With AUKUS, Australia is Finally Coming Into Its Own


Collins-class submarine in Sydney Harbor (Picture Credit: Horatio J. Kookaburra)

Australia’s place on the international stage has always been in the shadow of greater powers, but the last few years have felt like tentative steps into the light. In the most recent five-year Australian Foreign Policy Whitepaper, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wrote, “More than ever, Australia must be sovereign, not reliant. We must take responsibility for our own security and prosperity while recognizing we are stronger when sharing the burden of leadership with trusted partners and friends.” At the time, the two most important partners were identified as China and the US, but since then, Australia has pushed back against Chinese demands for sycophancy and weathered its subsequent trade sanctions while doubling-down on its relationship with the United States.


The most recent example of this changing dynamic is AUKUS, a trilateral technology-sharing pact between Australia, the UK, and the US. Ultimately, Australia is a small country with normal goals: regional stability, security, and sovereignty. What makes Australia unusual is that it has a predominately Western culture whilst being geographically isolated from the West; the superpower geographically closest to Australia is an increasingly aggressive and belligerent China while its closest friends are half the world away – in opposite directions. In this light, China’s maritime adventurism presents a real and emerging threat. China has created entirely new islands in previously unclaimed international waters and used them to illegally assert sovereignty over the surrounding waters. This extension of China’s territory is thought to have given it the ability to project its power into the Indian Ocean and even into northern Australia.


AUKUS is a response to these worries. As Geoff Raby, Australia’s ambassador to China from 2007 to 2011, put it: “China has and will continue to behave badly. China won’t be changing, and we have to find a way of living with a China that is not like us, but is big, powerful and ugly.”


AUKUS gives Australia access to cutting-edge technologies that will be useful for deterring Chinese aggression. Tomahawk missiles, could, for example, destroy an airport on a small artificial island if Chinese aircraft were menacing merchant ships along important trade routes. Whilst a Chinese invasion of Australia seems unlikely at present, it’s not difficult to imagine a Chinese naval blockade to punish or pressure Australia by starving it of important goods. The AUKUS deal provides Australia with AGM-158C LRASMs (Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles), which could sink a ship in the South China Sea, and AGM-158 JASSM-ERs (Joint Air-to-Surface Missiles), which have a range of 900 km, enabling them to hit Shanghai from within a Japanese or South Korean harbor, or more likely, from international waters. The nuclear-powered submarines being built (a key element of the AUKUS deal), are significantly faster, stealthier, and have months’ more endurance than Australia’s current Collins-class diesel vessels. The new submarines could travel from Darwin to Shanghai and back again more than 8 times before needing to resurface or resupply[1] or stay undetected in enemy waters ready for rapid deployment and preemptive or retaliatory strikes. These things could help safeguard regional stability, as well as Australia’s security and sovereignty by making China think twice before making any aggressive moves in the region or threatening Australia. In the worst-case scenario of all-out war with China, they should at least help Australia hold off Chinese forces until its American ally intervenes. And, while Australia already hosts permanent rotations of American troops, AUKUS opens the door for that number to increase over the coming years.

US marines training with Australian allies in Darwin

Also of note is the trilateral nature of AUKUS. Because most of the military tech being immediately acquired by Australia is American, the inclusion of the UK in AUKUS has often been overlooked. But the UK is the only other country with whom the US has shared its nuclear-powered submarine technology. Thus, the UK’s presence in AUKUS gives Australia options. If the US were to drop out of AUKUS, the UK would still be a viable partner for obtaining the required technology. And if the pact remains trilateral, it enables Australia to facilitate friendly competition between the US and the UK to ensure it gets the best deal from whichever submarine provider it chooses.


However, whilst new technology is exciting, acquiring nuclear technology, in particular, is tricky for Australia. The country will need to develop a civil nuclear industry which is expensive and domestically divisive (only 51% of Australians wanted nuclear power in 2019); or it will remain reliant on the UK or US for refueling the nuclear reactors in its new submarines. Both politicians like former Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull and soldiers like Denis Mole, a former submarine commander and commodore in the Royal Australian Navy, have expressed doubts that Australia will realistically be able to maintain nuclear submarines without a civil nuclear industry.


Moreover, there is a reason that Australia has never, until now, utilized its vast deposits of uranium for anything other than one research reactor that makes medical isotopes: Australia’s partners and friends in the Pacific are overwhelmingly against increasing nuclear activity in the region (as was Canberra itself up until the announcement of AUKUS). Though some countries like the Philippines and Taiwan have welcomed the perceived security benefits, few have endorsed the nuclear aspect of the submarines. Indonesia, Malaysia, and New Zealand have all been critical; New Zealand, a close and long-standing partner, has refused to accept US nuclear submarines in its sovereign waters since the 1980s and has reiterated its rules in the face of Australia’s defection. Similarly, the smaller nations that make up the Pacific Islands Forum (of which Australia is a part), have also been unenthusiastic, recalling the history of nuclear testing in the region, and stating that “a nuclear-free Blue Pacific must remain our legacy.”


