AUKUS is claimed to be many things: a deal, a plan, a commitment, an agreement, an ‘optimal pathway’, a phased approach, even a treaty. But to do what? Where is the final document? What is Australia signing up for?
AUKUS has occasionally been confused with Orcus by those who know the classics. That’s the name of the god of hell, or of the underworld itself. To hell with AUKUS, say Australians in growing numbers. And the way the AUKUS brand has been sold to a gullible public is now recognised, in the English-speaking world at least, with the word of the year for 2023 in the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s and the Macquarie being ‘Aukustrate’.
That term describes exactly what the three Anglo-allies, Biden, Johnson and Morrison, did in Cornwall in September 2021 when, all smiles, like kids posing for a birthday pic, they announced the AUKUS partnership (or whatever). The United States and the United Kingdom each got an Aukustrated present: a tidal wave of Australian money for American and British weapons and unfettered access to Australia for US nuclear-armed ships and fighter bombers to do with as they wish while Australia pays for the party. The Coalition took home a wedge, like a piece of cake, to reward Labor for its bipartisan compliance.
Australia has been Aukustrated for decades to come. Or we have Aukustrated ourselves. Yet we have no idea why governments—both this one and its predecessor—have mortgaged the nation’s future prosperity to buy military hardware that will be superseded before it is delivered, is not intended to defend Australia, could provoke an arms race among our neighbours and will foment hostility in China. It may make Australia a surrogate target for attack. Is it good for anything at all?
If Australia rents interim American or British boats until the 2040s, we will lack crews and maintenance capacity for them. Even if eight AUKUS subs are eventually built in Port Adelaide and home ported in Fremantle or Port Kembla, the 20,000 local jobs that are quoted as resulting seem to be in some fanciful cloud.
Governments’ priority is always to create jobs, but building and upgrading our infrastructure would be a cheaper and much more productive way to do it. Upgrading our universities and TAFE colleges to produce graduates with the skills to do things and produce goods that Australia needs now, and to fill employment vacancies, would make more sense than training people to make lethal weapons. It would also reduce our national debt. If our public school system is stricken and our health system stressed, spending massive amounts on training people to kill others is surely counterproductive.
What Aukustration will predictably deliver is nuclear waste. Our leaders, like the rest of us, have no idea what to do with the waste Australia already has, let alone what AUKUS submarines will generate. Some, as David Penberthy notes in The Australian, want Australia to become a paid dump for all the world’s nuclear waste.
Prime Minister Albanese has picked up where his predecessor left off, claiming that AUKUS is ‘about much more than submarines’. Indeed it is. It makes Australia a US garrison, and locks us in with US war-fighting so securely that we will be unable to stay out of any American war, just as Defence Minister Peter Dutton predicted in 2021. Even then, the head of Home Affairs, Mike Pezullo, could hear the drums of war. Now Dutton’s successor Richard Marles, who must also know about the long-range plan for war against China, welcomes the Australian Defence Force being ‘interchangeable’ with its US counterpart.
But Marles has had to change his tune about AUKUS several times to convince a sceptical public. In February we were on an ‘optimal pathway’. In March he talked about safeguarding security and peace in our region. He kept referring to ‘sovereignty’. In April he seemed to revive Hawke’s ‘clever country’ rhetoric, claiming that AUKUS backs Australia’s ‘great national challenge’ to climb up the technological ladder.
Currently, Australia ranks ninety-first—between Kenya and Namibia—on the Harvard Index of Technological Complexity, which assesses the technological knowledge and complexity of an economy. Marles is hardly the first Labor minister to urge Australia to develop its economy beyond relying on primary industries, but he has picked up from Christopher Pyne the use of military means to do so.
AUKUS, we now learn, has two pillars. The first is about aggressive but familiar weapons. The second, which focuses on developing cyber, hypersonic and quantum technologies, and artificial intelligence, is said to be intended to boost the nation’s ability to commercialise science and infuse it into the economy. Pillar Two, we are assured, will involve neighbouring liberal democracies ‘collaborating for the greater good’, particularly for the safety and security of the Indo-Pacific. But it too is designed for aggression.
If our regional neighbours lack enthusiasm for AUKUS, it’s because neither they nor we know enough about it. There is no public document setting out what the terms are. Perhaps our leaders themselves don’t know. So we are all left to speculate. There are at least four possibilities: deterring an enemy; joining an American coalition for war; subsidising the military-industrial-security complex; and staying in government.
