China and the AUKUS submarine deal: unanswered questions

Mar 26, 2023
Australia, uk and usa AUKUS alliance countries flags painted on wooden dice. Chinese flag background.

The challenge of 2045

Australia will have access to American nuclear submarines in the early 2030s and by 2045 will have been building its own. But it is not clear what problem will be solved when Australian long-range nuclear submarines are able to traverse the northern Pacific.

Nobody seems to have asked these fundamental questions about 2045 and answers would be useful.

Will submarines still be relevant in 2045 or will they have been made obsolete by developments in aviation, missiles and remote sensing?

Will China be Australia’s largest market in 2045?

Will climate change make all our projections irrelevant?

What regime will be ruling in China in 2045? Xi Jinping would be 92 by then and it is possible that he could still be President. If he struck against Taiwan it would presumably have been long before 2045, to avoid the risk of engaging with eight Australian submarines.

Who will be in power in Australia in 2045? There will have been seven Commonwealth elections between now and then and I assume that Peter Dutton would have been replaced as Opposition Leader by then. (I will be 113 in 2045 and hope to be still following the action).

In 2045 leadership in the United States, political, social, economic and scientific, is contestable, and will be even more so if Donald Trump wins the 2024 Presidential election, an unlikely prospect, but not impossible. If he won, the AUKUS deal might well be overturned arbitrarily in Trump’s alternative universe.

In Britain in 2045 the prospect of an increasingly fractured United Kingdom (or even Republic) is of a nation cut off from Europe, its closest neighbour and world’s largest market, and of continuing its transformation to an engaging Portilloesque theme park.

Paul Keating at the National Press Club

Paul Keating’s dialogue with Laura Tingle at the National Press Club on 15 March 2023 savaged AUKUS, and demonstrated his extraordinary capacity as a natural politician, with a mastery of invective.

He asked the right questions about the viability of, and the rationale for, the AUKUS submarine deal. It is a matter of profound concern that the issues he raised were never discussed in Parliament, even though bipartisan agreement meant that the outcome would never have been in doubt. It was deal first, then a pro forma debate. We rank No 1 among democracies for secrecy.

Global Empires v. Continental Empires

Historically, at the highpoint of imperialism/ colonialism, there were ten global empires, spanning oceans and hemispheres: British (five continents), Spanish (four), French (four), Portuguese (three), Dutch (two), German (two), American (two), Belgian (one), Italian (one), Japanese (one).

Two empires were essentially continental – Russia (a contiguous land mass in Europe and Asia) and China (only Asia – but including Taiwan, historically, and off shore islands).

China invaded Vietnam around 1380 and occupied Taiwan several times.

China was invaded by Europeans in 1842, 1856, 1860 and 1900 and by Japan in 1894, 1931 (Manchuria) and 1937.

China was involved in relatively minor military clashes over the definition of borders – with Burma (Myanmar), Vietnam and India.

China is currently involved in disputes with 17 nations over land and sea boundaries, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bhutan, Nepal and India, but none seem likely to provoke a shooting war.

Nevertheless, there are growing grounds for concern as China morphs from authoritarian to totalitarian.

China now has the world’s largest navy but with surprisingly few aircraft carriers. Further rapid expansion has been announced by President Xi.

Control of Tibet and Xinjiang is becoming increasingly brutal, with suppression of Tibetan culture and religion and persecution of the Muslim Uighurs. Dissent has been outlawed in Hong Kong and Xi’s relationship with Putin is disturbingly close.

China has taken a serious interest and strategic investment in some Pacific Islands, expanded its scientific explorations in Antarctica, bought a 99 year lease for the Port of Darwin (2015), and threatens ‘reunification’ with Taiwan by force ‘if necessary’.

‘Australia will be there’

One of the most disturbing elements of Australia’s colonial history, rarely observed and almost never discussed, is the enthusiasm of colonists in the 19th Century for creating infantry and navies for defence and participating in military adventures overseas.

Australian colonists were first involved in the Maori Wars in New Zealand (1845-46; 1863-64), there were volunteers for both sides in the US Civil War (1861-65), then a contingent from New South Wales went to the Sudan (1885). Then followed the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900-01), where – Wikipedia informs me – duties included providing members for firing squads.

Were they volunteers or conscripts in this role?

Why the enthusiasm for involvement in war?

There seems to have been a compelling sense that Australia’s colonists, at the end of the earth, would be forgotten unless they were seen to be involved.

No doubt a sense of adventure was a powerful factor – and also the expectation that if we offered support to powerful friends, they would come to our aid if we were in trouble. (This has been a continuing theme in our foreign policy and the rationale for our fighting in Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Attitudes towards World War I and especially to Gallipoli are still politically highly charged in Australia. Thousands of Australians each year visit Gallipoli for ANZAC day, far more than 30 years ago. How many will attempt to work out why we were there.

Why were we invading Turkey (or the Ottoman Empire, as it was then called)?

What was the justification for war between Australia and the Ottoman Empire in 1915? What threat did the Turks represent to Australia? None, that I can think of.

It is hard to find a convincing justification. That the loss of life was tragic is not in doubt – but visitors recognise the suffering on both sides. Kemal Atatürk is credited with paying extraordinary homage to the war dead, both invaders and defenders, but the authenticity of his remarks is now under question.

I have always resisted the dangerous belief, revived by John Howard, that Gallipoli is Australia’s great creation myth – White Australia’s, that is – and that the ANZAC tragedy brought us together as a nation.

Gallipoli plays a central role in the national myths of Turkey and Australia. Oddly, not for Britain or France, with far more troops killed and injured. New Zealand suffered more losses than Australia on Gallipoli per capita but the rhetoric has been quite different: nobody says that Gallipoli made New Zealand.

Australia was a far more vital, optimistic and creative place in the twenty years before 1915 than in the two decades following. In the years 1895-1915 we were world leaders in social and political achievements.

World War I knocked the stuffing out of Australia. There was a sense that we were isolated, on our own, not able to cope without great and powerful friends.

But Australia had a surprising and unexpected impact on Chinese history.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, Prime Minister Billy Hughes successfully opposed Japan’s proposal that the Versailles Treaty should recognise the principle of racial equality. This was incompatible with the White Australia Policy – and would have been hard enough for Woodrow Wilson in a segregated United States. Hughes’ wrecking role was very destructive, seriously alienating Japan which had supported the Allies in World War I.

As a result, Japan was given a consolation prize, the German ‘concessions’ in China (Hankow, Tientsin, Kiaochow Bay), an event which triggered off the ‘4 May 1919’ protests in China, leading directly to the creation of the Chinese Communist Party.


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