Dumping Australia’s French submarine contract, then awarding it to the USA and Great Britain, whilst establishing a new “AUKUS” alliance, has many consequences, mostly problematic.
It is axiomatic that any government has a moral obligation to defend its citizens and borders. Citizens must be safe and secure without question. Related to this is by what methods that is met, for it is not just physical, but also economic and environmental security. There are also responsibilities and obligations, where activities carried out in the name of defence should not be seen as a provocation, threat, or belligerence to others.
Sinking a contract.
Australia has had a chequered past in defence materiel acquisition. Notorious examples of lack of due diligence have found parts which don’t fit, project cost and time blowouts with delivery dates way into the future, and electronic programs and componentry which don’t work or require extensive modification.
Two years ago, Australia and France signed a multi-billion-dollar contract for submarines, to be built and delivered in the next decade. Following a series of bungles, cost blowouts and delays, there were rumours of rescinding the contract.
On September 16, in a video hook-up between President Biden of America, Prime Minister Johnson of the UK and Australian PM Morrison, a two-pronged announcement was made: the establishment of a tripartite alliance named AUKUS, and an agreement to award contracts to the UK and USA to build several nuclear-powered submarines, revoking the French agreement. Motives for this are several-fold, but the effects are far-reaching.
For decades, Australia has been ambivalent about nuclear power and to date, after much controversy, there is only one small nuclear power plant at Lucas Heights, NSW, to service the medical industry, nuclear power itself being banned in Australia at the end of the 1990s. Thus, the plan to build nuclear-powered submarines has reignited fierce debate over whether this breaks the ban in spirit if not the letter, plus concerns about efficiency, initial and ongoing cost and maintenance, and safe disposal of radioactive materials when necessary.
Australia is moreover a supporter of the non-proliferation treaty between nuclear powers, permitting certain uses and prohibiting supply of weaponry or such ingredients to manufacture them, to countries not nuclear weapon-enabled. While the putative submarines in question will not be armed with nuclear weapons, they will have the capability of carrying them, as they are specifically built with such use in mind mainly for America.
Importantly, Australia is signatory to the Treaty of Rarotonga, protecting the Pacific region and nations. It is an accord to prohibit production of any nuclear weapon, to not possess any nuclear weapon or weapons-grade material, to not facilitate in any way production of all or part of nuclear weaponry and, vitally for the Pacific, to forbid the dumping of any nuclear waste material whatever. It is this last point which is the most fraught in military, economic and ecological terms.
Breaking any contract with a friendly country is perilous, particularly given the sudden nature of this about-face by Australia. It is especially so in the field of defence. President Macron of France was blind-sided in this move and the French are appalled and angry. This could give rise to economic and other sanctions and sew mistrust elsewhere outside of France, which would take decades to rebuild. For a party to break a contract without warning sends a message of unreliability and economic perfidy, one whose word cannot be relied upon. International bad faith is normally associated with pariah states and illegal regimes.
Further, importantly, the new alliance and military build sends an unsubtle signal and overt challenge to China. By the establishment of AUKUS where there is already in place a plethora of similar groupings both economic and military, the participants are throwing out a warning to China, Australia’s major trading partner, to keep within guidelines set out by the coalition, or there will be consequences. Exactly what penalties exist is left unsaid, but the threat is present, even if not spelled out. The political meaning is clear, and AUKUS’ sabre-rattling is blunt.
China’s reaction educes the Cold War and admonishes the new alliance for promoting such posture through these actions. While some may defend the AUKUS pact as merely enhancing Australia’s submarine capabilities into the future, the nature of the membership of this grouping clearly targets China by virtue of past behaviour and standpoint. It also inflexibly places Australia in the Anglosphere, walking back any constructive dialogue with other interlocutors.
Many Australians still claim Great Britain as “the Mother Country” and hark back to those roots as reasons to reject immigration and any coloured diaspora. Allying Britain with the Americans who have viewed Australia as the American “Deputy Sherriff” since 2003, white Australians unsurprisingly see their life through a white, Anglo-Saxon lens.
Australia has an unfortunate, enduring reputation for racism, especially against the Indigenous and Chinese. This was manifest against both groups during the Gold Rush, then specific anti-Chinese immigration policies of the early 20th Century, then with the (First) Cold War, and now against modern Chinese (and China) in a second wave of ill will and racism. With Chinese forming around 5% (about 1.5m) of Australia’s population, it is little wonder there is deep concern amongst them at the palpable rise in Sinophobia and bigotry. Following the backlash over COVID-19 and the egregious blame attributed to the Chinese, this AUKUS union will add fuel to an already-burning pyre. However, there are additional disquieting factors around this incipient racism, encompassing neighbours in the Pacific region.
