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  • Writer's pictureMike Lyons


America in Chaos

From mid-August until mid-September 2021, the global news media has been feverishly publishing reports about US President Biden’s hasty extraction of American forces from war-torn Afghanistan. The world watched aghast as America abandoned the Afghan people. Even more astonishing was the speed with which the Taliban moved in, achieving total control of Afghanistan in a few weeks. The United States and its allies, including Australia scrambled to extricate their military and the many civilians trapped in the cauldron.

Criticism was levelled at the US lack of planning and its failure to anticipate the unfolding disaster. Allies asked whether they could continue to rely on America. The US had been lurching from one crisis to the next. The Afghan disaster was only the latest. It followed America’s disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic; fires, and floods due to a failure to address climate change; and the constant hot/cold war with China; plus, America’s futile efforts to block China’s rise. And that is after earlier crises including the Washington riots in January, Black lives (DON’T) matter, and the #metoo movement.

The AUKUS Stab in the French Back

A “welcome distraction” arrived on 15 September 2021 when President Biden, standing alongside UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the AUKUS Pact to enable Australia to deploy nuclear powered submarines, using US technology, which the US had shared only once before, with Britain more than 60 years ago. Australia will become only the seventh nation in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines.

An avalanche of media reports followed, pushing the Afghan debacle from the front pages. France responded with outrage when it learned, only at the last minute that its five-year-old multi-billion-dollar contract for Australia to buy French built submarines had been dumped. The French called it a stab in the back, immediately cancelling a planned Washington gala, to celebrate US-French cooperation, and recalling its ambassadors from both Washington and Canberra.

In one announcement, Biden and Morrison had alienated an important European ally and aggravated already tense relations with China.

Having these submarines stationed in Australia, is critical to US influence in the region. There will be enhanced technological cooperation in areas such as security in cyberspace, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies, as well as more joint military exercises and naval patrols in Australia. Defence Minister Dutton has flagged an increase in US troop rotations in Australia, leading to more US aircraft, including bombers and surveillance planes, significantly increasing US military engagement on Australian soil. Meanwhile, Scott Morrison rejects claims that the trilateral partnership with USA and Britain will worsen the relationship with Australia’s biggest trading partner, while also warning Australian voters that “a deteriorating strategic environment” means defence spending will continue to increase dramatically.

Although the announcement made no mention of China, the deal comes as a direct response to shared alarm at China’s “aggressive” expansion, but as Michael Pembroke points out in his 2020 book, Play by the Rules, no country spends more on its military than the US and no country has more foreign military bases. America spends as much on its defence as the next eight or nine highest spending countries combined. Its military expenditure is 2 to 3 times as much as China’s.

An interdepartmental committee will spend the next 18 months talking to the US and the UK to work out a pathway to deliver the nuclear-powered subs. It is what Peter Hartcher describes as “a plan to have a plan”. What is more, delivery is expected to take nearly two decades.

Mixed Views

The announcement has received bipartisan support in Australia. However, that was not shared by former prime minister Paul Keating noting that the move would lock Australia’s military into acting collectively with the US in any military engagement with China. Keating criticised the arrangement as giving rise to a dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty since dependency on the US would rob Australia of any freedom of choice in later engagements. All this occurred, only days after the Afghan disaster, when US reliability was being widely questioned. And yet, Australia would become even more beholden to US foreign policy. If the US military, with all its might could not defeat the Taliban rebels, what chance would it have in a full-blown war against China.

Professor Stuart Rees comments that Australia’s owning and operating US nuclear submarines should be judged as dangerous nonsense, describing this as a foreign policy in search of an enemy (in this case China), which looks like a guarantee of conflict, if not war. He talks critically of Australia, located in the Southeast Asian region choosing an alliance with “elderly friends in Washington and London” adding, somewhat sceptically that in Morrison’s case, “an election looms and boasting about national security by having US submarines gives a potential warlike platform for winning.”

The move plays into a larger insecurity over the perceived “Anglophone Club” which appears to sit above other alliances. The EU foreign policy chief has suggested that the European Union must “exist for ourselves, since the others exist for themselves.” An article in Rane suggests that this partnership between three Anglo countries will intensify the ideological component of strategic competition, not only in China’s periphery, but across the globe.

New Zealand will ban Australia’s submarines from its waters, in line with an existing policy on the presence of nuclear-powered submarines. Stratfor speculates that ANZUS may have fallen into disuse due to shifts in New Zealand’s strategic policies, and even the Five-Eyes partnership has seen strains on New Zealand-US relations. Is AUKUS perhaps an acknowledgement that Wellington has withdrawn from US-led regional initiatives. And then there is the question of whether AUKUS will diminish the relevance of the QUAD.

