Over at ASPI's The Strategist, a timely debate is underway on the future of Australia's alliance with the US. For Geoffrey Barker, the changing regional order is upending Canberra's long-standing alliance calculus. With the costs and risks of alliance on their way up as China rises, and with the the credibility of American assurances diminishing, it may be time, he argues, for Australia to gracefully bow out.

Rod Lyon disagrees, though less with Barker's analysis than with his prescriptions. Lyon acknowledges that Australia faces a more uncertain regional order in the years and decades ahead. But it's precisely this uncertainty, he argues, that makes the alliance as central as ever to Australian interests and security.


Lt Gen Arthur Percival about to negotiate terms of surrender with Japanese forces, Singapore 1942. (Wikipedia.)

These contrasting viewpoints illustrate one of the age-old dilemmas of alliance politics: alliances are almost always easiest to maintain when they're least required, when benign circumstances mean that neither side has to incur major costs on behalf of the other. But peacetime offers little insight into how an alliance will work under more exacting conditions. As Stephen Walt notes, 'The litmus test comes not at annual summit meetings — which are designed for the ritual incantation of unifying rhetoric — but when member-states are called upon to do something for each other.'

Australia is familiar with the problem. Canberra regarded its alliance with Britain as a fundamentally reliable basis for Australian security, but that proved to be an illusion. With the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Britain had defaulted on its alliance commitments, leaving Canberra exposed to the most acute strategic crisis it has faced to this day. With British power eclipsed in Singapore, Japanese forces arrayed themselves against Australia's northern approaches. The bulk of Australian forces, meanwhile, were in North Africa and the Mediterranean, a down-payment on what turned out to be worthless British assurances.

For Australia, this historical episode holds a contemporary lesson. Prudent strategic policy needs to do more than just hedge against the rise of China. It also needs to offer a hedge against the potential failure of the US alliance in the context of a changing regional order. Thankfully, both tasks can be achieved in the same way.

The answer is to discern a vital but defensible set of Australian interests, then calibrate Australia's independent strategic weight to most cost-effectively secure them.

In practice, that means building powerful, genuinely self-reliant military forces. To achieve their purpose, these would need to be optimised strictly for the limited task of defending Australia – not the regional order; not Japan, Taiwan or Korea; and not the countries contesting Chinese claims in the South China Sea. It would mean prioritising independent operational capability over interoperability (when the two goals conflict), and air and maritime forces over land power. It would also mean taking full advantage of Australia's fortuitous strategic geography, using asymmetric military technologies and doctrines in ways that impose intolerable costs and risks on an adversary seeking to surmount it.

The beauty in such a strategy lies in its ability to square Barker's and Lyon's perspectives. Australia could preserve the US alliance for as long as it serves Australian interests. Moreover, by providing for its own defence, Australia would reduce the burdens on the US. This would be a more meaningful undertaking on behalf of long-term US interests than virtually anything else Australia could offer.

Most importantly, by minimising its strategic dependence on the US, Australia could simultaneously insure itself against alliance failure in two distinct ways.

First, a more complete form of self-reliance would hedge against being abandoned in a time of need. That would avoid a repeat of 1942. If the US was unable to meet its alliance commitments, Australia could be relatively confident of securing at least its own most vital interests – namely its political independence and territorial integrity (though probably not much more than that).

Second, it would provide Australia with a valuable hedge against unnecessary entanglement. Confident in its ability to defend itself, Canberra would have the new-found diplomatic freedom to opt out of the alliance if the costs and risks of meeting our alliance commitments began to outweigh the benefits.

Of course, none of this would be cheap or easy. By necessity, a more comprehensive form of self-reliance implies downgrading the role of the alliance in Australian strategic policy. That cuts against Australia's long-standing habits of dependence, and presents as much a psychological challenge for Australia as a practical one. It means facing up to contingencies whose very consideration pose a major challenge to entrenched institutional orthodoxies.

And yet such a policy would maximise Australia's options. It would balance competing imperatives of preserving the US alliance on the one hand, while mitigating the dangers of strategic dependence on the other. In that sense, it's the best option Australia has.