Aukus risks sinking Australia's sovereignty

Canberra is facing a domestic backlash over its defence pact with the US and UK, and with good reason

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and US President Joe Biden speak at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California, on Monday. Bloomberg
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A little more than a week has gone by since US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gathered at a naval base in San Diego, California, to unveil plans for the US and UK to provide Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines under the Aukus trilateral security pact between the three countries. Mr Albanese hailed the agreement, which will cost his country up to A$368 billion ($246 billion), as “the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability in our history, strengthening Australia’s national security and stability in our region”.

But the move, which is clearly aimed at containing China, has already caused a huge backlash – not just from Beijing, which said the plan “constitutes serious nuclear proliferation risks, undermines international non-proliferation system, fuels arms races, and hurts peace and stability”. Countries in the region, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, have expressed concerns, particularly over the issue of nuclear proliferation, while the announcement has provoked an ongoing barrage of criticism from a range of public figures in Australia.

Former prime minister Paul Keating – like Mr Albanese, a member of the Labour Party – led the onslaught with a no-holds-barred interview with ABC’s Laura Tingle and the National Press Club of Australia two days later. He called it “the worst deal in history” and said it was a drastic and “incompetent” move, from a “defence of Australia” strategy to one of confronting China in the South China Sea, and one that would leave the country totally reliant on the US. “The reactor is run by the Americans,” he said. “The control system is run by Americans.” He added that “underneath all this is the idea that China is threatening or has threatened us. What ‘threaten us’ means is an invasion of Australia”. Describing both the idea and the pact as “rubbish”, Mr Keating said: “China cannot threaten Australia and would never think to do so.”

Paul Keating has done Australia an important service by making sure this very consequential change to the country’s security stance is raised and debated

Another former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, pointed out that since Australia lacked its own nuclear capabilities, “if there is foreign oversight, supervision or assistance, without which that capability cannot be deployed”, the country’s proposed new submarine force would not be “fully sovereign”. Adding that billions of dollars will be going to the shipbuilding industries in the US and UK, Mr Turnbull declared those two countries to be the “big winners” of the deal. (Mr Keating had put it somewhat less delicately. “‘Global Britain’ was looking for suckers,” he said. “And they found us.”)

The Albanese administration insists that the new deal does not contain an implicit quid pro quo that Australia would automatically come to America’s aid should it be in military conflict with China. But given bipartisan support for Aukus in Australia, many believe the country’s true position was outlined by the current opposition leader and then defence minister Peter Dutton, when he said in 2021 that it “would be inconceivable that we wouldn't support the US in an action [over Taiwan] if the US chose to take that action”.

This is evidently the belief of Hugh White, one of Australia’s most respected international relations academics, who said on Sunday that the deal was tantamount to a “promise” to do so. “This is a very serious transformation of the nature of our alliance with the United States,” Prof White said on a podcast recorded for Australian National University. “The US don’t really care about our submarine capability – they care deeply about tying Australia into their containment strategy against China.” Any such conflict, he warned, would be “World War III” and would be likely to go nuclear.

And former Labour environment minister Peter Garrett raised concerns over the disposal of nuclear waste from the submarines. “God help future generations, especially if they happen to live in the outback or near an existing – or future – defence facility, or if they consume primary products impacted by radioactive leaks into land or water,” he said, calling the decision to buy the submarines “the most costly and risky action ever taken by any Australian government”.

Mr Keating could not have been less diplomatic in his interview, but the former prime minister has done Australia an important service by making sure this very consequential change to the country’s security stance is raised and debated.

It is crucial that it is thoroughly discussed, especially since a panel of hawks assembled by two of Australia’s main newspapers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, recently warned that the country could be at war with China within three years. I believe this was an over-dramatic and wildly irresponsible claim. For if Australia were to side with the US in the event of a confrontation over Taiwan, that would be a war of choice, and by no means an inevitability. All this sabre-rattling about the island, which Beijing sees as a renegade province, is also a choice: it is not necessary, and many believe it is dangerously raising tensions, to the extent that it may help bring about a conflict that need not occur.

As it happens, the Aukus nuclear-powered submarines wouldn’t come into service until at least the 2030s – years too late for the Sinophobic doomsayers. But the issue does lay bare that Australia has to decide if it wants to commit to being America’s “deputy sheriff” in the region, with all that entails, or whether the country is ready to step out of the shadow of the Anglosphere, forge its own path, and deepen its own engagement in the Asia-Pacific.

Published: March 23, 2023, 5:00 AM