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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Peter Lee

Re-negotiating the Australia-US Alliance for sovereign control

Australia's deepening of its alliance ties with the US has come at the costs of rising criticism domestically, but the Australian government is trying to balance this deeper intergration with their need for sovereignty, which may prove to be a model for other US allies to follow.

Photo credits: Darren England/EPA via Shutterstock

*This article is based on a presentation delivered at the “3rd Canterbury Conference on Indo-Pacific Security: Enduring Alliances and Security Partnerships,” in July 2023.

The Australia-United States alliance is being re-negotiated for a new era of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. From enhanced force posture initiatives that will see US troops, military aircraft and naval vessels operating from northern Australia to the audacious AUKUS partnership to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered conventionally armed submarines, Australia is emerging as a crucial partner for US regional strategy. In many respects, this is the logical conclusion of Australia’s alliance with the United States as it begins to resemble other US alliances in Asia.


Yet even as the Australian public supports many steps towards a closer partnership with the United States, other steps such as permanent US military basing, full defence industrial integration, a combined forces command, or the presence of nuclear strategic assets on Australian soil remain highly contentious. This article outlines these tensions and argues that Australia is trying to strike the optimal balance between alliance dependence and self-reliance through the prism of sovereign control. This may present limits to how deep Australia is likely to go in its alliance integration with the United States, even as the risk of regional conflict increases.


The Deepening “Forever Partnership” 

The Australia-US alliance has seen major advances in terms of integration over the past decade that are more sharply focused on shared strategic assessments and commitments. But debate persists as to whether this constitutes a fundamental transformation of the alliance or an incremental modernisation foreshadowed in biennial ministerial meetings. For example, the Force Posture Initiatives across northern Australia since 2011 have brought a growing tempo of visits by US Marines as well as US Air Force and US Navy assets, that will soon include long-range bombers, littoral vessels, and submarines. The AUKUS partnership for nuclear-powered submarines and advanced defence technologies has attracted significant debate about its implications for Australia’s strategic autonomy and degree of dependence on the United States in the coming decades, not to mention fears of alliance entrapment. Both lines of effort need to be understood within context of the 2023 Australian Defence Strategic Review as the latest government policy document aligning the Australian Defence Force’s own modernisation program within an alliance architecture.


There are competing explanations for this unprecedented level of alliance integration. Most obviously, there is a close fit between Australia’s actions and the international relations scholarship on power transition theory, which echoes the recent behaviour of other US Indo-Pacific allies. Meanwhile, constructivist arguments emphasise the cultural dimensions to the Australia-US alliance that distinguish it from other US alliances in Asia with special privileges and risks. While some scholars attribute Australia’s enmeshment to “habit and timidity”, others emphasise a deliberate strategy to shore up US power within a wider allied network. Australia’s own agency in this bargaining depends on what exactly Australia is seen to be offering the United States in return for these new commitments of support. For theorists of the ‘autonomy-security trade-off’, this means Australia’s sovereignty.


Alliance Integration with Australian Characteristics 

Changing threat perceptions and a renewed sense of strategic urgency have indeed marked a turning point in Australia’s alliance outlook. But Australia’s approach to alliance integration over the past decade suggests that governments have been resistant to any erosion of their sovereign control even as they have actively sought a deeper US commitment to Australia. Key alliance announcements have often been quietly followed by tough negotiations and bargaining, whether over cost-sharing for Marine Rotational Force-Darwin or domestic manufacturing and non-proliferation commitments in the AUKUS partnership.


The Australian model of alliance integration may be best thought of as flexible territoriality and capability underpinned by rigid sovereign control. This is evident in how successive governments have framed ideas such as ‘defence sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign industrial capability’ to accommodate a high level of reliance on US support so long as ultimate decision-making power rests with Canberra. This interpretation, which sits at odds with how many US allies around the world think about the relationship between sovereignty and alliance integration, is what makes efforts like the AUKUS partnership politically feasible in Australia. As Australia’s Minister for Defence Richard Marles has stated, “The capability decisions we will make in the context of AUKUS are about strengthening our sovereignty.”


