AUKUS and Israel-Palestine at the ALP National ConferenceAug 31, 2023
There was little to connect AUKUS and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the ALP National Conference except their shared “victory” in style over substance. AUKUS was locked into the party platform without meaningful debate. Revised wording on Israel/Palestine is worthy but will not make the slightest difference on the ground.
With the mantra of “secure, well-paid, unionised jobs” still ringing in our ears we now know that AUKUS is a clever job-creation program—even if 20,000 jobs sometime in the future at a price-tag of around $368 billion is hardly a shining example of wise economic management. Maybe some of those jobs would be better created now to serve the housing industry: a Housing Industry Association report released last April spoke of “one of the most acute shortages of skilled tradespeople” since 2003.
But jobs on the never-never are just part of the AUKUS muddle.
Defence Minister Richard Marles told the conference that by 2030 Australia will face what we might call “peak China-threat”. By then, Marles said, China’s nuclear powered submarine fleet will have grown to 21, from six in 2000, and the number of major warships to 200, from 157 in 2000.
We can only assume these figures are meant to send a shiver through us. But without comparisons between China and its rivals of future tonnages, firepower and capability it’s impossible to know what they actually mean.
We’re expected to take the growing threat of China as a given. We are warned about China’s malign surveillance and intelligence activities everywhere and its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. It is true that those of us outside government do not know the extent of all this. Equally, we know very little about the extent of our own side’s surveillance and intelligence activities directed at China.
What we do know is that, for ideological and political purposes, Australian governments have long manipulated the truth. Witness the 1965 “request” for Australian troops the Menzies government extracted from a reluctant South Vietnamese regime. Witness the blatant falsehoods over weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 attack on Iraq, which proved a gift to extremist Islam. John Howard, in 2014, admitted he was “embarrassed” that the intelligence used to justify the Iraq war was inaccurate. He added, nonetheless, “it wasn’t a deliberate deception”. Small comfort to the 600,000 Iraqis who died as a consequence of the conflict. If Howard wanted an example of “deliberate deception” he had to look no further than the “children overboard” scandal which helped his re-election in 2001.
There are gaping holes—chronologically and logically—in the China threat equation. The first of Australia’s eight nuclear-powered boats will not arrive until the early 2040s and the last not until the 2060s. That hardly seems an effective time-table to counter the purportedly clear and growing danger of Chinese vessels swarming regional oceans and Chinese satellites stalking the skies. (The role of nuclear-powered submarines in defending cyber-space is not yet clear.)
In a statement to Parliament last March on the “AUKUS nuclear-powered pathway” Marles noted that almost 99 per cent of Australia’s trade by volume travels by sea. Highlighting Australia’s growing dependence on fuel imports through Singapore he warned: “One doesn’t have to think hard to see what the impact would be if just this one trade route was disrupted by an adversary”. That is hard to argue with. Curiously, though, Marles’s statement made no mention of the fact that around 35 per cent of total Australian exports actually go to China which, in turn, provides around 25 per cent of total Australian imports. It seems that one of the major trade routes that apparently needs protection from China is actually with China.
Are the AUKUS subs needed to protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression? If so, we better hope that China will not make a move for another two decades. We might also note that, like almost every country in the world, Australia accepts that Taiwan is part of China. Worldwide, only 13 countries currently recognise Taiwan as an independent state. That is not to endorse the idea forced “reunification”. But should Australia really contemplate war with China over territory that it and almost everyone else (including the US) has accepted as belonging to China?
To question the alarmist construct of AUKUS is to risk condemnation. There is no more appalling example of this than Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy’s assertion at the ALP National Conference that “appeasement invites conflict”. Who exactly is being “appeased”? It was as an idiotic and offensive a statement as former Foreign Minister Downer’s accusation that those who opposed Australia’s involvement in the US-led war on Iraq were, by definition, supporters of Saddam Hussein.
Albanese told the Labor conference that based upon the advice and analysis he had received, nuclear-powered submarines “are what Australia needs in the future [as they] are harder to detect and can travel further”. Maybe the PM needs a wider circle of advisers. A paper jointly published In March 2023 by four academic experts suggested a high probability that oceans could “become transparent by 2050”. The paper added that “regardless of progress in stealth technologies, submarines—including nuclear powered submarines—will be able to be detected in the world’s oceans as a result of progress in science and technology”.
Perhaps that analysis is wrong. If so, we need to an explanation of why. The mantra of national security should not be a tool for shutting down genuine debate in a society that preaches democratic values. None of us should take whatever the government says on critical issues of national security on trust, especially those whose lives will be on the line. The experience of the past seventy years has amply demonstrated why.
On Israel and Palestine, the ALP at least now has the right words in place. The strengthening of language to refer to Palestinian Territories as “occupied” and Israeli settlements as “illegal” restores a realistic, centrist approach, similar to that of the UK and the EU, if not the US. It may lead to further tweaking of Australian voting on the raft of resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will soon come before the 2023 UN General Assembly. The three AUKUS parties will not necessarily vote the same way on these resolutions, with the US being more protective of Israel, despite its odious government. Such differences won’t add up to much. Nor does the fact that Labor’s policy platform continues to call for recognition of Palestine as a state. Palestinian statehood, like the problem of radioactive waste from nuclear-powered submarines, is a can that the government will keep kicking down the road.