In 1863, indentured labour was brought into Queensland from seven Pacific nations, often by force. Some 63,000 mostly male workers were paid subsistence wages and lived in squalor while working long hours. Many suffered beatings and other forms of punishment for minor infractions and about one third died at work on plantations from malnutrition or disease. When this practice ceased in 1906, workers were then subject to deportation, with any money earned impounded to defray the costs of such expulsion. This was due to the establishment of the infamous White Australia Policy, a part of which was The Pacific Island Labourers Act, 1901, to eject those who did not meet stringent criteria. This was concomitant with Papua New Guinea being annexed by Australia as an Australian territory in 1906 and the spread of Australian influence with near Pacific neighbours, specifically Fiji and New Zealand. Great Britain’s Colonial Office had plans to ensure its sphere of influence radiated from colonial Australia to other areas for Empire and Commonwealth.
For the first half of the 20th Century, colonialism and paternalism in the Pacific was fostered by Australian and British interests, with America a late comer to the game, their proselytising religious groups vying for a piece of the influence other missionaries had achieved for Britain. As with other colonial incursions (French, Dutch, Portuguese et al), there was predictably a great amount of local unrest at the imposition of other cultures, and inevitably, spread of foreign disease.
As the various Pacific nations gained independence, the sense of self and freedom from shackles became more pronounced. Once more, indigenous culture was revered and not relegated in favour of white, Christian values. Citizens spoke their own language without censure or a conqueror’s demand to speak a foreign tongue. Antipathy for colonialism still runs deep.
Distressingly for many of the Pacific, in one act, the creation of AUKUS puts Pacific nations’ clock back over a century, giving rise to the very fears they thought had been banished — major white powers exerting might and influence by flaunting military dominance. While AUKUS cannot take sovereign independence from them, it is subjugation by other means, casting aside any illusion of Pacific neutrality or freedom of choice.
For all the talk and appearance of equality and ‘mateship’, Australia has essentially nailed its colours to the mast, exposing itself to criticisms of warmongering, bad faith, white privilege, racism and tugging of the forelock to colonialists with vested interests. By this important military deal and refreshed alignment, Australia has shown the world myopic, tunnel-vision partisanship and soured relations with many Asian nations for decades to come. Indeed, years of diplomacy and careful thought have been thrown out the window, bringing to zero sum peace efforts of generations.
Opposition? What Opposition?
For the most part, the federal Opposition, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), has been in lockstep with the conservative Liberal National Party Coalition in this issue and ALP leader Anthony Albanese has been critical of cost and wastage. However, he has not addressed the downsides of the AUKUS pact and the effect of awarding a contract of this magnitude to a behemoth industrial-military complex. Australia as a seemingly independent state has vanished, as has the ability to make strategic and economic decisions autonomously. Albanese appears to have also forsaken Labor’s multicultural stance by not acknowledging the dire international and Pacific consequences, including reputational damage by summarily breaking a deal.
Rather than moving to quell China’s anger with Australia by a more nuanced and objective stance, his criticism has been over fiscal matters, not the cost of ruined international relations and all that entails. He has not once mentioned the appearance of racism and paternalism, nor has he even argued for Australia’s objectivity, let alone spoken about the terrible “optics” of the whole matter. Moreover, he has conceded he agrees with the outcomes.
In this issue, Labor appears to have moved from constructive, critical Opposition, to submissive ally. By the time they are in government, it will be far too late to reverse or change substantially the negative impacts of the formation of AUKUS and the boats’ contract. Unfortunately, the effects of these actions will be long-term and far-reaching, engendering malcontented near-neighbours and further, and ongoing economic difficulties with largest trading partner, China. Adding to the woes, as has been seen with China sanctioning Australian coal, iron, wool and wheat, the USA has enormously benefited from China trade, replacing its ally Australia. Thus, the USA will win both ways, economically, an ignominious after-effect.
Once (or if) Labor is in office, the least-worst option to triage this disastrous scenario is to enter protracted and intense diplomatic discussions at the highest levels. It may also be prudent to offer incentives of access and economic advantage unavailable to others, whilst not ceding sovereignty or independence. Nonetheless, as this situation unfolds, it may be impossible to regain ground lost and markets forgone. China would be within its rights to view with great mistrust any Australian actions or promises, given the track record to date. It also means a dramatic shift in Australian policies towards China and a rapprochement plan to equal or surpass that of the 1970s.
The climb back will be arduous and fraught. It may be some time…
Anthony Leong is the Victorian President of the Aust-China Friendship Society & Secretary-General of Pacific-China Friendship Association. He has also been Chair of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Labor Party Policy Committee for Multicultural Affairs.