Four Tests for Alliance Integration and Bargaining

The coming years will nonetheless demand more from Australian policymakers in preserving this paramount sovereign control and public support for the alliance integration agenda. Four tests will present challenges for not only Australia but other US allies initiating similar alliance integration efforts, including force presence, industrial integration, command and control, and nuclear risk. First, Australia’s long-standing and bipartisan policy that there are “no foreign military bases on Australian soil” will be tested as the first phase of the AUKUS partnership known as Submarine Rotational Force – West begins in 2027, bringing up to four US Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines to Perth, Western Australia, for extended visits. The supporting infrastructure and facilities, for both personnel and vessels, will begin to have an effect on the local economy and society, much like the arrival of US Marines in Darwin, Northern Territory, did in previous years. The expansion of the US military presence in Australia, albeit in various temporary forms, may be welcomed by many local communities but will also invite opposition from other segments of the public.


Second, Australia’s bipartisan commitment to building a sovereign defence industry will impose constraints on full defence industrial integration with the United States. Since the liberalisation of the sector after the Cold War, most local defence firms were acquired by US and European multinationals. Recent direct foreign military sales from the United States such as helicopters, Tomahawk and Javelin missiles, C-130J-30 aircraft, and more suggest a preference for speed of delivery over domestic manufacturing. And yet, the insistence in 2021 that the AUKUS submarines would be built in Adelaide, South Australia, long before an optimal pathway had even been identified, reflects the enduring appeal of sovereign manufacturing. Thus, allied defence industrial integration as envisaged under legislation such as the US National Technology and Industrial Base and AUKUS Pillar Two cooperation will continue to face domestic electoral pressures.


Third, Australia-US alliance integration for a possible high-end military contingency or conflict will require new approaches to command of their combined forces. The best known examples include in how US forces fought under Australian command at the Battle of Hamel in the First World War, while Australia placed its troops under the command of US General Douglas MacArthur to fight the Pacific campaign during the Second World War. Today, over 500 Australian defence personnel are posted in the United States, occupying senior positions in the Pentagon and Combatant Commands, and Australian and US personnel have long served together on naval vessels such as submarines. This all reflects a deep level of sovereign interdependence that has barely registered in public debates about the alliance. But as the alliance pivots to regional contingencies, command authority could become a new diplomatic flashpoint, much as it is in other US alliances such as the South Korea-US alliance as well as NATO authority in Europe. There has been little analysis of the conditions under which Australia might need to maintain independent command or defer to the United States during wartime.


Fourth, Australia remains committed to nuclear non-proliferation and to not host any nuclear weapons on its territory under international treaties. Criticisms of the alliance have included that that it raises the risks of nuclear proliferationas part of the AUKUS partnership. For example, the US Virginia-class attack submarines that will start visiting Australia in 2027, and which Australia will purchase in the 2030s, are not currently nuclear armed. But Republicans in the US Congress efforts have been pushing to re-introduce nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM-N) on these boats, which were discontinued after the Cold War. Similarly, the media and public interest in the expansion of Australia’s northern airbases to accommodate US B-52 long-range bombers has fuelled concerns about nuclear risks, given the US policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons on particular platforms. Australia’s nuclear risk tolerance will face new pressures as the United States undertakes a $1.5 trillion upgrade of its nuclear arsenal.



The process of alliance integration has delivered important payoffs for Australian governments in terms of advanced military capabilities and ensuring an ongoing US commitment to Australia’s security. These actions have nonetheless been characterised by critics as coming at the cost of Australia’s independence, autonomy and sovereignty. While Australia has indeed made important contributions in return for these benefits, such as greater burden-sharing, risk tolerance, financial investments, and tacit understandings around future commitments, it has done so while adhering to its own definition of sovereign control that cannot be compromised in service of alliance integration. This may offer an alternative model for other US allies seeking to strengthen their alliances for a new period of strategic competition while also protecting their core values and principles.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.




Dr. Peter K. Lee is a Research Fellow in the Center for Regional Studies at the Asan Institute in South Korea and a Non-resident Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His recent publications cover US foreign and defence policy, Australia-Korea relations, AUKUS, and Korean security.



Giving voice to the Indo-Pacific

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