Deterrence, the first possibility, is a senseless euphemism for threat, just as defence is for aggression. Northern Australia will soon bristle with American military hardware, the purpose of which is to threaten China. Despite this, all three states have signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (1976), which obliges them to refrain from the threat or use of force against each other. The UN Charter and the ANZUS Treaty contain similar words, but they would not deter China from attacking Darwin or Pine Gap in its own defence if sufficiently provoked.
Partnering in American coalitions, the second explanation for AUKUS, has been Australia’s role in every war since Vietnam. All of them have ended in disastrous defeat. If we apply ‘lessons learned’ (as the military call them), we should not repeat the experience. US military war games themselves show that in a conflict with China over Taiwan or the South China Sea, the United States would lose, as usually happens when a distant power fights with another state over its mainland territory.
Subsidies from allies, the third purpose, may seem unnecessary for the bloated US weapons industry. Australia has been told that the order-book for nuclear-powered submarines is full, and we are being offered used boats (at a price) instead. But beggars can’t be choosers, and no doubt something will be found for ever-willing Australia. When Julia Gillard offered the Americans access to bases in the Northern Territory the die was cast, if it hadn’t been already when Menzies let them into Pine Gap under the US–Australia Force Posture Agreement. At some point, the public—who wouldn’t buy a used car or house on such terms—may get across to government that AUKUS is a lemon, as Hugh White has already said.
Fourth, staying in power is what all governments aim to do. The ALP wants to win the next election, so it has already agreed to make Australia an American bastion for a future war against China. This gives the United States a pivot to Asia unparalleled since the Gillard years. Biden’s Indo-Pacific adviser, Kurt Campbell, recommends it, seeing AUKUS as locking Australia into America’s strategic plans for the next forty years. Australia has been on notice, at least since 2019, when John Mearsheimer said we had to choose which side we were on. As Henry Kissinger once remarked, having the United States as an enemy is bad, but having it as a friend is worse.
An Australian government that doesn’t want to be destabilised, as Whitlam’s was and as many have been elsewhere, has to oblige the United States. Whether that means accommodating the American presence up to the point at which, rather than supporting Australia’s security it actually endangers us, is the key question that AUKUS puts before us, front and centre.
Before there’s a war between the United States and China, Australia should answer that question. Rather than retaliating against the United States, China might well decide to make an example of Australia by attacking American installations on our soil. In such a confrontation, we would come off worst. The more American weapons AUKUS introduces to Australia—not just submarines but Tornado cruise missiles, B-52 nuclear-capable bombers and a suite of advanced technologies—the bigger a target Australia becomes.
A war against China could begin by accident—via a collision in mid-air or at sea, for example, or an unintended event causing harm to Chinese, American, Japanese or Australian personnel. Or such an event could be faked, to justify retaliation. Or it could be deliberate aggression, on the pretext of protecting Taiwan. Going to war in response to any of these events in the East or South China Sea would be unlikely to secure a resolution of the UN Security Council, though it might produce a request from an offended sovereign state, which Taiwan is not, hence the proposed change to the Cabinet Handbook to enable sending the Australian Defence Force to such a war.
Australia’s worst fear is an event that triggers ANZUS. An attack on an American or Australian asset, of whatever kind, ‘in the Pacific area’ would oblige us to consult ‘in accordance with [our] constitutional processes’. That distinction was obliterated by John Howard in 2001 when he committed Australia to support the United States anywhere. Without consultation, Australia was at war, and since the war on terror never ends, we still are.
It is clear to all Australians observing these developments that the greatest danger we face, as Malcolm Fraser pointed out in 2014, is not from China but from our American ally. US generals repeatedly warn us of war against China in two to five years. The cash-strapped Australian mainstream media would love a war. Whoever dreamed up the ‘Red Alert’ series of articles in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in March, their aim was to frighten Australians and prepare them for war in our region, the worst since the Second World War.
Why do that? Because a scared nation will vote for government in a khaki election, will accept restraints from government, and will get used to the idea of unprecedented spending on the military. Few will ask if the war is defensive or offensive. Most will accept that China is our enemy. Already the Chinese ambassador and others who disclaim any warlike intent on China’s part are ignored.
So we would do again what we have done nine times this century already: fight our ally’s war for no good reason. Only this time the war will not be against small or distant enemies, but against a very large and powerful neighbour. And with or without AUKUS, we will lose it. If our government believes otherwise, now is the time for them to explain what they are doing, and its prospects for success. If they expect the people’s support for such a war, they should put the case for it to both Houses of Parliament for a debate and a vote.
Such a vote would be the first in our history. And after the war, if any of us are still alive, an independent inquiry should ask how we got into the war, what happened, and the consequences. That too would be the first of its kind for Australia.