Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, but there are still many questions about how this pact will affect security in the Asia-Pacific. So far, the Australian people, as well as those in the wider Asian region, have been told almost nothing about the details. Instead, Canberra assumes that everything can proceed without problem.
That is wishful thinking. There are several reasons why this proposal should be reconsidered. Most concerns focus on the plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, and the risky implications this will have for the nuclear non-proliferation regime. This will be the first time that a non-nuclear weapon state will be given access to sensitive nuclear technology and materials for nuclear naval propulsion.
Other countries have been refused this request in the past, and if Australia proceeds to set this precedent, more states will ask for similar treatment ― indeed, some have already done so. Australia declares that it will never divert the submarines’ weapons-grade highly enriched uranium to develop nuclear bombs, but other countries may have different intentions if they are given similar permission to develop nuclear-powered submarines. IAEA monitoring of such materials will be extremely difficult when submarines are submerged for months at a time, adding to proliferation risks.
While China has been the most notable critic of the AUKUS submarine proposal, many other states are similarly concerned, as are numerous nuclear non-proliferation analysts. Many ASEAN states and those in the South Pacific are unhappy that this deal was reached with no consultation with Australia’s neighbors (for that matter, there was no consultation with Australia’s opposition party, Parliament or the public). Australian nuclear-powered submarines will violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone and the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
While much has been written about the nuclear submarine’s aspect of AUKUS, less attention has been paid to the broader strategic implications of the “enhanced trilateral security partnership.” Though never stated openly, AUKUS has been contrived as a response to the rise of China. This is at the same time that the debate on China within Australia has become almost completely antagonistic in the last few years.
Beijing’s South China Sea activities, its treatment of Hong Kong dissidents and growing tensions with Taiwan seem to have translated into a sense that China directly threatens Australia, including militarily. This is an absurd position to take, but it ties in with Washington’s own anti-China rhetoric. China as a great power will undoubtedly flex its muscles in the region, but this does not mean it is intent on conquest further afield. As notable strategist Hugh White warns, by following Washington slavishly we risk sleepwalking into a war with China that would be appalling in its consequences.
Australian politicians and diplomats have worked for decades to re-fashion Australian foreign and security policies toward a recognition of its place within the Asia-Pacific region. But under the previous conservative government, our Asian neighbors have been largely ignored as we preferred to bask in the glory of our Western alliance.
The new Labor government so far has not done enough to re-set this relationship with our near neighbors. And AUKUS is one of the sticking points ― not only are nuclear-powered submarines seen as a slap in the face to the region, but Australia’s choice to team up with London and Washington in a brand new, shiny security pact shows an unapologetic reversion to the Anglosphere.
While the new Australia government has tried to repair the relationships with its near neighbors, persisting with nuclear-powered submarines will present an irresolvable difference. The very choice of nuclear-powered submarines suggests that Australia prepares to join the U.S. in war-planning and fighting against China. These are long-range attack submarines designed to operate close to China’s shores with the ability to launch long-range missiles deep into Chinese territory.
Gone is any sense that we should be reformulating our relationship with Beijing on the basis of prudence and our own national well-being. Instead, we have succumbed to a fantasy that we should join the U.S. in a future war which can and should be fought. As White notes, AUKUS submarines deepen “our commitment to the United States’ military confrontation of China, which has little chance of success and carries terrifying risks.”
Maintaining a tense relationship with China in line with U.S. policies will not improve relations in the Asia-Pacific. It need hardly be said that the world faces several emergencies at the moment: environmental crises are getting worse, Ukraine is caught in the grip of a brutal war, the nuclear non-proliferation regime is fraying at the seams, the Iran deal seems unfixable and North Korea persists with belligerent nuclear threats.
At a time when the great powers ― the U.S., China and Russia ― should be working together to address such issues, there is almost no cooperation between them. China could, for example, play a much more active role in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear aggression, but if it sees only Western hostility and no interest in cooperation, this is unlikely to happen.
The world relies on the large and powerful states to take responsibility for order and to avert war. The idea of AUKUS does nothing to foster regional cooperation, diplomacy and respect; instead, it reaffirms a hostile, Anglo-dominated and wholly outdated approach to international politics.
Marianne Hanson is associate professor at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, and a member of Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). This Commentary was originally published in The Korea Times.
Image: The Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Springfield (SSN 761) prepares to moor alongside the Emory S. Land-class submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) at HMAS Stirling Navy Base, Perth, Australia. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Wendy Arauz.