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AUKUS is a Backward Step for Australia

08 Oct 2021
By Associate Professor Brendon O'Connor
The color guard parades the colors during the closing ceremony of the eighth U.S. and Australian exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 held aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group, with embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, just concluded exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 off the coast of Northern Australia. A bilateral, biennial event Talisman Sabre is designed to improve U.S. and Australian combat training, readiness and interoperability through realistic, relevant training necessary to maintain regional security, peace and stability. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice David Glotzbach)

AUKUS sets back Australia’s development as a nation and its national security. Although it is hard to judge an agreement in its first month, AUKUS is unlikely to make Australia safer.

In Samuel Huntington’s controversial 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations he claimed that Australia was a “torn country.” Torn between its Anglosphere history and alliances on one side and its movement into deeper relations with “Asian Civilization,” in the early 1990s, on the other. “If only!” I have been thinking in recent days. So-called “torn” bicultural and multicultural people and nations are often the smartest, as they can see and hear things from a variety of perspectives. In truth, the Australian government has never been “torn” but at its best has seen Australia’s Asian geography as an advantage in terms of diplomacy, immigration, cultural growth, and of course economics.

AUKUS could possibly box Australian foreign policy decision-making in and give the government fewer options, which is an undesirable thing. The historical record strongly suggests Australia needs greater independence in its security relations and greater distance from the US militarily. With both of Australia’s major political parties supporting AUKUS and acquiring nuclear powered submarines, opposition to AUKUS in the media has been left to the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating and those that worked for him, like Allan Gyngell. Keating has voiced strong opposition to AUKUS on the grounds that it will bind Australia too closely to the US and represents an old colonial mentality. He has written: “At Morrison’s instigation, Australia turns its back on the 21st century, the century of Asia, for the jaded and faded Anglosphere – the domain of the Atlantic – a world away.”

Since the Keating government was defeated in 1996, Australian foreign policy has been generally unimaginative, too closely linked to the US militarily and lacking deep engagement with Asia. The Howard, Abbott, Turnbull, and Morrison Coalition governments all fit this description, as does the Gillard government that agreed to have US troops regularly rotating through Darwin. The one possible exception is the first Rudd government that certainly had moments of promise, like with its “Asia Pacific Community” plan.

Over the last 25 years, the types of actions that would have signalled deep engagement would have included continuous Australian efforts to strengthen Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and make it an organisation more like the European Union; strengthening the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Australia’s diplomatic presence in the region; greater federal funding of the study of Asian languages; stronger encouragement to get Asian-Australians involved in politics and diplomacy; and strong anti-racism campaigns in Australia to curb racism towards Asians which has been shamefully high according to recent survey evidence.

Under Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Australia was a major player in creating and cementing the importance of APEC. The Howard government’s first foreign policy white paper criticised this Asian focus and directly promoted the need for Australia to strengthen its ties and relationship with the US.

Ever since 1996 becoming closer to the US has been a central aim of Australian foreign policy. This goal led to the Australian government stridently encouraging the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, voicing far too little criticism of the long and futile occupation of Afghanistan, and being as quiet and acquiescent as most Congressional Republicans about the dangerous, anti-democratic, and illiberal presidency of Donald Trump. Australia’s want to be so close militarily and politically to the US has not been good for Australia, and it also has not been good for the US. Showcasing the best of the  Anglo-American liberal democratic tradition’s openness to dissent is James Madison’s suggestion in The Federalist Papers #63 that when America is “warped by some strong passion or momentary interest” it needs friendly nations to disagree with it, so it can be persuaded towards a wiser course of action. It is remarkable after the failures of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars the staying power that military solutions have in Australia. This points to the continued reliance on cliché-driven foreign policy, the power of fear, and the failure of the imagination of the Australian political class.

Given the track record of American foreign policy in the 21st century and the possible return of Donald Trump or a Republican president that takes a highly aggressive posture towards China after being elected in 2024, Australia should be charting a more independent path from the US. For those that think this is too alarmist, it is entirely conceivable that Trump could win an election over the most likely Democrat candidate at this time, Kamala Harris. Alternative Republican candidates like Ted Cruz, Mike Pompeo, Tom Cotton, and Ron DeSantis are not much more reassuring with regard to US-China relations.

I do not take a benign view of the current Chinese leadership and their foreign policy. But where is the evidence that China poses a military threat to Australia territorially? I am particularly worried about Chinese military exercises directed at Taiwan and hope Geoff Raby, the former Australian ambassador to China, is right when he argues that China will not invade Taiwan because the economic costs of the resulting oil and trade blockade would be too high a price for China to bear. Invading Taiwan would make China a pariah state, much like Russia has been since its invasion of the Ukraine.

I do not pretend to have all the answers here. We need to recognise that Australia will always have limited military resources, but it does have the powerful resource of a diverse and well-educated population that should be called upon more to develop deeper engagement with China and propose more creative regional solutions like the “Asia Pacific Community” or an Asia Pacific Union. In modern warfare everyone loses, so smarter diplomacy is the only sensible option we have.

Brendon O’Connor is jointly appointed between the US Studies Centre and the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.