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AUKUS – A Strategic and Diplomatic Debacle

Andrew Mack

“When Dr. Evatt came [to the UN] he was a virtually unknown second-string delegate, with the background of a professor and Labor politician. He leaves, recognized as the most brilliant and effective voice of the Small Powers, a leading statesman for the world’s conscience.” – New York Times (Fraser, 2014: 100)
“Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” – Attributed to Winston Churchill 19541


Australians increasingly perceive the Peoples’ Republic of China – our largest trading partner – as a major threat to the nation’s security. Apparently unaware that China’s economic growth necessarily entails a parallel increase in its defence capabilities, ninety-three per cent of Australians see China’s military activities in our region as the prime reason to fear China, up from 79 percent in 2016 (Lowy 2021).

But does China pose a real threat? Australia’s Home Affairs Department Secretary, Mike Pezzullo, believes so. Pezzullo hears the “drums of war beating”, claiming that the government must “face down” China and we must send off our “warriors to fight” the “sinister mania of Beijing’s wolf warriors” (Pezzullo 2021). Australian Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, accuses China of carrying out “the most egregious forms of coercion and aggression” in the Indo- Pacific (Dutton 2021). These perceived threats have led the government to urge the US to take a harder line with China. With Britain seeking a greater military role in the Indo-Pacific, the “enhanced trilateral security” pact of AUKUS2 was born.

This pact commits the two Northern Great Powers to sharing their secret military technology with Australia. This includes nuclear submarine capability, long-range missiles, cyber and artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, undersea drones and basing rights. It enables “unconstrained access for all types of US military aircraft and vessels in Australia”. This allows the US to “rotate through Australia ... the establishment of facilities to support US high-end warfighting ... and combined military operations in the region” (Patience 2021).

The “contain China” provocations implicit in this pact inhibit the construction of strong and lasting strategic relations with the region. Relations based on mutual respect for national sovereignty and that focus on diplomatic negotiations to resolve national security issues rather than primarily preparing for war. This article promotes the application of H.V. Evatt’s strategic agenda to accomplish these goals.

Embedding Australia with the US’ military campaign

Why did our government construct Australia’s most momentous strategic initiative of recent times around a Northern big-power alliance? Why move our strategic boundaries by “resurrecting a new version of forward defence”, thus effectively “junking the Defence of Australia policy that has underpinned our defence strategy and capability planning since the mid-1980s” (Behm 2021)? Most pertinently, why did the agreement exclude our regional neighbours from any involvement?

The terms of the agreement spell out the answer. They show that the nuclear-powered submarines expand Australia’s military reach into the heartland of US/China Great Power competition – that is the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. Brendan Nicholson says the submarines are “fast, discreet, with extremely long range and able to operate closely with the US undersea fleet”3 (Nicholson 2021). This directly joins Australia with the US’s enforcement of its “containment of China” policy. It is “both a strategic bet on a fundamental reorientation of American attention and resources from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific as the emerging theatre of geopolitical contest and a step-change in Australia’s military capability to bolster the other two allies’ military footprints in the region” (Thakur 2021).

The AUKUS arrangement makes it harder to “disentangle our strategic commitments and our deep identification with the US and Britain from our foreign policy interests” (Gyngell, 2021). This inability to ensure foreign policy autonomy could oblige Australia to again go to war in remote regions to support big-power interests. As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) researcher, Marcus Hellyer, argues: “If there was any doubt about what Australia would do in an armed conflict between the US and China over Taiwan or the South China Sea, that’s now gone. The US doesn’t provide you with the crown jewels of its military technology if you are not going to use them when it calls for help” (Hellyer 2021).

The diplomatic and strategic implications of government policies to counter the perceived threat of China need careful consideration. The rest of this article outlines a deep critique, recognising that the AUKUS deal fails to encompass a substantive appreciation of the threats facing Australia in the region; nor does it provide Australia with a coherent strategic plan that could ensure regional stability and national security.

A strategic blunder

The authors of AUKUS deliberately created the deal to be confrontational and reject multilateralism. Importantly for Australia’s security, it doesn’t address “the kinds of credible contingencies that Australia might conceivably face in the sea-air gap to the north and the maritime approaches to the west and the east” (Behm 2021). It is not based on any formal agreement, and its hardware will only be available in the distant future.

Most pertinently for this discussion, AUKUS is a diplomatic blunder because it excluded our regional neighbours from any involvement in the construction of a regional defensive framework. Their exclusion, as Gyngell argues, “reinforces regional beliefs that Australia is not really a legitimate part of the region, but a junior partner in a three-way partnership between English-speaking countries” (Gyngell 2021).

Thus, whilst Prime Minister Morrison said that AUKUS promotes the working “with our partners across the region to achieve the stability and security of our region” (Morrison 2021), nothing could be further from the truth. There has been no such “working” with our regional partners. This denial of regional participation is evident in the expressions of concern by Indonesian officials that AUKUS could drive an expanded “arms race and power projection in the region... (thus negatively impacting on) the region’s military balance” (Nugroho 2021). Moreover, Malaysian Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, says that AUKUS would be a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region” (Evans 2021).

