The Importance of Australia to the United States

The Importance of Australia to the United States, by Jacob Shapiro, from February 2017.

Australia needs the United States. Australia’s economy depends on global trade. Australia does not possess a global naval force capable of protecting maritime trade routes. This means Australia must have a tight relationship with a country that does. For much of Australian history, that was the United Kingdom. Since 1945, it has been the United States. China is by far Australia’s most important trading relationship – in 2015, 29.6 percent of Australian exports went to China, and 22.8 percent of Australian imports came from China. But a maritime trading relationship is meaningless if the goods cannot get from one country to another. This is the reason Australia needs the U.S.: The U.S. guarantees that maritime trade will move freely.

The less appreciated aspect of this alliance is that the United States also needs Australia. The U.S. is the stronger power of the two, but the relationship is not one-sided. It has been a foundation of U.S. strategy since World War II. The U.S. needed Australia when it fought the Japanese in the Pacific in World War II and during the Cold War to help contain the Soviet Union. The U.S. has called on Australia to commit troops to every war fought by the Americans since 1945, and Australia has answered the call each time, contributing much-needed credibility and support to U.S.-led military engagements. The U.S. and Australia are bound together formally by multiple treaties and share intelligence as part of the “Five Eyes,” the intelligence alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. The U.S.-Australia alliance is one of the closest security relationships in the world.

The U.S.’ reliance on Australia will become more acute in the coming years. For much of both countries’ histories, the Atlantic Ocean was the most important and strategic body of water in the world. This is no longer the case. Trans-Pacific trade has outpaced trans-Atlantic trade since the early 1980s. The second and third largest economies in the world – China and Japan, respectively – are in East Asia. The Strait of Malacca, located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, is the world’s busiest trade route, with roughly two-thirds of the world’s oil and a third of the world’s bulk cargo transiting to and from the Indian and Pacific oceans. The U.S. holds no sovereign territory in this part of the world – Guam is the closest U.S. territory. U.S. power projection in the Pacific depends on good relationships with U.S. allies – Australia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines the most important among them. Of these partners, Australia is the most reliable for the U.S. To maintain its superiority in the Pacific, the U.S. must have a close relationship with Australia.