AUKUS, Australia and China

Jun 9, 2023
AUKUS Nuclear submarine in the deep sea, The US, UK, and Australia have announced a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific, Australia new submarine deals with the US. France upset. Artists impression. Image iStock/ Homayon Kabir

Australia’s capacity to protect its sovereignty lies not in accession to US interests but in a broad diplomatic and security effort with our Asian neighbours, writes Paul Keating in a letter delivered to Prime Minister Albanese on 24 January, seven weeks before the San Diego AUKUS announcement and obtained by the Guardian Australia under FOI laws.

All governments declare that their fundamental responsibility is the defence of the nation.

  • What they really mean, particularly Labor governments, is the defence of the nation’s sovereignty- its right to divine its own destiny.
  • Curtin and troop pull-back from the Middle East is an example.

Strategic threat is classically defined as a combination of capability to threaten and intention to do so.

  • Because the intention of other powers can change quickly and is harder to judge confidently (eg the Russian invasion of Ukraine), defence forces are usually structured against an assessment of the capability of potential adversaries.

China’s ability to take Taiwan and control the South China Sea is undeniably growing. No matter what the trajectory of its economic growth, and the impediments it faces, including demography. It will eventually rival the United States in economic scale.

It is now capable of challenging American military primacy In East Asia -that is, Washington’s ability to move its forces at will, with the influence that provides.

  • It is the potential loss of that primacy that has caused Washington’s rapid policy shift towards military and economic containment of China.

Even so, the chance that the US will be able to preserve strategic primacy in East Asia, while protecting its critical interests in Europe and NATO, is fading.

In contrast to the United States, whose secure geography makes it unchallengeable by China or by anything other than nuclear weapons, China will always be surrounded by a group of strong large and middle powers -Japan, India, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia and Russia. It will never be free to do as it pleases.

China is not able and will not be able to pose a direct invasive threat to Australia or to fundamentally threaten our connections with the outside world. Capability, let alone intention, is absent.

Australia’s interests are well served by a close relationship with the United States

  • which gives us political influence in Washington and access to advanced weaponry and intelligence.

But Australian and US interests are different. You don’t need to be a conspiratorialist to acknowledge that powerful industry and national forces are pushing for Australia to go in one direction. But Australia’s capacity to protect its sovereignty lies not in accession to US interests but in a broad diplomatic and security effort with our Asian neighbours to give the region the resilience they want, the economic growth they need. The peace which must be the objective, not a by­ product, of regional statecraft.

On one level, the Morrison government’s AUKUS announcement was in line with 100 years of Australian defence procurement.

  • But it was structured and presented in a way designed to do more than that – that is, to draw Australian and American forces together in order to operate closely.
  • Designing Australia’s future Defence Force around the objective of deterring China, principally from an invasion of Taiwan, by means of integrating Australian defence assets into those of the United States is contrary to our interests. It constrains Australian decision­ making and shreds its sovereignty.

A decision to commit Australia to an American/British submarine project will also

  • delay access to submarine capability
  • limit, because of the costs, options for Australia to adopt other emerging naval technologies, and other defence capabilities, including land and air-based
  • restrict other fiscal options for the government.

If our aim is to deter a possible Chinese attack on Australia, this can be done cheaper and much more quickly by other means, including the sea mines the government has just announced, and land-based missiles, let alone aircraft, which are plentiful and mobile.

Submarines, like every military capability in history, will be valuable until they are vulnerable.

  • Once they are visible to technology In the water, a major part of their value will be immediately written off.

In contrast to the key American decisions of the mid-20th century (creation of the United Nations; Marshall Plan; non-punitive approach to Japan and Germany; containment, not rollback, of Soviet power) – US strategic decisions in the post-cold war world (the invasion of Iraq; the handling of the Afghanistan war; backing away from free and open trade; containment of China) have been strategically damaging to its interests and to those of its allies.

Connected with this is the growing dysfunction of the US political system.

  • For the first time in 70years, Australia can’t be confident that the general direction of US grand strategy will remain unchanged over the next eight years.

Australians have glossed over our role in Washington’s poor decision-making since the end of the Cold War, convincing ourselves that the contribution we made was minor. But we can’t let ourselves off the hook. We have to be sure that we are not again standing by while major and dangerous decisions are being made.

24 January 2023


Document obtained by Guardian Australia under FOI laws from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Republished with permission.

Read the full article on the FOI disclosures by Daniel Hurst, published by the Guardian Australia on 8 June 2023.

Hurst describes how the former Prime Minister warned cabinet ministers in correspondence prior to his explosive appearance at the National Press Club in March 2023, that AUKUS was a “radical and dangerous policy” and that “the government’s complicity in joining with Britain and the United States in building nuclear submarines for Australia is the worst decision any Labor government has taken since the government of Billy Hughes sought to conscript Australian men and women for service in world war one.”

The “off the scale” plan would “seriously maim the budget and jam all manner of social spending into the foreseeable future,” Keating said, concluding that:

“In my view, the proposal is uncalled for and given its huge expense and concomitant lack of explanation – an affront to public administration.”

For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

Paul Keating – Australia locks in Asian Century as subordinate to the US


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