AUKUS, another wrong turn for our foreign policy.

Oct 24, 2021
Scott Morrison nuclear submarine announcement uk us AUKUS
Prime MInister Scott Morrison announces the AUKUS arrangement, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The notion of treating Washington and Beijing in the same manner while pursuing our sovereign interests has been cast to the wind.

It has been a long road to the misstep that is the AUKUS defence pact. Yet again in foreign policy and sovereignty issues Australia has joined forces with external powers that have their own agendas and more importantly are in the sunset of their grandeur.

Australia is like a gambler who fails to read the strategy of those at the table and never knows when to fold their cards and find new ways of seeing. Australia’s elite has suffered from a deficit of geopolitical theorists armed with a long view of history.

From the Boer War to Afghanistan, Australia has paid a price in blood and treasure and abject dependency for its incapacity to judge how keeping a stern eye on the rise and fall of great powers should be the guiding principle of middle powers in determining which military pacts to enter.

Australia could be cautious and steer a middle course between the great powers, extracting benefits from each of the contestants aiming for regional or global supremacy. Instead it has yet again shown its cards at an early stage and become hostage to likely losers in the great strategic game.

Entry into the AUKUS agreement shows Australia’s political elite has learnt little from history ― and that the 20-year gap that now looms before the planned submarines begin arriving gives plenty of time for the geopolitical position of its military allies to enter an even steeper decline.

At the end of the 19th century Australia bought into a war that graphically illustrated how the UK lacked the capacity to sustain a global empire.

A combination of Zulus and Dutch farmers almost brought the British Empire to its knees. Australia trailed behind the mother country. It joined a war inspired by adventurers such as Cecil Rhodes and London bankers bent on controlling South African goldfields.

The military debacle was preceded by economic decline. The City of London focused on exporting capital to the detriment of investing in UK industry. Thus old-fashioned industries languished, and the capacity to develop state-of-the-art war industries fell behind those of the rising powers such as Germany and the US.

In the prelude to World War I, the commanding heights of the Australian economy experienced a growing German footprint. At Broken Hill, for example, German and British mining companies competed for control of the rich mines. This contest spurred Australia’s development in the first phase of economic globalisation.

Australia’s politicians could have argued that if Germany achieved economic hegemony in continental Europe and created an early version of the Common Market the UK would still be a global financial powerhouse with mouthwatering overseas investments. Or the case could have been made that Germany had to be militarily confronted as Australia’s experience showed the German aim was to supplant the British Empire.

In practical terms what happened was Australia’s political elite acted like a client state and simply rubberstamped UK foreign policy. No hard questions were asked and Australia tumbled into the slaughterhouse of World War I.

Britain emerged from the war a mirage of power. By 1916 it was only been able to continue the war because of loans from Wall Street.

In the interwar years America began to assert its financial and military muscle, but the UK bridled at its hegemonic aims and a military showdown was not inconceivable.

In Australia the government meekly accepted Downing Street’s instructions that a local aircraft industry was not necessary and if one went ahead no American companies could participate.

Prime Minister John Curtin’s 1941 turn to the US was a belated wake-up call that exposed Australia’s supine interwar reliance on Britain’s false promise that a ring of UK ships based in Singapore would provide an invincible shield against any assault on Australia.

History has now repeated itself. Since World War II, Australia has hitched its wagon to the extant global hegemon and turned a blind eye to its waning power. Afghanistan is just one of a litany of defeats.

As the US has entered a period of economic and military decline, China has begun its rise. It is now a crucial Australian trade partner. For a time Australia’s politicians showed signs of learning from history, and being ready to act as an intelligent middle power. They spoke of treating Washington and Beijing in the same manner while pursuing Australia’s sovereign interests.

That policy has been cast to the wind. Victoria’s agreement to join the Chinese Belt and Road initiative was vetoed by the federal government. The Foreign Investment Review Board has muzzled Chinese investment and the boycott of Huawei showed plainly the desire to please the US. A Chinese blowback on trade and other fronts has not been slow in coming.

Now we have AUKUS and the plan to encircle the Chinese in the South and East China seas. The 19th-century Monroe Doctrine created a US sphere of influence in the Americas. Now when China seeks a zone of influence in its backyard, the US and its junior Anglosphere partners cry foul.

The US-led Quad alliance with India, Japan and Australia in tow is another gambit to encircle China. It is an ill-assorted group unlikely to ever produce a co-ordinated containment strategy.

The long catastrophe of Australian foreign policy that has marginalised national independence and glorified the apron strings of dependency continues.

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