US proxy Anthony Albanese goes to Beijing

Nov 13, 2023
China and Australia puzzle.

While Australia’s formal sovereignty resides with the British monarch as part of the Commonwealth, its real sovereignty is to be found somewhere in Washington.

You need thick skin to be a politician. So Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, currently on a state visit to China, probably didn’t blush when he said Australia needed to pursue a “patient, calibrated and deliberate way of engaging in its national interest [with China]”.

What national interest? Maintaining China as Australia’s biggest trading partner? Well, up to a point.

While Albanese didn’t cite them specifically, experts say it’s pretty clear what those contentious issues were that he said he would not hesitate to bring up with President Xi Jinping. These include Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea; the security of Taiwan; the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic; China’s human rights records; and the security of sea lanes in the Pacific.

Albanese does deserve some brownie points for taking the trouble to visit China, a first in seven years from Canberra, rather than following the footsteps of his predecessor, Scott Morrison, who preferred giving Beijing the middle finger at every opportunity.

However, none of those “contentious” issues really concern Australia’s national security or core interest, rather the opposite. They are a laundry list handed to Canberra by the United States to justify the latter’s containment policy against China in the Asia-Pacific. By involving its regional allies, even if against their own interests, the US gains diplomatic cover for flexing its muscles on the other side of the globe.

If anything, by joining the Americans in creating more potential conflicts clearly not in its own national interest, including over Taiwan – which is the core national interest of China – Australia risks being dragged into a larger regional conflict.

As for the protection of sea lanes, it is actively undermining its own national interest, as former prime minister Paul Keating has clearly and repeatedly spelled out. The problem? In a word: Aukus.

The original, now scrapped, deal with the French involved 12 diesel-driven attack submarines at a cost of roughly US$66 billion that were expected to be ready by the early 2030s. They were well-designed to patrol Australia’s immediate maritime environment and to protect alternative sea lanes from the South to the North Pacific in the event of a hot war in the South China Sea.

Instead, under US pressure, Morrison committed his country to eight ultra-expensive nuclear-powered subs at a projected cost of between US$268 billion and US$368 billion, the first of which won’t be ready before the early 2040s.

Albanese, his foreign minister, Penny Wong, and the entire Labor Party reportedly went completely along with it – with no prior consultation – less than a day after Morrison disclosed the secret deal. Imagine: the entire military establishment and posture of a major country took a U-turn with no public consultation and no objection from the then obsequious opposition within 24 hours! No wonder Washington considers Albanese and his Labor Party a safe pair of hands.

The Aukus nuclear-powered subs’ hi-tech military capabilities are not suited to Australia’s immediate coastal protection, but rather power projection right at the heart of the South China Sea; in other words, good for battle in the event the US and China come to blows, well, hopefully not before the 2040s.

Why does Australia need the offensive capabilities of such subs if not for the Americans?

Of course, large segments of the Australian military and intelligence services are already part of the US military-industrial complex.

Just like Germany, Australia is being asked to tank its economy, and compromise on a primary national interest, which is trade with China, for the US’ military needs to contain Beijing in its own backyard.

While Australia’s formal sovereignty resides with the British monarch as part of the Commonwealth, its real sovereignty is to be found somewhere in Washington.


First published in The South China Morning Post November 6, 2023

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