Surprise, surprise! After a “candid” phone conversation with President Xi Jinping the previous week, aimed at “responsible managing the competition between the United States and the PRC” and ensuring it “does not veer into conflict,” US President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that his country was joining a new trilateral security coalition comprising Washington, London and Canberra.
“As leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, guided by our enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order, we resolve to deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, including by working with partners, to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” the Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS, as this new endeavor will be called, reads.
The three “maritime democracies” further declared that they will advance their collaboration in “security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains,” as well as turn their focus to “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.”
Most important, as it is reported to be an Australian initiative that dates back to February, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government will abandon a A$90 billion (US$66 billion) deal with French submarine maker Naval Group that his predecessor Malcolm Turnball’s team struck in 2016 to replace its outdated Collins submarines with diesel-electric types.
In exchange, and as part of the new strictly Anglo-Saxon pact, the country will obtain its first fleet of nuclear-powered submarines from the US, which will make Australia the second country after Britain to have access to American nuclear secrets in the said area.
Although the program’s initial phase will take 18 months, it is not clear if the first submarine will be ready this decade. What is clear is that walking away from the French deal will most probably cost Australian taxpayers A$400 million and the wrath of the French, who got so offended by being “stabbed in the back,” as Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put it, that it decided to recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia.
On a bright note, once it is done, Australia will have a nuclear-powered navy (despite not having nuclear energy) and the seventh country to operate nuclear-powered submarines, after the US, the UK, France, Russia, India and China. However, as Morrison declared, the country will adhere to its “nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”
“Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region – the Indo-Pacific,” Morrison proclaimed at the joint online remarks along with Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, adding that “this affects us all.”
Johnson commented, “The UK, Australia and US are natural allies – while we may be separated geographically, our interests and values are shared,” referring to freedom and democracy. He added that “this partnership will become increasingly vital for defending our interests in the Indo-Pacific region and, by extension, protecting our people back at home.”
As the British prime minister stressed during the joint announcement addressing the creation of AUKUS, the project “will draw on the expertise that the UK has acquired over generations, dating back to the launch of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear submarine over 60 years ago,” and therefore generate “hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the United Kingdom.”
Johnson’s current narrative perfectly fits Global Britain’s logic set in the Integrated Review document published in March, which serves as “the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world” by 2025 and articulates the country’s national-security and international policy after its withdrawal from the European Union – including, among other things, justification for the deployment of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the South China Sea.
Notably, the plan to dispatch an aircraft carrier to the Indio-Pacific was described by a British scholar, Anatol Lieven, in a Prospect magazine article published in February and tellingly titled “Brexit Britain, the high seas and low farce,” as an “act of breathtaking – and dangerous – stupidity,” which “could eventually overshadow even Britain’s collaboration in the disastrous invasion of Iraq.”
While Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, admits that an attempt to clash with China in the South China Sea “is an almost entirely theatrical exercise, without serious British strategic purpose or rationale,” he also warns that it “entangles Britain still further with the strategic goals of the US, without any possibility of influencing or modifying those goals.”
What is especially troubling about this development, as Lieven continues, is the fact that “the approach that is building up in Washington … risks repeating some of the worst US mistakes of the Cold War,” including the demonization of the enemy; the inflation of the adversary’s strength; the exaggeration of the adversary’s ambitions; the framing of every local dispute as part of a global struggle between good and evil; and the adoption of distasteful allies with dangerous agendas of their own.
Considering the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the following question from former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, who became outraged with the Morrison administration’s decision to join AUKUS, deserves some serious reflection: “If the United States military with all its might could not beat a bunch of Taliban rebels with AK-47 rifles in pickup trucks, what chance would it have in a full-blown war against China, not only the biggest state in the world but the commander and occupant of the largest land mass in Asia?”
As proved during various simulations where US ships were sunk and air bases destroyed from afar, Beijing is superior in its back yard. Being armed with anti-ship missiles and an integrated air defense network, and having an enormous number of soldiers, any attempt to attack China would be suicidal. Furthermore, if the conflict is limited to conventional weapons, any invasion force put on the Middle Kingdom’s soil would be immediately defeated.
“When it comes to conflict, particularly among great powers, land beats water every time,” Keating rightly observed.
As it is equally accurate to say about Britain, “this arrangement would [also] witness a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty, as material dependency on the US robbed Australia of any freedom or choice in any engagement Australia may deem appropriate,” to quote Keating again.
Calling a spade a spade
It is worth noting that the AUKUS partnership coincides with the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS alliance and the anniversary of the Battle of Britain, which leaves no room for interpretation other than that it is aimed at containing China and escalate already high tensions in the South China Sea – the goal subtly dubbed by Biden as a need to “take on the threats of the 21st century.”
“Our nations and our brave fighting forces have stood shoulder-to-shoulder for literally more than 100 years through the trench fighting in World War I, the island hopping in World War II during the frigid heat in North Korea and the scourging heat of the Persian Gulf. Australia and the United Kingdom have long been capable and faithful partners and we’re even closer today,” Biden asserted during his remarks while announcing the creation of AUKUS.
With the new security alliance to be signed by the US, UK and Australia this week in Washington, concurring with the Quad nations’ meeting, there should be no doubt that the recent development does not serve to protect the “rules-based international order” or “ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” On the contrary, its sole purpose is to disturb peace in the region to preserve the Anglosphere’s dominance in general, and US hegemony in particular.
Although “some people may think that it doesn’t matter much to exaggerate China’s threat if that helps mobilize support against it,” as the Lowy Institute’s Hugh White argues, we should by no means conflate the PRC with the USSR. The “containment” will not work this time, so we either come to terms with the fact that China has the right to rise and have its vital interests or let us start being honest with each other and finally admit that the US is pushing us to nuclear war.