No subject generates more genuine bipartisanship in Canberra today than the US-Australia alliance. Reverently known as "The Alliance", this security pact has been placed beyond public debate – its condition, benefits and risks are not publicly discussed by our political leaders.
Australia's two main political parties are invariably in furious agreement – the government of the day makes policy and the opposition supports it, insisting that there is "no daylight" between them. Even this week's controversial reports of how the US might deploy B-1 bomber aircraft to Australia, with the intent of deterring Chinese island-building in the South China Sea, generated little political debate.
It wasn't always this way. Former prime minister John Howard once described America's refusal to commit ground troops to the Australian-led peacekeeping force in East Timor as "poor repayment of past loyalties and support". But it's hard to imagine any Australian politician using similar language today – it would be seen as nothing less than blasphemy. At first glance, this extreme bipartisanship might seem good for the alliance: with both parties agreeing on its importance, what could possibly threaten it?
The short answer is public opinion. While Australians like the idea of the alliance in the abstract, they are increasingly sceptical of what it might involve, particularly in the event of conflict between China, Japan and the United States. Our political debates don't reflect the awkward fact that Australian support for the alliance might be a mile wide, but it is sometimes only an inch deep. Politicians shouldn't assume that Australians would unfailingly support co-operative action within the alliance.
Research shows that Australians broadly support the alliance. Polling conducted by the Lowy Institute has consistently shown that a large majority of Australians (88 per cent of those polled in 2014) regard the alliance as either "very important" or "fairly important" to Australia's security.
But recent polling from the Australia-China Relations Institute hints at the limits of this support. In the event of conflict between Japan and China (in which Japan was supported by the United States), 71 per cent of Australians polled believed we should remain neutral, and 68 per cent of those polled believed we should remain neutral even if the US President specifically requested Australian assistance.
So while they support the idea of the alliance, Australians are uncomfortable about its regional implications – particularly given the prospect for conflict between our ally and our main trading partner or war in north-east Asia.
This scenario is not fantasy – China-Japan tensions have escalated sharply in recent years. Fortunately, a number of close calls have not (yet) escalated into open conflict.
If conflict did occur, and if America invoked the US-Japan alliance in response to Chinese aggression, Canberra would probably suggest that this did not involve the Australia-US alliance.
During the Cold War the US indicated that the invocation of one Asian alliance would not automatically activate the others, but America – like all nations – has a tendency to interpret historical agreements in light of the present circumstances.
Richard Armitage, who would later serve as deputy secretary of state, stated in 1999 that in the event of conflict over Taiwan "Australia would have to choose between siding with China ... or siding with America as Taiwan's protector".
The same logic would apply in a conflict between Japan and China. While the US might expect Australian assistance, about 70 per cent of Australians would prefer to remain neutral.
Worryingly, political leaders are ignoring this sentiment. In 2013 the Gillard government made a decision that increased the likelihood of Australia being involved in a US-China conflict. HMAS Sydney, an Australian missile frigate, was embedded into the US Navy's 7th Fleet for three months. Based out of Japan, it would be the US force to respond to any China-Japan conflict.
If this had occurred, Australia would have instantly faced a severe choice. If Canberra allowed HMAS Sydney to sail with the 7th Fleet, this might have committed Australia to fighting a war against China. Alternatively, a decision to withdraw the ship would have instantly – and seriously – damaged the alliance. The US has never been specific about what punishment allies might receive in such a circumstance, but it has previously cancelled an alliance with an unco-operative ally.
In contrast to a cautious electorate, our political parties compete to be seen as the strongest supporters of the alliance. Former opposition leader Mark Latham was the last mainstream Australian politician to openly criticise United States policy, and for this he paid dearly at the ballot box. His description of President George W. Bush – the "most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory" – suggested that a Latham government would have difficulty managing the alliance.
The ALP's defeat in the 2004 election was attributed, in part, to these fears. Since 2004, each new ALP leader has conspicuously reaffirmed their affection for the US. This was no great effort for Beazley or Rudd, but required some careful management by Julia Gillard due to her days in left-wing student politics. From leaked cables, we know the American embassy in Canberra assessed that to "become prime minister, she must move to the centre, and show her support for the alliance".
The ALP fears being tagged as anti-US or as incapable of managing the alliance, but it now goes further in seeking to take the fight to the Coalition. Last year, Labor's shadow foreign minister, Tanya Plibersek, attacked Julie Bishop for daring to criticise President barack Obama's comments on climate change.
Neither the ALP nor the Coalition wants to be seen as weak on the alliance. This risks being lumped in with the late former prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and the Greens, who argue the alliance should be cancelled. The public debate has narrowed to only two positions – uncritical support of the alliance, or a desire to destroy it.
So how did Australia end up in this situation, where we might be forced to displease either America or China? There is no doubt that the crew of the HMAS Sydney would have gained valuable experience by working alongside the US Navy, but did this benefit outweigh the severe risk posed by the deployment?
Why was there no public debate about the implications of the HMAS Sydney decision? Alliance bipartisanship probably played a role – anyone raising objections would have quickly been labelled as "soft on the alliance". Another worrying possibility is that those in the Department of Defence – like their political masters – have become conditioned to not carefully and critically examine both the benefits and risks of alliance co-operation.
Of course, even without HMAS Sydney in America's 7th Fleet, Australia might still have faced a choice between supporting and abandoning the US. But if HMAS Sydney wasn't there, Canberra would probably have several more days of decision time: precious, valuable time for cooler heads to prevail and the risk of conflict to subside. In this way, Australia might have narrowly avoided a critical alliance test and a most unpleasant choice between China and America.
Australians support the alliance but are growing more cautious about the risks it poses. But in Canberra, this position – because it deviates from the bipartisan instinct to support the US – borders on heresy. For many years the alliance provided benefits but posed few risks, and because of this Australians gave it their strong support. This dynamic is now changing – despite the bipartisanship, growing risks posed by the alliance are already influencing public opinion.
It should not be blasphemy to acknowledge and discuss these issues. Though our political leaders regard faith in the alliance as sacrosanct, the Australian people seem to have a more pragmatic approach: they are supportive, but prudently cautious. Only by abandoning reflexive, uncritical bipartisanship, and by carefully assessing and explaining Australia's national interests in a more uncertain and insecure Asia, will Australian politicians maintain and enhance public support for the alliance.
Iain Henry is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. In 2014 he was an Australian Fulbright Scholar at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
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