The myth of Australian sovereignty

Mar 23, 2023
Pawn cast shadow in form of silhouette crown.

As AUKUS propagandising gathers pace, the Australian public is being softened up to believe that whatever else the arrangement entails (and that still mostly remains a mystery), there will be no compromising of Australia’s sovereignty – none whatsoever. History teaches us that such reassurances can be dangerously hollow.

Since its inception in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the doctrine of state sovereignty has been more frequently dishonoured in the breach than honoured in its observance. What the US scholar John Mearsheimer labelled “the tragedy of big powers” in international politics has always held sway. If a big power determines that it’s in its interests to do so, it will trample all over the sovereignty of smaller states. Think Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Israel and Palestine, Russia and Ukraine.

In Australia, the myth of sovereignty is writ large in nearly all official pronouncements about our foreign and defence policies. However, up until 1942 those policies were effectively dictated by the British, as was evidenced in July 1914 when Prime Minister Andrew Fisher announced that “Australians will stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling.” Again, at the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Robert Menzies declared that “in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.”

As Britain and its allies (including Australian nurses and troops) in Singapore were being overrun by the Japanese at the end of 1941, Prime Minister John Curtin foreshadowed a dramatic shift away from Australia’s security dependence on its British master: “Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”

A decade later, the fate of Curtin’s revision of Australia’s compromised sovereignty was sealed within the terms of the ANZUS treaty. The effect of ANZUS is that any vestige of Australian sovereignty has since been delivered up as a sacrifice to keep the American “great and powerful friend” on side, on the assumption that this will deter the “yellow hordes” from arriving on Australian shores. That racist theme has been a repugnant prejudice running through Australian defence policy ever since.

While asserting middle power status in regional and global affairs, Australia’s foreign policy apparatchiks falsely imagine that the country has a certain clout in its dealings with big states like the US, and that it maintains authority over smaller states such as those in the South Pacific. However, what those people foolishly misunderstand is that Australia’s middle power status is utterly dependent on its alliance with the United States. Without the US, Australia is stripped of all of its middle power pretensions.

Many of Australia’s significant neighbours, strategic and economic, see through the flimsy dependent middle power façade we present to the region. Quite a few neighbouring states see us as an “awkward partner” in the Asia Pacific because of our close alliance with the United States – an alliance, they correctly note, that robs Australia of its sovereignty over its defence and foreign policies.

The frightening irony in the AUKUS deal is that it is resulting in the ultimate sacrifice of Australian sovereignty to big power allies. AUKUS means that Britain is being brought back into the “great and powerful friends” category. This despite the fact that post-Imperial and post-Brexit Britain is a very diminished kettle of fish to what the UK was in the hoary old days of Empire. And the US is a society and polity that is fracturing in every which way. Morrison and Dutton agreed with alacrity to AUKUS as proposed by Washington and Whitehall, to trick Australians who are anxious about the deep-seated structural inequalities in the country’s economy and what these means for the future for their children and grandchildren. Albanese and Marles hope to keep performing the trick.

We need to be clear that AUKUS is entirely about maintaining American hegemony in the Asia Pacific region. Its enthusiastic proponents believe that this necessitates an encirclement of China, to stop it from challenging the waning Pax Americana which is fancifully being described by people like Albanese and Marles (and Morrison and Dutton before them) as the international rule of law. This strategy is horrifically dangerous. It puts Australia on the side of the United States in the event of war with China – a war that would (will) be catastrophic for everyone involved.

As America’s subordinate ally, Australia hosts the US communications base at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, a lurid symbol of Australia’s neutered sovereignty. Pine Gap is central to America’s regional intelligence gathering, focused especially on what China is up to. It is also a major conduit for communicating with American planes, ships and submarines (including nuclear-armed vessels), spy satellites, drones, and personnel in East and Southeast Asia. (It would be absurd to think that this intelligence gathering – spying – is not also focused on other states in the region, including Australia.)

In the event of an American war with China, Pine Gap will almost certainly be a prime target for a Chinese missile strike. It makes no strategic sense for it to be otherwise. Moreover, other American bases and/or other military installations relevant to the American war effort, are also likely to be targets. This is what an absence of true Australian sovereignty means. We are merely a naively willing extension of American power with little or no say in how that power is to be deployed, even if this is contrary to Australia’s security interests.

The shocking lack of detail about who will be in charge of the so-called AUKUS submarines – if ever and whenever they materialise – makes the reassurances about their being under Australia’s sovereign control very suspect indeed. Nor are we privy to any other obligations, financial and military, that the AUKUS partnership places upon us – in addition to the $368 billion dollars that we will be handing over to the US and the UK for the long anticipated submarines. The most worrying obligation would be joining the US in a war with China over Taiwan.

We have to stop trusting leaders who fantasise about our sovereignty so glibly.

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