Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 10 June 2023



The case for AUKUS: let’s get things clear

While opponents like Paul Keating snipe at our strategic policies — and our new lethal weapons — they consistently spare scrutiny of China, despite its likeness to Nazi Germany in several ways.


From Inquirer

June 10, 2023








Do you, as a reader of this newspaper, as a voter, believe our government has made sound decisions in aligning us with the US and Britain, in the AUKUS alliance, and committing to the transformation of our naval power through the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines and other weapons?

Those commitments have been politically bipartisan but are being hammered by critics outside government, with former prime minister Paul Keating leading the charge. Anthony Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles face considerable left-wing opposition within the ALP and the ACTU over the decision. At the Queensland state Labor conference in Mackay last Sunday, a move to applaud the government’s commitment to AUKUS and the nuclear-powered submarines was voted down 229 to 140.

At the ALP’s national conference in Brisbane in August we can expect more of the same. This means those commitments need to be spelled out and defended during the next couple of months. The case for AUKUS needs to be made with crystal clarity.



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About a fortnight ago, in an open letter to the federal Labor government, more than 100 academics challenged AUKUS and the submarine decision on numerous grounds. Their letter is symptomatic of the groundswell of opposition that rejects the idea of nuclear-powered submarines, simply because they are nuclear-powered, and rejects the idea of buttressing our military capabilities as provocative militarism. It also challenges the idea of AUKUS as a strategic alliance on the grounds that the British and Americans are yesterday’s men. All this needs rebuffing.

While opponents of our strategic policy snipe at it and at our allies, they consistently spare China any scrutiny or criticism. Yet its vast military build-up, talk of war and fascistic approach to politics are the core concerns driving the geopolitical changes happening here and around the Indo-Pacific – in the US, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and The Philippines.

You would never guess this reading the abovementioned open letter, or the writings and public statements of history professor and columnist James Curran, Australia-China Relations Insti¬tute director James Laurenceson, former foreign minister, ACRI director and NSW premier Bob Carr and others who appear to believe our own strategic response to China’s build-up is, as Curran expressed it in a recent column, the unfortunate consequence of an “escalatory fever gripping Washington”.

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It is, of course, entirely appropriate that the government be asked to clarify the thinking behind these momentous decisions. However, the critics seem to believe they know better and it’s difficult to see what answers would satisfy them, not least as regards nuclear energy. The truth is that they are confused.

Take three of the specific issues raised by the open letter and central to its case:

● That while Australia needs a submarine capability, it does not need an “offensive, long-range capability” and that the government has, until very recently, been clear that this is so.

● That AUKUS tightens our links to a declining superpower that is on the verge of lapsing into being “an illiberal democracy”.

● That instead of eight nuclear-powered submarines, we should buy “a much larger number of cheaper conventionally powered ones”.

As to the first point, the key requirement for Australia, given its geography and security interests, has always been for long-range submarines. The Collins-class boats are such submarines. The nuclear-powered ones are far better: they can go farther, linger longer, remain quieter and move faster. They also have a greater offensive capability – if push comes to shove.

A decade ago, as a professional consultant, I ran a series of workshops for the Submarine Institute on the question of Australia’s needs. This was before Tony Abbott’s “captain’s call” as prime minister in 2014 asking Shinzo Abe if Japan could build Australia eight nuclear-powered submarines. It was made clear in those workshops that the ideal submarine for Australia would have been the Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. But it was unavailable because the US would not sell it.

Short of that, it was crucial that we acquire long-range submarines capable of operating thousands of kilometres from their home bases, in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific. The question was whether they should be “son-of-Collins” constructs or a foreign buy. When the Virginia-class SSNs were made available, after other options had been explored, the opportunity was deemed too good to miss. That, in a nutshell, is why the decision was made.

 AUKUS partners Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

As to the second concern, whether the US is “in decline” is moot. China itself is riding for a fall on numerous grounds, as Hal Brands and Michael Beckley have pointed out in their recent book Danger Zone (2022). But it seems somewhat odd for the signatories of the open letter to single out the US as in danger of becoming an illiberal democracy when China is governed in such a patently anti-liberal and repressive manner.

Ukraine was in danger of becoming an illiberal democracy, under Viktor Yanukovych, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who runs a highly illiberal democracy, actively seeking to bring about that outcome. Instead, under Petro Poroshenko, then Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine clung to and deepened liberal democracy. Its problem was that it was insufficiently well armed to deter Russian invasion.

We do not wish to be in that position. That’s what our new strategic initiatives are all about.

As for the third point, the signatories do not specify how many conventional boats they have in mind, what kind or for what precise purpose. They do not exhibit any knowledge of exactly how submarines are used or discuss how the “much larger number” of boats would be crewed; or even how much they would cost. How, therefore, would they expect an effective response to their handwave on the subject?


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But there is a fourth and more fundamental point at issue in both the open letter and the range of other rhetorical outbursts from the critics of AUKUS and the nuclear submarines. It is that somehow we are increasing the danger of war in Asia – a war they believe we would lose – by aligning ourselves with the US. The open letter signatories go so far as to assert that acquiring nuclear-powered submarines would trigger nuclear proliferation in Asia, though they don’t specify how or why.

