AUKUS: Is Australia the Big Loser?

Who thought this was a good idea?

By: Lim Teck Ghee

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his colleagues are today basking in congratulations from patriotic Australians for his success in pulling off the AUKUS agreement between Australia and its two western allies against what the trio have identified as their common enemy - China.

“This is a historic and important decision made by the Australian government,” said former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott: “Historic because it overturns decades of strategic caution and announces to the world that we take national security seriously. Important because it acknowledges the scale of the strategic challenge from China and declares that Australia will play our part in meeting it.”

Hugh White, an academic from Canberra's Australian National University, similarly noted that “the new agreement will make Australia the only non-nuclear armed country in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines,” and called it “a very big deal indeed…In the escalating rivalry between America and China, we're siding with the United States and we're betting they're going to win this one."

More critical Australians have denounced it as a big mistake with former Prime Minister, Paul Keating arguing that Australia’s sycophancy to the US is only damaging its own interests. Weeks earlier Keating had chastised the government for leading Australia into a “Cold War” with China.

“Australia is a continent sharing a border with no other state. It has no territorial disputes with China. Indeed, China is 12 flying hours away from the Australian coast. Yet the government, both through its foreign policy incompetence and fawning compulsion to please America, effectively has us in a cold war with China.”

Clearly, this advice has been ignored by Morrison, who appears committed to winning what has been described as a coming kaki election, one influenced by pounding war drums. According to one Australian wag, he can now show off to the electorate the new hair on his chest grown with US and British assistance.

Winners

Is Joe Biden the big winner? With the US tail between its legs from the ignominious Kabul retreat and numerous domestic challenges to overcome, he now can point to one achievement with the assistance of “that fella from down under,” whose name he couldn’t remember. 

But is it such a big victory for the US? Available data confirm that the US has overwhelming military superiority over China in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea regions. Although the number of US military bases in these two regions has not been publicly disclosed, what is known is that there is a very large number of US military bases ringing China. Around the world, the US maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries with several hundred thousand land, sea and air troops and other military personnel ready to take out any enemy. 

The latest addition of Australian nuclear submarines and another military base does show that Biden is more macho than Trump in foreign policy. But it will not count at all in the US’s domestic politics or significantly enhance America’s national security.

Rather the exercise smacks of nuclear overkill. The US has presently 400 intercontinental missiles - many more than necessary to nuke any enemy several times over. The warheads on the ICBMs only represent one quarter of deployed US strategic warheads. More than half of deployed US strategic warheads are mounted on submarine-launched missiles, and the remainder are nuclear bombs and warheads on cruise missiles bunkers that can reach Beijing, Pyongyang, or Moscow without Australia’s contribution. 

It is important to note that China, on the other hand, has only one foreign military base - in Djibouti, not in Latin America or the Indo-Pacific region. Not only is China’s military power in land, sea, and air much less than the US but its official military budget is considerably smaller (although it doesn’t include many military expenditures, including for its coast guard or provincial military base operating costs and other items):

For now, Boris Johnson is the bigger winner. This latest flying of the British flag in a region where it has been reduced from colonial giant to post-colonial third-tier also-ran may provide gratification and a sense of self-importance for the domestic audience. But more significant to the British power elite is the contract, worth anywhere between US$55 billion and US$90 billion, that Morrison tore up and which the British armament industry and mass media are drooling over. 

The fact that it is Macron and France that this Anglophone initiative has killed off makes this perhaps the most important English victory over the French since the Battle of Agincourt. To soothe French outrage but scarcely believable to anyone who has followed British politics since Brexit is the British prime minister’s most recent declaration that “Our love of France is ineradicable.”

Losers

Notwithstanding the British PM’s “forever” love declaration and reminders from Australian leaders of how tens of thousands of Australians have died to defend France in past wars, France - as the big loser – and will be looking for revenge. Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States, tweeted that the deal blind-sided France. "The world is a jungle," he wrote, adding that "France has just been reminded of this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia. C’est la vie."

Harsher words have come from France’s top officials. "There has been duplicity, contempt and lies," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared on France 2 television, adding relations with Australia and the United States were in "crisis" and that."You can't play that way in an alliance."

The loss of the “contract of the century” submarine deal is not only a massive economic blow. It is also a huge political setback for French President Macron who is running for re-election next year. Further comments by Morrison and his cabinet members on the need for Australia to replace the now poorly regarded French-designed Shortfin Barracuda program with a technologically superior British submarine have only rubbed more salt into the open wound. Meanwhile, the French outrage has been greeted with disapproving and contemptuous feedback from the British and Australia public as exemplified by a wag pointing out that the major problem of the French design was that it could only go into neutral or reverse drive! These and similar comments in social media may yet come back to haunt the AUKUS partners. Expect interesting times ahead for British-French relations.

Beware Unintended Consequences

Lord Peter Ricketts, former British ambassador to France, has warned that the recall of ambassadors from the US and Australia by the French government is just “the tip of the iceberg”. According to him, “there is a deep sense of betrayal in France because this wasn’t just an arms contract. This was France setting up a strategic partnership with Australia and the Australians have now thrown that away and negotiated behind the backs of France with two NATO allies, the US and UK, to replace it with a completely different contract. I think for the French, this looks like a complete failure of trust between allies. Therefore, causing them to doubt, what is Nato for?”

Away from NATO, China has warned the three countries to “abandon the obsolete cold war zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concepts and respect regional people’s aspiration and do more that is conducive to regional peace and stability and development – otherwise, they will only end up hurting their own interests”.

Also shattered for now and for good is the campaign for a nuclear-free Pacific backed by New Zealand and countries of the Indo-Pacific region. Australian disregard and disdain for its ‘little brother’ has never been more obvious. 

And in the contested South China Sea region, Indonesia and Malaysia in immediate responses have expressed deep concern over the arms race being intensified by the new tripartite military pact; and called on nations to avoid provoking a nuclear arms race as well as meet their nuclear non-proliferation obligations. 

Key takeaways for now

Western hypocrisy over nuclear proliferation and the key role of its armament merchants and supporting politicians in determining foreign policy is not only once again exposed from this new military pact. North Korea, Iran, Turkey, and a host of other countries, possibly also including Indonesia, wanting to join the nuclear weaponry club will now have greater justification for crossing what the west has set up as an elastic red line. 

Unfortunately too, Morrison has instigated a new round of the cold war which has him pinning the target on Australia’s own back.

Lim Teck Ghee is the author of Challenging the Status Quo in Malaysia.


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