Last Friday, April 25th, marked ‘ANZAC’ Day for Australia and New Zealand, standing for ‘Australia and New Zealand Army Corps’. It is one of the most important national days in Australia, marking the anniversary of the first landings on the Gallipoli peninsula by Australian and New Zealand troops during World War I. Since World War II however, this day has grown to commemorate all military service personnel from Australia and New Zealand who have perished in wars and conflicts abroad. On this day, Australians remember the ‘spirit of the ANZAC’, signifying qualities including mateship, courage, and sacrifice.
Despite Australia’s short history (Federation occurred in 1901) and small population (a little over 23 million), it has been engaged in several major wars. Australian forces have fought alongside US forces in every major military campaign of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, including World War I and II, Korean War, Vietnam War, 1991 Gulf War, and most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, it committed more than 25,000 troops, of whom 40 were killed and 261 injured. In November 2013 the last Australian troops left Iraq and, the following month, Australia withdrew troops from its main base in Afghanistan, ending Australia’s longest overseas combat deployment. While Australian forces are no longer engaged in Iraq and only a small contingent remains in Afghanistan, Australia’s defense cooperation with the United States continues to strengthen in other areas.
Over the past few weeks 1150 US Marines have arrived in Darwin in the far north of Australia, forming the basis of a six-month rotational force. Both countries have also increased the frequency of their joint air force exercises. These efforts are one aspect of the US rebalance to Asia, a foreign policy of the Obama Administration that has been warmly welcomed in Australia.
While Australians overwhelmingly favor the a
liance with the US, there has been domestic debate and some controversy regarding the US Marine deployment and the future of our bilateral defense ties generally. Debate has intensified over recent years due to the intelligence failures and questionable motivations of the Iraq War and due to the Australian deaths, protracted nature, and uncertain outcomes of the Afghanistan campaign. This issue is also playing out in the context of rising strategic competition between the US and China; Australia’s greatest strategic ally and biggest trade partner respectively. Australia has rising commercial sensitivities to China and, with the heralding of the ‘Asian Century’, Australian society has had cause to think more deeply about its own region and its future role in it.
As Australia’s relationship with its own region continues to mature, as more of its economic interests are tied to China, and should China-US rivalry deepen, debates over the value and relevance of the US alliance will persist. And, it is possible that some in Australia and in New Zealand will use ANZAC Day to protest future US military action and allied wars. Although debate and some opposition are to be expected, it is important to highlight the real as well as intangible benefits of the Australia-US security relationship.
The Australia-US relationship has borne fruit for both countries and the Asia-Pacific. Often these benefits, as well as the underlying reasons for cooperation, have not been well articulated to the Australian public (and a short blog piece such as this does not allow for adequate articulation either). To site only a few examples, Australia-US military cooperation has facilitated progress in disrupting global terrorist networks and most recently allowed for high level coordination and effectiveness in peacekeeping operations and humanitarian and disaster relief. Symbolically, the Australia-US alliance reflects both countries’ shared interests in a liberal democratic world order based on norms and the rule of law. The inherent benefits of two countries with similar – if not the same – values and visions are being capitalized on through heightened defense cooperation. Higher numbers of US Marines are scheduled to rotate through Darwin and more joint military exercises will strengthen existing people-to-people links. This stands to work in favor of both Australian and American interests.
Those who join the armed forces and are killed or injured make the ultimate sacrifice for their countries and communities. The loss of human life through conflict is one of the world’s greatest tragedies. In commemorating ANZAC Day Australians and New Zealanders remember those who have given their lives serving their country and the international community and honor those currently serving. The ANZAC qualities of mateship, courage, and sacrifice live on in the existing Australian Defence Force and are reflected in the Australia-US defense relationship.
Hayley Channer is a Visiting Fellow at the East West Center. She is conducting research on the US rebalance to Asia and changing US expectations of its allies in Asia.