The reality is that the system of collective security put in place by the US after 1945 has served Asia exceptionally well and there is no promising alternative on offer for the foreseeable future. This is not the assessment of only our own strategists. It is the view from Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, Taipei, Hanoi, Singapore and New Delhi. Hence the Quad. Hence the new US bases in The Philippines of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos. And hence AUKUS.

Should the US decide, for whatever reason, to pull back from East Asia, yielding primacy to China, as emeritus professor of strategic studies Hugh White and others have long been urging, one highly predictable consequence would be nuclear proliferation. This was the message delivered in Washington recently by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. Japan, which faces nuclear-armed countries in China, Russia and North Korea, almost certainly would cross the nuclear threshold should the US withdraw its nuclear umbrella.

 Former prime minister Paul Keating. Picture: ABC

Almost no one in Australia is urging that we acquire an independent nuclear weapons capability. It defies belief, therefore, that those who disparage AUKUS and the Quad – among them Keating, former ambassador to China Geoff Raby, White, Carr, former diplomat John Menadue, some of the signatories to the open letter and others – should assert that drawing closer to the US is likely to trigger nuclear proliferation. They have it exactly wrong.

Equally baffling is the fact they subject China to no criticism at all and denounce those of us who do as somehow hysterical, deluded, Sinophobic, warmongering, racist and the like.

The facts of the matter are elementary. Xi Jinping’s China has undertaken – while benefiting enormously from the open markets of the West, a deluge of foreign direct investment and the global stability underwritten, at vast expense, by the US – the largest, most rapid and most comprehensive peacetime military build-up on record.

It spends, in real terms, well over $US300bn ($447bn) a year on its armed forces. That’s still less than half what the US spends. But the US is buffering the security of the world order. China is buffering no one and nothing but itself. Had the goal of the Chinese Communist Party been – as its reformers in the 1980s believed it was – to become a prosperous, democratic state and a responsible member of the international order, it would have acted differently. It is Xi’s regime that is in the grip of the “escalatory fever” alleged by Curran to be afflicting Washington.

One of the great ironies of the debate we are having in this country about these matters is that the people who object most strenuously to our considered rearmament and alliances seem almost never to pause and reflect on the fact their kind of civil dissent cannot be practised in China. That is a good part of the problem. To assert that we are or Washington is – or a future, hypothetical, illiberal America could be – the problem is comparable to having claimed, in the late 1930s, that rearming the Western democracies was a provocation to Nazi Germany.

 Bob Carr. Picture: AAP

 Hugh White. Picture: Supplied

Xi’s China is comparable to Nazi Germany in several ways and those in this country and elsewhere who still, even now, place greater priority on trading with it than on constraining it under international liberal rules are comparable to those business people in the ’30s who saw opportunities in the Third Reich (or Japan) and did not wish their governments to act in such a way as to impede the pursuit of them. Think Thomas Watson and IBM.

For as long as we allow the notion that China is simply what China has always been and that criticism of it is counterproductive, ignorant or racist, we ignore the proverbial elephant in the room. The looming danger to liberal order or stability in Asia is not an illiberal America, disturbing as that would be in several ways. It is a profoundly anti-liberal China. And that anti-liberalism is not a mere holdover from immemorial Chinese Confucian culture. It is the programmatic attitude to politics of the CCP and it is inimical to such liberal order, open trade and geopolitical stability as we have enjoyed under the Pax Americana.


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Moreover, and this is the pivotal problem we face, over the past decade Xi has so configured Chinese policies and politics that we cannot, in any near timeframe, reasonably expect things to improve. That is why the Quad has taken shape. That is why AUKUS has been formed. That is why the hardest heads in our strategic and intelligence system have bought into the plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and other advanced weapons systems: so that we can, hopefully, deter China from going to war and ride out the storm of war, should it come – as Ukraine is doing.

There is an important coda to all this. The submarines, like AUKUS, are an indication that we are digging in for what Rush Doshi, in his magisterial 2021 book-length reflection on the China problem, dubbed “the long game”. This is the democratic Anglosphere looking many decades ahead. But the crisis may well be only a few years away, not decades.

What Xi has done to Hong Kong he intends to do, if he can, to Taiwan. In fact, the notorious 14 grievances handed to us by his diplomats a few years ago indicate that he believes he can impose similar codes of conduct even in Western democracies such as Australia. We have pushed back. But the contest hasn’t come close to ending.

There are grounds for believing that time is not on Xi’s side geopolitically and that he and his generals may believe they will have to act in the 2020s or lose the long game. This is the point made compellingly by Brands and Beckley in Danger Zone. In that context, we have Collins-class submarines, not nuclear-powered ones. And we need to think very, very clearly about what contingencies we may face and how best to position ourselves to defend our core interests, should they arise.

We allowed ourselves, for 20 years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, to believe the CCP would see the error of its ways and liberalise. We clung – as we profited handsomely from China’s rapid economic growth – to the hope that a rising tide would lift all boats. We miscalculated. The party is not for turning. It is aggressively anti-liberal. It seeks, like Putin, to overturn the liberal international order. That’s why AUKUS now exists.

Paul Monk is a fellow of the Institute for Law and Strategy (London and New York). He was head of the China desk in Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation in the mid-1990s. His classic 2005 text Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China has just been reissued in a second, updated edition.

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