China described the decision as setting an “extremely irresponsible” double standard, raising the risk of nuclear proliferation. China’s Global Times warned of an arms race for nuclear submarines adding that Australian troops were “most likely to be the first batch of Western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea.”

Australian Democracy?

The clandestine AUKUS pact was 18 months in the making. The US has described it as the “biggest strategic step Australia has taken in generations” talking of a fundamental decision which would “decisively” bind Australia to the US and Great Britain for generations. Neither the Australian public nor the Australian Parliament was involved in or had any awareness of the evolving plans for this momentous decision, taken almost single-handedly, in secret by the Australian Prime Minister.

In a recently published book, The Iraq War and Democratic Governance by Australia’s Judith Betts (co-authored by the UK’s Mark Phythian) the statement is made that, “In a democratic system, public support and understanding for a major military operation is essential.” The AUKUS deal is not yet a “major military operation” but it carries with it the prospect of a future military operation on a much greater scale and with much greater potential consequences for Australia compared to Australia’s relatively minor support role in the invasion of Iraq. More than that, in the event of a conflict between the US and China, Australia will have become so integrated that it will have little choice but to simply follow along. The book talks about UK Prime Minister Blair “standing shoulder-to- shoulder” with the US, reminiscent of former Prime Minister Turnbull telling former President Trump that Australia was “joined at the hip” to the US.

The US alliance was central to Howard’s decision to join the Iraq invasion, seeing Australia as having a “special relationship” with the US. He and Blair had privately committed troops to the invasion, long before any such commitment was even considered by their Cabinet colleagues. With AUKUS, Australia risks being seen by other countries as beholden to the US and unable to stand alone when it came to defence and foreign policy, a view which is already evident in France, and arguably also in Europe and in Asia.

In a democracy, the media is critical in holding government to account. However, media coverage in the case of the Iraq conflict prompted the suggestion that the media frequently played the role of “lap-dog” rather than “watch-dog”. Perhaps the real media test of AUKUS will come during discussions over the coming 18 months, and possibly even over the next 20 years of development, bearing in mind that Australia already has a track record of dumping earlier submarine commitments – first with Japan, and then France.

Efforts to introduce legislation for parliament to decide when Australian troops should be deployed have been unsuccessful, although the UK and Canada have both moved to parliamentarise their war powers, and Ireland, South Africa, the US, and the Netherlands require legislative involvement in the decision to deploy military force. There is no such requirement in Australia.

Playing Catch Up – Hoping for the Best

SMH political and international editor, Peter Hartcher points out that China is well on its way to achieving complete military modernisation by 2027 and already has more warships and submarines than the US, with its shipyards launching a new submarine every year or so. Greg Sheridan, in The Australian suggests that AUKUS is almost entirely symbolic as Australia will only get the first nuclear submarines around 2040, if everything goes well and if future Australian governments after Morrison remain committed to the project. There will be an enormous amount of time for opposition to grow. Sheridan reminds his readers that after eight years of conservative governments, we have done precisely nothing, and this follows six years of the Labor government in which we also did nothing. In the meantime, Australia will have its six Collins-class boats. Sheridan calls the submarine fiasco a farce and a national embarrassment, adding that the real military consequence will be an increased US aircraft, naval and marine presence in northern Australia.

The deal reveals Australia’s highly speculative bet that America will prevail in its great power competition with China. However, Hugh White, Australia’s widely respected defence expert, argues that relying on America to look after us, is the way we have thought about our security for 150 years, but Australia now faces the biggest shift in its circumstances since European settlement. In the decades to come, China will be more powerful than our great US ally. Continuing to assume that our alliance will keep working for us as it did in the past fails to face the reality of the fundamental shift in Australia’s circumstances. For the first time in its history, Australia has to start thinking for itself. White doubts that the “planned” nuclear fleet can arrive before 2040. White adds that if the Chinese push ahead, and Australia ends up in a war, America will not be able to project its power far enough across the Pacific, to keep China in check.

China’s economy is projected to be far greater than that of the US by the end of the current decade. As Pembroke remarks in his above-mentioned book, China’s economy could be worth $42.4 trillion by 2030, compared with $24 trillion for the United States, while Washington’s reaction is to do everything within its power to blunt China’s rise.

There can no longer be any pretence that Australia does not have to choose between China and the US. Morrison has made the choice, emphatically!

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