Sustaining the U.S.-Australia Alliance in the Face of North Korea: Missile Defense

Australia has been a consistent promoter of disarmament diplomacy and denuclearization. It is unsurprising, then, that it joins the United States in strongly condemning North Korea's nuclear testing and ambitions.

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Last week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott met with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. to discuss and reaffirm the U.S.-Australia alliance with respect to force posture and defense cooperation. One result of the talks is that Abbott confirmed Australia’s previous commitments to supporting expanded U.S. missile defense plans to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat, a policy that has been around since 2003 but has yet to be acted on. The statement, which was not widely broadcast by the media, is timely; it coincides with news that North Korea has apparently acquired a new cruise missile. But what does it mean in practical terms?

Historically, Australia has been a reliable partner in cooperative defense policy with the United States, a position codified by the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS). This treaty was established in 1951 and secured a place for Australia under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. (New Zealand’s condemnation of nuclear weapons, disapproval of U.S. policy, and ultimate ban of nuclear warships in the mid-1980s led to the suspension of ANZUS treaty obligations between the U.S. and New Zealand.) Notably, ANZUS has only been invoked once – in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks – although Australia has been a consistent presence alongside the United States in international engagements. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, however, support for such a sustained military alliance has waned, with widespread Australian opposition to the U.S.-led war.

Australia has been a consistent promoters of disarmament diplomacy and denuclearization. It is unsurprising, then, that it joins the United States in strongly condemning North Korea’s nuclear testing and ambitions. Unlike Washington, though, Canberra does maintain (strained) diplomatic relations with Pyongyang while noting that continued efforts by the government to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles pose a severe threat to Asia-Pacific security.

The June 2014 dialogue comes as an extension of decisions stated in the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) Communiqué of November 2013. In addition to sustained military cooperation and support, it was agreed by both parties that the United States and Australia would continue to collaborate on identifying potential Australian contributions to missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region. This includes ongoing cooperative research efforts and bilateral consultations on missile threats with respect to the region. It is important to note here that Australia does not have any intention to develop its own national ballistic missile defense system, under the belief that such action would negatively impact deterrence. However, Australia does support the United States’ effort to counter the threats that North Korea still poses to the Asia-Pacific region.

Currently, the United States is cooperating with Japan on the development of advanced missile interceptors, while also deploying early-warning systems on Japanese soil and Aegis destroyers (equipped with anti-nuclear warfare protection) in Japanese waters. Closer to North Korea, the United States has recommended that similar systems also be placed in South Korea. Seoul, however, does not want to deploy a U.S. system but rather has expressed interest in developing its own (an effort that China staunchly opposes in the belief that such a feat would elevate already tense relations within the region).

The most likely, immediate contribution by Australia to this series of partnerships would be through the existing Jindalee Operational Radar Network, a system which is already deployed on Royal Australian Air Force aircraft and Royal Australian Navy destroyers. Australia is also investing in a new fleet of warships that could be furnished in such a way that would directly support U.S. missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region.

A discussion of missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region cannot be had without also mentioning China. While all of these efforts that have been mentioned are meant to be defensive measures against North Korea, there is a persistent fear in Beijing that missile defense systems supported by the United States are an inherent threat to China in an effort to contain the growing power. However, it is clear that the missile defense systems currently in place in the region and those that may soon be deployed or developed are in direct response to North Korea’s nuclear endeavors, not China.

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