AUKUS: Our newest member of the acronym insecurity landscape

Nov 16, 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)

AUKUS is just the newest acronym in our foreign policy vocabulary, but what does this alliance mean for all the others?

Acronyms are the language of choice in international relations, whether in the fields of trade or military affairs.

Recently Australians and others have had to cope with an addition to the lexicon — AUKUS, the newly-minted and fairly vague Australia-UK-US military pact. But what is the relationship of AUKUS to the other international arrangements to which Australia is party?

ANZUS is of course the oldest and most venerated, but how much real significance does it have with Aotearoa-New Zealand (ANZ) sidelined by its long adherence to a nuclear-free foreign policy?

On the other hand, the (mercifully non-acronymed) Five Eyes intelligence-sharing pact remains in force — presumably in the unsentimental world of international conflict and spying because ANZ provides some geo-strategic benefits the US would rather not do without. Nevertheless, ANZ has also stayed away from most of the US wars for which Australian governments have enthusiastically volunteered.

ANZUS then represents the history primarily of the unequal US-Australia relationship — this country’s perpetual search for security which somehow always lands us in a less secure and more isolated international environment. But does AUKUS simply represent simply a modern version of ANZUS? Not when we take account of the UK involvement, which rather takes us back to a colonial past, from the Boer war to Singapore. It’s much healthier to operate in the modern field of neo-colonialism, when our subservience to Big Brother doesn’t require recognition in our flag and governments can pretend they freely choose to end up in the same old deputy-sheriff role.

Is it real though to count at most a couple of UK sub visits a year, all they can probably spare from their shrunken hegemony amidst their primary geo-strategic position, poised off the coast of Europe like a seagull watching for carrion?

However Mike Scrafton recently reminded us that the political heart of our junior gang-member status is the annual AUSMIN (Australia-US Ministerial) talks, when the foreign and defence ministers of Australia get their orders as the latest demands of the US. And the last one in June was a doozy, as Scrafton said:

Nothing exemplifies the loss of national sovereignty, and the abandonment of strategic autonomy, like handing the war decision over to the US. The submarine issue is simply a blind. AUKUS just a distraction.”

And that’s just what Peter Dutton and Marise Payne did when they completed their pilgrimage to Washington and listened to the oracles of the Pentagon and the State Department. So perhaps AUKUS and even ANZUS are just loose frameworks for the operational details of substance handed out in this more volatile and changing global atmosphere. ANZUS for nostalgia, AUKUS for distraction.

What then of the Quad (Australia-US-Japan-India)? Its status is much more uncertain, as India and Japan are more tentative in the degree to which they openly commit to confronting China than the still-arrogant US and the naively brash Australia, barking loudly from beneath the feet of the the much bigger US dog. Sometimes it’s just a security and trade dialogue, other times an incipient pact (which the US would like to be the solid future of the Quad).

But in these uncertain times of China’s rise and the US decline, an uncertain future pact is perhaps appropriate – certainly for the more nuanced diplomacy of Japan and India. That two of the most right-wing ruling parties in their two histories can be fairly described as having more nuanced approaches to international relations than that of the Morrison government is another indictment of the ham-fisted clumsiness and false confidence of the Coalition, across as many fields of domestic and global policy as you care to mention.

So, the Quad for a doubtful future then — and may the acronyms and catchphrases be with you.

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