming a nuclear state in the 1960s when it appeared that Indonesia was trying to build a bomb with Chinese and Soviet support.

China is now a huge commercial partner for both Australia and New Zealand but also their biggest security threat in East Asia. A reaffirmation of the ANZUS Treaty could jeopardize this significant trade relation. It’s a dilemma that’s unfamiliar to the island nations as they never stood anything to lose from the American alliance during the Cold War. Now that China is so pivotal to the economic prosperity of the whole of East Asia, the director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Michael Wesley, predicts in his recent book There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia (2011) that “the alliance will move from being a cornerstone of Australia’s international politics to being a major supporting beam.”

Australia’s problems are compounded by American strategy in Southeast Asia where it is building an alliance with Indonesia in order to discourage Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea area. This development could give rise to a security imbalance between Australia and Indonesia.

Whereas Australia has a superior air force and navy, the Indonesian army outnumbers Australia’s. The countries are involved in a stalemate however because Australia can’t impose its army on Indonesia and Indonesia doesn’t possess the amphibious capability necessary to stage an invasion of the Australian continent. The balance of power could be upset if the United States provide the Indonesians with superior weaponry to counter Chinese encroachment in Southeast Asia.

Australia will be compelled to intensify cooperation within ANZUS to establish itself as a regional power. It will probably urge New Zealand to become a security partner of the United States as well to buttress this alliance. The question is what choice New Zealand will make.

So far, it seems that New Zealand is willing to follow Australia’s lead in the region, evidenced by Fiji’s exclusion from the Pacific Islands Forum until the military government restores democracy there. Trade relations with Chinese notwithstanding, “NZ” is likely to remain part of ANZUS.