The absurdities of AUKUS

Mar 31, 2023
President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom.

On 14 March, when the AUKUS nuclear powered-submarine details were revealed, I spent most of the day in the Emergency Department of a hospital in Brisbane, with a family member needing urgent medical care.

It took over 12 hours for my relative to get a bed in the ED and then several hours more before a doctor could see him. He was not given his regular medication – a potentially disastrous omission – because the nursing staff simply had no time to do so. They were rushed off their feet, with another 72 patients in Emergency to tend to at the same time.

These health professionals were obviously working under extremely difficult conditions with insufficient beds and a wholly inadequate number of staff. Not once did their attitude shift from friendliness and genuine care to one of disregard or contempt for their patients.

The live broadcast in the ED room’s television of our Prime Minister smiling with Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak, proudly announcing the spending of 368 billion dollars to acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines was, by contrast, rather sickening. It seemed a betrayal of those who voted Labor less than a year ago who wanted a new direction in foreign policy and especially an end to Australia’s involvement in America’s disastrous wars.

Like me, they hoped that a focus on the things that really threaten Australia – environmental catastrophe, the lack of public housing and a record number of homeless people, declining health and education provisions – would take precedence over the smug militarism which the Morrison government had embraced.

The submarines announcement, with its accompanying regalia and carefully staged photos seemed to me to be giving the finger to the Australian public. Unlike staff in the Emergency ward who stoically and cheerfully continued to help the people who needed their care, here was a scenario on an American beach showing these three men almost as Hollywood stars. I could not see any sense of genuine care for the ordinary people ‘doing it tough’ back home, and certainly no acknowledged consideration of how that obscenely high financial commitment could benefit everyday Australians. (By the way, that figure is more than twice the cost originally estimated for the submarines.)

I refuse to accept this spending without registering my protest, and I reject the ease with which we are expected to embrace this military madness. I am also disturbed by those who believe that the only response to a growing China is the acquisition of hugely expensive attack submarines designed to sail up to the Chinese coast and launch missiles onto its mainland.

Set aside for one moment my belief that the threat of China attacking Australia has been wilfully manufactured and inflated by vested interests in Australia. Set aside the hysterical response by the West to what is normal behaviour for a rising power determined to secure its influence in its near-abroad, and which wants to reunite with a territory that the US, Australia and most of the world already recognises as a one of its provinces. Set aside the point that while China’s human rights record might be shocking, so too is India’s, a state with which we are happy to align ourselves.

Those who are pushing for war with China often know nothing about the country, while the academics and diplomats who are China specialists have been ignored. But the thing I find most troubling is the limited imagination on how we should respond to, and work with, a rising power in our region, and the use of ridiculous tropes on why the only option is to plan for war.

For example, on the ABC’s Q and A program on 27 March discussing AUKUS, when Senator Jordon Steele-John aired what many Australians feel about AUKUS, the response from fellow-panellists was dismal. One panellist, who persistently interrupted him, demanded stridently, ‘So what would you do then, for our sovereignty, so our shipping lanes can be clear, so that we can interact with our Asian partners, and we can be free to conduct ourselves globally? What would you do to protect our sovereignty?!’

This nonsensical barrage came from a politician known to be very conservative, but as far as I can tell, she has no education or training in international affairs, strategic studies, or diplomacy. She may well be competent in her own field of expertise in domestic Indigenous issues, but this does not mean that her shouted ‘solutions’ for Australia’s international relations dilemmas – aired on national television – should be taken seriously. The outburst was another parroting of the ‘China threat’ with no understanding of the complexities of geopolitics; it also showed no awareness of the contested utility of these submarines for defending Australia or for keeping shipping lanes open.

Another pro-AUKUS panellist stated that Steele-John was ‘arguing for Australian isolationism’, against what he claimed was, ‘the single biggest military build-up we have ever seen since World War Two’. China certainly is undergoing a major military build-up, but this needs to be seen in the context of China as a rising power. (Such a statement also neglects the massive military build-ups conducted by other states since 1945.) China currently spends between $200-290 billion on defence, while the US spends around $800 billion. The US has around 790 bases around the world, including several close to China; China has two overseas bases.

This same panellist went on to claim that ‘we’ve got two choices to China’s rise: we can respond to that, or not.’ The implication was that a military response – and AUKUS is a monumental military response – is seen as the only option we have. Otherwise, we can do nothing.

Such statements are ridiculous and display ignorance about the range of options which have long been available to states pursuing their security. What about diplomacy? What about the usual tools of statecraft, such as ongoing negotiations and deepening trade ties? (which still allows us to criticise human rights abuses; actually, this had been Australia’s approach to China for decades), Confidence and Security Building Measures to lessen the security dilemma? Working with our regional partners and organisations to deepen engagement and build mutual security assurances?

None of these gets a look-in in the rubbish that passes for meaningful debate on AUKUS.

A good strategist works to build regional and global peace and stability. This is not isolationism or naivety. Rushing into military options is foolish and those who are peddling this view seem unaware of what such a war would actually look like. Right now, China undoubtedly feels threatened by the United States’ actions and its military bases and this has only been compounded by AUKUS.

We need a sensible and considered approach to security politics, including a balanced and rational debate about how we should live and engage with China (noting again that China does not pose a threat to Australia’s national security, unless we persist in joining Washington’s plans for war). Defence decisions today have been captured by a select few who are in obeisance to the United States, in thrall to weapons corporations, and happy for Australia to become a US spearhead against China. There is no accountability or reflection about whether these decisions are the best option for Australia.

The nurses and doctors I spoke to in the Emergency Department were shocked that Canberra will spend $368 billion on eight submarines. I cannot blame them.

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