In defence of AUKUS

| July 9, 2024

Hugh White’s February essay in Australian Foreign Affairs dismissing the AUKUS pact as a mistake takes the reader on a journey through everything that can go wrong and all the reasons we should never have been so ambitious. Unfortunately, it’s a journey to nowhere, carefully bypassing the actual strategic vision of AUKUS, while concealing White’s own central assumption that China will inevitably dominate the region, whatever Australia or any other country does.

White argues that Australia should do all we can to shape the region’s future without ever describing what we should shape it into. This is a pattern for White, whose strategic argument tends to drop away at the critical moment.

Thoughtful AUKUS advocates, by contrast, are quite clear about the strategy Australia is pursuing and how AUKUS fits into it. The goal is to shape a region in which power is balanced, rules and norms are observed or enforced, and China cannot wield untrammelled power to get what it wants, expanding its present malign behaviour, such as its aggression against other South China Sea claim-ants, its cyberattacks and its economic coercion.

White portrays this goal as an effort simply to preserve US dominance, even at the cost of a catastrophic war with China in which Australia would become entangled. Australia, he argues, is backing the wrong horse and should place its bets elsewhere.

But he is misrepresenting the end state that AUKUS supporters seek: not war for the United States but deterrence for an evolving and diverse region. White refuses to recognise that, as a regional power, Australia has agency and must contribute to a balance of the region that necessarily includes the United States—whose continued engagement should be encouraged through clear signals that others are prepared to step up.

The region is not defined by a simple contest between the United States and China. It is comprised of strong democracies such as Japan, India and South Korea, as well as Southeast Asian nations like the Philippines that reject Beijing’s bullying and are putting their security interests ahead of economic convenience.

Certainly, AUKUS faces challenges, which White dissects in detail. The submarine delivery and production schedules will be tough and the capability costs of slippage—always hard to avoid on such complex projects—could be high. Crewing will be difficult and some US lawmakers are airing concerns about their own submarine production capacity.

I can’t address each of White’s criticisms here, but largely his argument is that strengthening through partnerships is too hard and we should therefore submit. His fatalism doesn’t allow for the fact that security cooperation between countries on something as significant as winning the global technology race needs a huge effort.

He is far too dismissive of AUKUS’s Pillar Two, under which the three partners are working together on advanced military capabilities in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum, cyber and hypersonics. Technological superiority confers military and strategic advantage; cooperation among like-minded democracies could make our capability development through advanced technologies greater than the sum of our parts. The gains can be increased by expanding Pillar Two to other nations, including Japan.

His cynical view that the United Kingdom is simply reviving its faded glory and chasing money from submarine construction ignores the demonstrably deeper cooperation that our two countries are pursuing, including through the British Royal Navy’s increased regional presence and the treaty-level Defence and Security Cooperation Agreement announced by Australia and the United Kingdom in March 2024.

White acknowledges that nuclear-powered submarines are much faster and therefore better for operations beyond simply protecting Australia’s northern approaches like crocodiles in a moat. A nuclear submarine can protect Australia but can also hunt enemy vessels in a sea battle north of the equator. That’s a better warfighting capability, and therefore a better deterrent.

Despite White’s dismissive attitude towards deterrence, sharper Australian teeth will help support the stability we need as our region evolves and we find ways to manage competition without conflict—or, if necessary, to be prepared for conflict. His alternative—buying more cheaper conventional boats for the sole purpose of placing them to our north to defend our landmass—only makes sense if you agree with his strategy of letting the crisis come to us. That would mean accepting China as the dominant regional power—although he cloaks this by referring to ‘Asian great powers’—and then looking to merely survive, largely alone, what would no doubt be a grim period for our region. No United States, no AUKUS, no Quad, no Five Eyes, no hope.

Without our present partnerships—particularly the US alliance and the access it provides to intelligence and capabilities—the cost of defending Australia would become prohibitive. We would be weaker and have negligible regional influence. Those who value AUKUS recognise that Australia can thrive with our sovereignty, strategic choices and economic freedom intact, but only if we remain ambitious.

AUKUS is a challenge—I have no argument there. But as an assertion of military power, it’s a tangible contribution, along with other partnerships, to upholding a favourable power balance and stability in our region. That will help create a safer neighbourhood, and will head off future crises, rather than waiting for them to come to our door while refusing the security of the best capability and best of friends.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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