The way forward: a regional security arrangement

The AUKUS deal is said by the Prime Minister to be an essential element of our “forever partnership” with the US. However, a future political leadership with a mind to promoting strategic diplomacy – i.e., of “jaw-jaw” rather than “war-war” – would devise alternative options whereby Australia plays a significant strategic role in the region, deals with our neighbours as equals and combines small and medium power strength to assert strategic sovereignty.

There is a logical path for achieving such a comprehensive and durable regional security regime that covers environmental, economic as well as strategic aims – a regime that is not driven by major-power strategic ambitions. This path would enable Australia to maintain good relations with the US, whilst building regional strategic multilateral alliances that take account of national cultural differences and affirm national political, economic and strategic sovereignty.

The first step would be to overcome our South East Asian neighbours’ strong reservations about Australia becoming embedded in the US “Contain-China” military regime, especially given that the major countries in the region “equivocate on America’s place in Asia” (Behm 2021).

There is some basis on which to build here. Indeed, the Australian Government has already begun addressing this concern about relations with our regional neighbours by nominating Chief of army Lieutenant-General Peter Leahy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston, and General Sir Peter Cosgrove to rebuild diplomatic links (Hutchinson 2021). Further, Australia’s ambassador to ASEAN has pledged “Australia’s steadfast commitment to ASEAN centrality” (DFAT 2021). Meanwhile, the US, whilst appreciating that “not all Indo-Pacific nations are prepared to choose sides between the US and China” is also bolstering its regional alignment to achieve its defence and security aims “across a wide spectrum of strategic competition with China”. It is said that this will be achieved through “a networked approach of ‘integrated deterrence’” (Hardy 2021). What this might mean in practice is unclear, but it certainly expresses the US ambition to expand regional ties.

However, neither the current Australian overtures nor the US regional networking would serve to overcome regional reservations. Rather, they actually tend to reinforce the image of Australia as doing the US’ bidding, and are clearly aimed at militarily “containing” China.

A more diplomatically inclined Australian political regime would accomplish strong and lasting strategic relations within the region by appreciating the history and effectiveness of our neighbours’ “geopolitical skills ... which have the best part of two millennia’s experience in the art of accommodation and political manoeuvre” (Behm 2021). Learning from these strategic skills that are “nuanced in their diplomacy and subtle in their strategy” would similarly enable Australia to avoid “appeasement as deftly as (these countries) avoid subjugation” (Behm 2021).

Such a constructive approach would be more consistent with H.V. Evatt’s preferred diplomatic stance for Australia – to advance small and medium powers’ strategic ambitions and avoid them being swamped by superpower ambitions. For Evatt, the UN’s major task was to “protect the rights of the weak from the depredations of the strong” (Fraser 2014: 101). By these means Australia could ensure national strategic sovereignty and build regional cooperation towards peaceful resolution of regional conflicts.

Norway’s strong alignment with the US has not constrained that country from implementing independent but influential and enduring policies that have due regard to UN principles of peaceful conflict resolution, disarmament, development, the environment and treat human rights as sacrosanct. “These policies have given Norway greater influence than the size of its population or economy would suggest” (Langmore & Egeland 2011).

For Australia to promote its regional security alliances through such a negotiation process would potentially go a long way towards overcoming regional reservations about Australia being the US regional “deputy Sheriff”. It would also signal to big powers that small and medium powers can operate collectively in defining “threats” and determining the appropriate means of responding.

To achieve national strategic sovereignty, our political parties must forego any notion that superpower alignment will necessarily serve Australia’s interests. As we live in the East Asian region, sharing many of the concerns of our neighbours, especially threats to the environment and economic instability, our national political leaders should “show some gumption” by providing leadership in generating a small and medium power alignment through “persuasion, shaping, multilateral advocacy, and coalition building” (Gyngell 2021).

This strategic diplomacy necessarily incorporates the basic principles of sovereignty, and appreciation of cultural difference, aiming to build “collective trust and security” (Behm 2021). By applying Evatt’s strategic logic and Gyngell’s diplomatic tools of cooperative regional multilateralism we could overcome the strategic limitations of the AUKUS confrontationist approach. Surely, this would be a better means of achieving the current Prime Minister’s stated aim to protect “Australia’s national security interests, and keep Australians safe” (Morrison 2021).


Andrew Mack is an Executive Member of the Evatt Foundation, Adjunct Professor of Economics with Boston University, Division of International Programs (Sydney Internship Program), and an editor of the Journal of Australian Political Economy.


End notes

  1. 1954, Washington. (Finest Hour 122, 15) Winston Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, speaking of this quote, noted that Churchill actually said, ‘Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.’ Four years later, during a visit to Australia, Harold Macmillan said the words usually—and wrongly—attributed to Churchill: “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.”

  2. AUKUS is a security pact between Australia, the UK and the US announced on 15 September 2021. The reasons for UK involvement appear slightly obscure. Gyngell believes that as the UK is “Dependent on the United States for elements of the nuclear propulsion system, Britain could not transfer the technology (for the Australian submarines) without Washington’s approval” (2021).

  3. Nicholson is editor of the ASPI’s “Strategist” site.



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