But last week’s “AUSMIN” (a thankfully shorter way to say Australian-United States Ministerial Consultations) in San Francisco passed with little fanfare in both the US and Australia even though several intriguing issues were highlighted in it.


Of note, what wasn’t said. New Zealand, it appears, officially no longer exists and its only current contribution to the treaty is upholding the ANZUS acronym. New Zealand has not left the alliance but its membership effectively ended in 1987 when the Kiwi government invoked its Nuclear Free Act. The New Zealand government was not invited to clink 60th birthday Champagne glasses.

The alliance, though, is the anchor of Australia’s relationship with the US (although it could be equally argued it’s actually Australia’s importation of American television) and so Clinton joined US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, and Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith on Friday at San Francisco’s Presidio, where the original treaty was signed in 1951.

The Asia-Pacific region is of growing global importance, not least because of China’s growing influence and the ever-tenuous relationship between North and South Korea. On Friday Clinton and Rudd, however, both chose to highlight Burma as an area of “shared interest”, a coordinated and critical reminder to the Burmese government that its internal actions remain a focus of Western nations. This at a time when other issues might have taken up more space.

Issues, for example, like Australia and the US’s relationship with China. Even as Australia’s economy is increasingly tied to China, the announcement that ANZUS could now be triggered by a cyber attack on either country was a big flag waved toward Beijing without ever mentioning the “C word”.

It’s worth noting that ANZUS has been invoked only once in its 60-year history – by Prime Minister John Howard immediately after the 9/11 attacks on the US. If the US is under attack by terrorists, Howard suggested, so too is Australia. This latest agreement provides another path for this that need not be caused by planes or bombs.

“We know that Australian businesses have already been the subject of cyber attacks,” Rudd said in San Francisco. “And if it’s a big enough economy, it would have reverberations throughout the world. Like terrorism, it’s a battleground that is fought unconventionally, often without a known enemy.”

Rudd is not wrong and adding cyber attacks to ANZUS formally recognises the direction from which governments now see threats. In the 21st century, they no longer manifest themselves as a “red menace”, invading hordes from the North. Now it’s low-rent high-impact terrorist attacks like 9/11 or a nerd-driven Internet attacks capable of bringing down global economies.

This list of cyber attacks believed to have originated in China demonstrates just how serious – and effective – the issue really is.