It is not uncommon for commentators across the political spectrum, from China’s state-run Global Times to Australian senators and military officials, to mock Australia’s recent moves as acting as the US’ “deputy sheriff.” But it is simplistic to think of Australia as an agent of the US. While it is a US ally, bound to it by the ANZUS mutual-defense treaty, it exercises considerable discretion in the relationship and does not blindly follow America. For example, while the US has been pushing Australia to take part in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea since the Obama administration, Canberra only agreed to do so in 2021 after its relationship with China deteriorated enough for it not to care if that would anger Beijing. Australian leaders are also beholden to the Australian public, and they are often skeptical of the US. A recent survey by the Lowy Institute found that 92% of Australians “trust Australia to act responsibly in the world,” in contrast to only 61% extending the same trust to the US. Similarly, while Donald Trump was president, only 1 in 3 Australians expressed confidence in American leadership (the only two leaders trusted less were China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un). Australia’s leaders are not in the habit of automatically deferring to the US, nor would the electorate allow them to do so for long even if they wanted to.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces the AUKUS pact together with (remotely) US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on 15th September 2021 (Picture Credit: Number 10)

The truth is that AUKUS is an unusually assertive foreign policy move by Australia. It is also a commitment to growing Australia’s own military capability and readiness rather than relying on its friends’. This would be a welcome development because relying on friends has not worked out particularly well for Australia in the past, both with regard to Britain and the US.

AUKUS is a commitment to growing Australia’s own military capability and readiness rather than relying on its friends’.

As a young country and former British colony, Australia was heavily reliant on Britain, and paid the price. In the lead up to WWI, Australian politicians vowed that “Australians will stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to our last man!” The result was disastrous: nearly 332,000 Australians served overseas with a casualty rate of 66% (compared to the 36% Empire average). 20 years later at the beginning of WWII when Britain could have reciprocated, the British commitment to the Asia-Pacific was abysmal. Nearly a million Australian troops were sent to fight in Europe and North Africa while only 20,000 were left in their own region at a mostly empty naval base in Singapore. The base was so neglected that when it inevitably came under Japanese fire, nobody even knew how to turn the lights off to effect a blackout. The supposedly “impregnable bastion of the Pacific” surrendered after only eight days to a force a third of the defenders’ size. Nearly 1,800 Australians died outright, and a further 15,000 became prisoners of war, 7,000 of whom later died under the Japanese occupation.


Months later, Australia chose a new benefactor, with Prime Minister John Curtin announcing that, “Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom…we shall exert all our energies towards the shaping of a plan, with the US as its keystone.” Today, the Australian US Embassy website proudly recalls that Australian forces have supported American ones in “every major military action of the last century,” something Dr Brendan Nelson, a former Australian politician and Defense Minister, calls “paying the premium on an insurance policy,” where the policy in question is the ANZUS treaty, signed in 1951.


But time and again Australia has had its help summarily accepted without much interest in its opinion. Nelson pointed out that in 2012, Australia was the ninth largest military contributor to NATO (which it’s not even a member of) with the third largest Special Forces contingent, but NATO was still “making decisions without involving us.” Perhaps that is why Australia briefly toyed with the idea that China could be another big brother, and one that was conveniently closer to home. But even Australia’s most optimistic and pro-China prime minister, Kevin Rudd, eventually gave up, at one point calling the Chinese “ratfuckers…trying to rat-fuck us” a sentiment that is apparently shared by a majority of Australians – only 16% today say that they trust China.


Though the US is undoubtedly perceived as more trustworthy than China, it is nevertheless an uncomfortably unreliable ally. For example, when China imposed sanctions on the Australian beef industry to punish the country for calling for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID, the US was busy growing its own beef exports to China by 271%. So too with wine, barley, and other important Australian exports. And yet, hypocritically, the US proclaims that it is “not prepared to improve relations [with China] in a bilateral and separate context at the same time that a close and dear ally is being subjected to a form of economic coercion.” The potential return of Trump in 2024, or the election of another isolationist president (from either the right or the left) is a dark cloud on the horizon.

Though the US is undoubtedly perceived as more trustworthy than China, it is nevertheless an uncomfortably unreliable ally.

With experiences like these, it’s no wonder Australia is keen to become more self-reliant, especially when it comes to its defense, and the AUKUS deal provides some of the weapons needed to do so. But to keep things in perspective, Australia currently has only 6 submarines and the 8 new submarines the AUKUS deal will provide won’t be in the water until at least the late 2030s. In the meantime, China reportedly has 79 submarines, and the US has 68. Thus, Australia won’t be able to confront an opponent like China on its own, it would only be able to do so by joining its (small) fleet with the US’, which is reflected in the rhetorical focus on “joint capabilities,” “interoperability,” and “force posture cooperation” in the announcement of the AUKUS pact.


One shouldn’t overstate the significance of the AUKUS pact, nor overlook the significant complications it raises for Australia. Nevertheless, AUKUS largely helps Australia achieve its strategic goals and is a sign that the young Western nation is maturing. Through AUKUS, Australia has drawn together two powerful, long-standing friends who will give it access to cutting-edge military technology, taking a more proactive approach to defense than it has for decades. Clearly, Australia no longer intends to be a blind follower nor a loyal little brother, but a player in its own right, determined to have its own say in ensuring regional stability and national security, even if that means ruffling a few feathers to get its own way.

[1] The cruise speed of the US Ohio Class nuclear submarine is ~40km/hr x Cruising for 90 days = 86,400 km. Distance to Shanghai from Darwin = 4915 km. 86,400/(4915 x 2) =  8.8 round trips from Darwin to Shanghai.