Deemed as a historic security pact, AUKUS was unveiled by the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia – a patent revelation of their shared interests in the Indo-Pacific. Despite the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison’s public refusal “to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability”, the plan of building eight nuclear-powered submarines under the agreement remarkably augurs the country’s official accession to the existing “nuclear submarine club” whose members include the US, the UK, Russia, China, France and India. The AUKUS pact, for all intents and purposes, delivers as huge a leap in Australia’s defense capabilities as its international military strength.
Many have interpreted the birth of AUKUS as an effort to counter China’s aggressively rising military presence in the Pacific even though China was never explicitly mentioned in the remarks of the creation of the new alliance by its leaders. However, judged by China’s vehement condemnation of the security pact as “extremely irresponsible” so that it has risked “severely damaging regional peace” and “intensifying the arms race”, China obviously perceived it as a barefaced provocation and threat.
It has been witnessed that the tensions between Australia and China over the past few years have been soaring, ranging from Scott Morrison’s insistence on a full-bodied investigation into the origins of COVID-19 to Beijing’s indefinite suspension of all activities under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue Deal. Be that as it may, military confrontations between the two countries still seemed implausible until the formation of AUKUS. To make matters worse, Australia’s bold move also gave a rise out of France by scrapping their previous $40 billion submarine deal, which led the Foreign Minister of France Jean-Yves Le Drian to scathingly denounce Australia’s action as a “stab in the back”. But why on earth did Australia take such a sudden hawkish turn in terms of military, even at the expense of its relationship with France?
The shifting geopolitics of the Pacific region plays a major role. Australia has been sheltered by the ANZUS Treaty (The Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty) since 1951, but the stable environment it has thrived in ascribes not only to the security agreement, but also to its own geopolitical advantage. During the Cold War, the North Atlantic was the focus of the naval operations of the US and the Soviet Union. The South Pacific, where Australia is located, was basically out of USSR’s reach, not to mention a rising US-backed Japan if Soviets ever planned on marching south. Geopolitics of Australia today, nonetheless, has drastically changed as the country’s greatest threat is no longer the Soviet Union. Instead, a provocative China has emerged as a new challenger in the South Pacific with its ramped-up presence in the South China Sea, rendering the area a security hotspot where Australia is ineluctably involved.
However, the geopolitical change in the Pacific is nothing new to Australia since it already experienced it decades ago. As a member of the British Empire, Australia fought alongside its Mother Country – the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Nevertheless, it was highly dependent on the UK for its defense against the backdrop of America’s inactive involvement prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite Winston Churchill’s vow to protect Singapore from Japan, the unexpected surrender of the British troops instead led to the fall of the Britain’s former colony to the Japanese army. Britain’s failure to defend Singapore was seen as a betrayal by the then-Prime Minister of Australia John Curtin, and his fury was further fueled when the UK turned a blind eye to Australia’s pleas for help in the wake of Japanese air raids on Darwin and northern Australia. The US did come to Australia’s aid, but the very reason why Americans helped was that they needed a base in the Pacific to look out for their own interests, and Australia happened to serve as a good spot.
All of those have made Australia acknowledge the fact that it only had “small-power status” and neither the US or the UK had been a reliable ally when it comes to protecting Australia in its hour of need. In that respect, it makes perfect sense for Australia to prioritize the enhancement of its own military capabilities over other matters, especially in the wake of the blatant military threat made by the chief editor of Beijing’s Global Times newspaper that Chinese missile strikes on Australia will be inevitable if the latter ever plans to intervene in Taiwan Strait issues.
Another heavily discussed question is – why did Australia rush to forge a new security pact even it is already a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance? The faltering American global leadership might be the major impetus. America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan not only created a power vacuum in the latter, but also potential instability in the Indo-Pacific. No matter how hard the Biden Administration has tried to defend its humiliating Afghan retreat, allies of the US are alarmed and suspicions of a falling America are raised. In the eyes of Australia, America’s abandonment of Afghanistan is nothing short of Britain’s insouciance towards Australia 70 years ago. As the victim of abandonment trauma during World War II, Australia’s contributions to AUKUS are simply the outgrowth of the country’s efforts to prevent history from repeating itself.
Australia is by no means the only country seeking a stronger military force and a tougher stance against CCP during the ongoing reshuffling of the global deck. Canada and Japan, both economically powerful but politically mediocre, are likely to make the same move as Australia has made to gradually break free from their military dependence on the US. Erin O’Toole, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada has relentlessly bashed China’s Communist Regime and has highlighted his tough-on-China policy in the Canada federal election. In Japan, a great majority of the current prime minister candidates have also overtly manifested their hawkish stance on China. Regardless of where those elections may lead, it is not hard to fathom that Australia’s ballooning military spending will be replicated by more countries. AUKUS, as a sequela of the Second World War and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, is likely to usher in an era of a new round of arms race.