Let’s start with the understanding that there is increasing hostility between the US led Western nations and China. While this is being painted in the mainstream as due to China’s territorial expansionist policies, there is a very real economic struggle behind the hostilities. For an understanding of this, we suggest that you read Clinton Fernandes’ article “The China Divide” in Arena Magazine.
With this tension ramping up, it would be easy to assume that AUKUS was a case of Australia jumping to the United States’ demands. This scenario is overly simplistic and misrepresents Australia’s role as a sub-imperial power in the region.
The Australian Government’s role as a sub-imperial power is twofold: to protect and expand the opportunities to maintain and increase Australia’s capital investment in the region and, in the understanding that Australia as an integrated part of the Western capitalist economy, to also fulfil this role in the broader context.
This concept presupposes the idea that the Australian Government’s prime role is to govern not on behalf of the best interest of the people, but on behalf of the corporations that control the Australian economy: the same can of course be said for most western nations. While this idea may have sounded radical only a decade ago, we think that this is now a widely accepted understanding.
Looking back at the last time Australia entered into a major defence agreement, seventy years ago, we can see that the Menzies Government needed ANZUS more than the Truman Government who were eagerly pursuing a non-punitive peace agreement with Japan as a bulwark against the communist government established in China in 1949. For Australia, who was already engaged alongside the US in the Korean War, securing the ANZUS Treaty one week before the US-Japan Security Treaty enabled the Menzies Government to define it self as the US’ number one ally in the region.
On the domestic front this reassured the Australian people, living under the prevailing ‘yellow peril’ atmosphere following WWII, that the Menzies Government was making Australia a leader in the region, assuring its re-election and maintaining the yellow peril scare but shifting it a thousand miles westward from Japan to China.
Regionally, Australia was able to re-establish diplomatic relations with Japan following the ratification of the ANZUS Treaty in 1952 without any loss of prestige and move on to protecting western markets both overtly such as in Malaysia and Vietnam and covertly in the support of the Suharto’s New Order in Indonesia.
Our military relationship to the United States meanwhile ostensibly based on the ANZUS Agreement was cemented by a raft of other arrangements covering things like the Status of US Forces, the establishment of joint bases such as Pine Gap, and technology exchanges (eg), along with a similar ‘off the books’ arrangement known as UKUSA, which has since been renamed the Five Eyes Alliance.
In all of these moves, the Australian Government has acted not in a ‘how high’ response to a United States call to ‘jump’, but in its own interests as a sub imperial power, often needing to persuade the United States to recognise our position in the region.
The same situation, albeit more complex, exists today.
The threat of ideological expansion in Asia has been replaced with the threat of an expanding Chinese economy which could replace or at least be a significant challenge to the longstanding hegemony of Western capital. It is in Australian capital’s interest to thwart this expansion every bit as much as it is in the US capital’s.
Australian capital is becoming more and more integrated with US capital, of the top 20 companies on the ASX for example, 15 are majority owned by US based investment firms. The military’s primary role has always been to protect commercial interests. As Thomas Friedman put it twenty years ago “McDonalds needs McDonnell Douglas”. As our financial interests draw even closer, it is natural that our militaries follow suit.
The US, like seventy years ago, is strengthening both its commercial and strategic partnerships with Japan. Japan is similarly to Australia, jostling for position in the region. A significant omission by Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, during the annual Hiroshima Day speech this year to “strive towards a world without nuclear weapons” which has been a feature of every Hiroshima Day speech for years, has raised eyebrows. While it alone does not signify a change in policy, it did epitomise a changing mood toward nuclear weapons: that we may be closer to a time when Japan is ready to host nuclear and hypersonic weapons. There is also talk of Japan joining the Five Eyes.
In South Korea President Moon’s government has been actively pursuing peace with North Korea and making concessions to China to not host US missile defence infrastructure, nor to develop its trilateral security co-operation with the US & Japan into a military alliance. The Biden administration has been putting pressure on South Korea to change this and the election scheduled in March 2022 looks set to determine which way South Korea will go on the issue.
As tensions increase it has been no secret that the US has wanted to base nuclear weapons somewhere in the region for some time. Former US Defence Secretary Mark Esper explicitly stated this during his visit to Sydney in 2019, a day after the US terminated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Things like AUKUS don’t happen overnight; expansions to the US Australia Joint Posture Initiative have been discussed at the annual AUSMIN talks since 2019. Since that time, and particularly since the start of the Biden administration, the US has been building its presence in the region at an unprecedented rate. Squadrons of F35s and F 18s have been moved to bases around the region, some at airstrips that have been mothballed for many years and all three of the US’ Seawolf nuclear armed submarines have been deployed to the region. In addition a British aircraft carrier group has joined two US carrier groups in August just south of Japan in the East China Sea. Together, this signifies more firepower than has ever been assembled in one region.
Meanwhile from the Chinese side, their growing power and influence is enabling it to talk up its claim on Taiwan, which it has always considered a renegade province. Taiwan is important to China for two reasons. Firstly, historically: Taiwan epitomises what it sees as its ‘Century of Humiliation’ at the hands of the West. Having what it considers its territory occupied by the west is the last vestige of this. Secondly, strategically: Taiwan stymies deep water access to the Pacific Ocean from China’s coast and is important for Chinese plans to operate deep-water submarines. Control and access to shipping lanes lay at the heart of both the Taiwan and the South China Sea disputes.
As the tension heats up in the region, the Australian Government needed to ensure it maintain its status. Knowing that its junior partner role to the US would place it in the position of ‘jumping’ to the US’ demands in any future hostilities with China, it took the initiative and ensured its importance to the major imperial power was not only increased, but recognised.
By bringing together AUKUS, Morrison has had a clear victory for Australia’s regional position and ambitions: whatever the outcome or the implications for the Australian people. The US for its part will gain a greater and unprecedented access to Australian facilities while the UK, while a nuclear power in its own right, finds in AUKUS the opportunity to reposition itself on the world stage following the Brexit debacle.