Why the US-led AUKUS security pact leaves Australia exposed

Sep 27, 2021
Scott Morrison nuclear submarine announcement uk us AUKUS
Scott Morrison, flanked by Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, announces the AUKUS agreement. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Signing on to a confrontational and provocative strategy to contain China exposes Australians to greater economic and security dangers — and reflects a further loss of independence for Australia.

It has been described in the Australian media as the most significant defence agreement since the World War II. Canberra has done its duty, as is generally the case, and agreed to join the United States and Britain in a security pact designed to counter the rise of China as superpower.

But is this commitment in Australia’s best interests? There is good reason to say no, given its geographical proximity to, and economic dependence on, China.

The agreement, announced on September 15 and known as AUKUS, will see Australia build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for the first time in its history. The pact also commits the trio to ramping up efforts in artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and cyber capabilities.

According to a statement from the office of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “This [nuclear] capability will promote stability in the Indo-Pacific and will be deployed in support of our shared values and interests.” The BBC reports that British officials say the pact is not aimed at China specifically, but no one believes that in the real world.

So what’s in this ground-breaking agreement for Australia? It certainly proves yet again that Washington can just about always rely on Canberra to respond positively to its military and diplomatic adventures and muscle flexing.

But when it comes to Australia’s direct interests, as opposed to those of its historic and deep alliances with the US and Britain, signing on to a confrontational and provocative strategy to contain China is surely inherently dangerous and reflects a further loss of independence for this nation in the Asia-Pacific region.

On that last point, Paul Keating, Australia’s prime minister from 1991–1996, pointed out in a statement condemning the pact that it “will amount to a lock-in of Australian military equipment and thereby forces, with those of the United States with only one underlying objective: the ability to act collectively in any military engagement by the United States against China”.

Keating argues that the agreement will lead to “a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty, as material dependency on the United States [will rob] Australia of any freedom or choice in any engagement Australia may deem appropriate”.

One would have thought that, in a democracy such as Australia, this new agreement would not be entered into, if at all, unless the community and its parliamentary representatives had discussed and debated it.

To build nuclear-powered vessels and to join a naked US attempt to contain China are seriously significant decisions which, as Keating says, could erode the independence of an important power in the region in which China is also a major player. But Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison presents it as a fait accompli without acknowledging for a moment that it might put Australians at greater economic and security risk.

China is still Australia’s largest trading partner by a long shot, despite tensions in recent years resulting in trade barriers. Over 30 per cent of Australian exports head to China.

Only this week, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that: “Any ratcheting up of tensions with China could further weaken trade activity” for Australia. There seems to be a blasé assumption among some in Australia that it does not matter how much provoking of China Canberra does — trade between the two nations will remain strong. It’s a delusion, of course.

And while there have been skirmishes between the two countries in the past five years over security and human rights issues in particular, surely the new pact with the US and Britain represents a serious escalation of the risk that the trade “love in” with China will evaporate?

It is notable that New Zealand, which has been part of the Australian and US alliance for over 70 years, is not included in this new pact. But that is because New Zealand has carved out its own independent foreign policy for over three decades. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed that her nation will not be changing its ban on nuclear-powered vessels, in place since 1984.

And a reflection of New Zealand’s greater emphasis on controlling its own destiny is reflected in comments made to the media by a Victoria University professor, David Capie, in Wellington, who said the new pact shows “New Zealand and Australia were in a different space to begin with and this has perhaps just made that look sharper again”.

The Australian media and political class have dusted off the Cold War rhetoric book in recent times when it comes to China, but now this shrill hostility and fear have reached new heights, and with it comes a huge risk.

As one of the few sensible Australia-China relations commentators, Professor Hugh White from the Australian National University has said about this agreement: “When we look 10 or 20 years ahead, I don’t think we can assume that the United States is going to succeed in pushing back effectively against China … In the long run, Australia does have to ask whether we can continue to rely on the US.”

In other words, Australians are being exposed to a much more dangerous world, thanks to the political establishment’s inability to adopt anything other than a sycophantic posture towards Washington.

This article was first published by the South China Morning Post and is republished with permission.

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