AUKUS: risks, risks and more risks

Mar 15, 2024
Australia, Uk and USA AUKUS alliance countries flags paint over on wooden dice.

Instead of actually engaging in measures to promote peace, the AUKUS governments are feeding us a racist notion that three Anglo nations targeting China from thousands of kilometres away are needed to ensure it.

Text of talk given to IPAN (Independent and Peaceful Australia Network) forum “AUKUS and military escalation: Who pays and who benefits”. Canberra, 12 March 2024

In acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet this evening, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, it’s particularly relevant to this forum on AUKUS to note the violent dispossession by which the land of the First Nations people was stolen from them. It’s hard to escape a conclusion that Australia’s almost obsessive reliance on other nations to protect us from being invading stems at least in part from a failure to deal with that dark part of our history, and a fear deep down of something similar happening again.

To turn to AUKUS: it is a disaster in every respect. I’m going to start with a summary of just some of the things that it will deliver for Australians.

  • an obscene financial cost with no upper limit,
  • a distraction and diversion of resources from critically urgent climate, environmental and other problems,
  • intractable high level nuclear waste, a problem for which there is no solution operating anywhere in the world,
  • increased tensions in the region,
  • an even greater risk of finding ourselves in a catastrophic war against China,
  • a greater risk of being targeted in such a war,
  • a greater risk of nuclear war,
  • a pathway for a future Australian government to develop nuclear weapons,
  • an opportunity for other nations to develop the same pathway to nuclear weapons,
  • and therefore even greater hurdles to getting rid of nuclear weapons globally.

It doesn’t look like a very good deal for Australians or anyone else.

There is no transparency around AUKUS, no democracy, no sovereignty, and no consultation with our neighbours in the region. Every bit of justification for it that we’ve heard from the three governments is superficial mumbo-jumbo that doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny if peace is our goal.

Instead of actually engaging in measures to promote peace, the AUKUS governments feed us a racist notion that three Anglo nations targeting China from thousands of kilometres away are needed to ensure it. It’s reminiscent of John Cleese’s reference in “The Meaning of Life” to Empire Day and to all those “who so gallantly gave their lives to keep China British.”

I was asked to focus this evening on the particular risks of AUKUS that relate to nuclear power and nuclear weapons. These are perhaps the most serious of all, for a number of reasons.

By raising tensions within the region, especially in relationships between China and Western nations, AUKUS increases the risk of war between the US and China, both of whom are nuclear-armed. Any war between them would be a human catastrophe on a grand scale, and a nuclear war infinitely more so. A nuclear war, in addition to wiping out whole cities and millions of people, could induce nuclear winter causing global nuclear famine, and thus be terminal for much of civilisation.

To explain this further, let’s be clear that the purpose of the nuclear submarines is not to defend Australia against attack but to attack China – its mainland or naval vessels or both – at the behest of the US. It’s possible that an array of attack vessels in China’s vicinity could provide incentive for China to strike first in the event of a crisis. In any event, no matter who strikes first, the point is that tensions can slip into outright warfare just as easily and unexpectedly as a single assassination event triggered World War 1.

And of course, Australia’s role in fighting alongside, and providing deeply integrated military support for, the US would significantly increase the chances of Chinese attacks on Australian facilities and military assets.

Some would argue that nuclear deterrence, or deterrence generally, will save us. In fact the whole AUKUS deal is sold to us as a way of “deterring” warfare. However the problem is that, even if deterrence works some of the time, for it to be reliable it must be 100% effective all of the time. There is no theory on human decision-making in a crisis – for that’s all deterrence is, a theory about human decision-making – that is 100% reliable in every situation. At some point deterrence fails.

The proposed nuclear submarines increase the risk of nuclear war in another way as well. They undermine efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons because they will be powered by weapons grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU), which is nuclear bomb fuel.

Concerns about this have been raised repeatedly around the world, and the concerns are well-placed. Since the AUKUS announcement, Iran has expressed interest in nuclear-powered submarines to help justify its HEU production. South Korea and Japan have also expressed interest in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. Would Australia accept assurances from other nations – such as Iran – that their HEU will not be used for nuclear weapons? Of course not. Yet again it’s one rule for us and another rule for others.

The government emphasises that our nuclear submarines will not be nuclear armed, only nuclear-powered. But governments change and Australia could quite conceivably have a government in future that wants us to have at least a nuclear weapons capacity. Access to HEU provides exactly that. And if you can’t imagine any Australian political figure suggesting such a thing, then you’re not paying attention.

Planned nuclear-powered submarine acquisition makes it even more important that Australia join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which would be by far the most reliable indication of us remaining nuclear weapons free.

I mentioned earlier a list of the things that are missing from the AUKUS deal, such as democracy and transparency. There’s another to add, and that is social licence. The US Studies Centre at Sydney University is concerned about a widespread lack of acceptance of AUKUS, and released a new paper just yesterday called “The University sector’s value proposition for AUKUS” on how our universities should be helping reverse that. It’s an interesting and alarming read, and we know the pressure on our universities has already begun.

Our task is to ensure that a social licence for AUKUS never develops – in our universities or anywhere else.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!