AUKUS – Catalyst For A Nuclear Arms Race In The Indo-Pacific Region

Above Photo: US Virginia-class submarine underway in Groton, Connecticut, July 2004. General Dynamics Electric Boat Public Affairs/WikiCommons.

“Locking Britain into decades of nuclear escalation in the Pacific is globally dangerous, hugely expensive and totally unnecessary.”

The new pact between the Australian, British and US governments is the latest escalation in a new cold war on China, and the developing world.  The “enhanced trilateral security partnership called AUKUS”(1) does not name China, but every single serious commentator has interpreted it as being aimed against the People’s Republic of China.

Coming exactly one month after the fall of Kabul, the announcement was a blessed relief for both Joe Biden and Boris Johnson.  Biden reasserts US pre-eminence, weeks after it was humiliated by a foe without an air force.  Johnson resumes the ‘Global Britain’ adventure, weeks after British power more closely resembled a globule.

For both of them, a policy shift has been made without reckoning with the past, or a messy national debate.  The debacle of their governments, and NATO, in Afghanistan has been pushed off the news agenda.

Military aggression with no diplomatic frills

The text of the Joint Leaders Statement is notable not just for the absence of a specific reference to China.  Equally notable is the complete absence of of any diplomatic purpose in the pact.

There is some conventional diplomatic language – “our enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order”: “our common traditions as maritime democracies”, and “our shared values”.  But there is nothing which can be interpreted as proposals to actually lower tensions between the states in the Indo-Pacific region.  That being the case, the diplomatic phrases simply function as cant concealing the threats to China and the developing nations in the region.

The most immediate, and long-term, significance of the pact is the decision of the US to release the technology required for the Australian Navy to acquire nuclear powered submarines.  This is only the second time that the US has done so.  The first being the agreement with Britain under the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement”.  All pact signatories stressed that this does not involve the aquisition of nuclear weapons by Australia.

Yet as the pact is escalating military tensions in the region, there are no guarantees on future developments.  Certainly scepticism is in order when we read: “Our three nations are deeply committed to upholding our leadership on global non-proliferation” – this, half a year after Johnson committed Britain to a forty per cent increase in nuclear missiles.

Aside from Australia acquiring weapons grade uranium in its new submarines, the pact stresses growing “interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit”.  All of which strengthens the US without additional cost, taxpayers in Australia and Britain will be funding this.  Most certainly the pact does nothing to strengthen the independent “power” of Australia or Britain.  Former prime minister of Australia, Paul Keating, nailed this when he characterised the agreement as a “further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty”.

Finally, the composition of the pact – an oligopoly of white majority, anglo-saxon, imperialist states – is in stark contrast to the majority composition of the peoples of the region.

International opposition to the pact

In the west, opposition to the pact has been presented as most centrally from inside the EU.  Australia cancelled its submarine contract with the French firms, worth around $66billion.  French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said: “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do.  I am bitter and angry.  This isn’t done between allies”.  The French government has withdrawn its ambassadors from the US and Australia.  There was no point in withdrawing their ambassador to Britain, as Johnson’s government has no independent agency in the pact. Le Drian, on French television, compared Britain’s role to a “fifth wheel on a wagon”.

The discomfort of the French has been felt, if less strongly, within the EU.  The complete absence of consultation with the EU about the timing of the US’s drawdown from Afghanistan  remains a recent sore spot.  Now, the signing of the pact represents another accomplished fact for the US allies in the EU.  Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, said that what was needed was “more cooperation, more coordination and less fragmentation” to achieve peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific Region.  This was particularly heartfelt, as the EU’s painfully negotiated, new Indo-Pacific strategy was overshadowed by the pact’s announcement the day before the EU document’s publication.

It is unclear how this diplomatic spat will be resolved.  Whether the French, and other governments, will seek to strengthen the EU’s “autonomy” is an open question.  The EU has suffered one major blow, as Trump’s US succeeded in wrenching the UK out.  But though weakened, the EU and the French government, will also be anxious to restore normal relations with Biden and the US.

But of far greater significance, and much less reported, than European opposition is the response inside the Indo Pacific. China, of course, understands the completely hostile character of the pact.  Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said that the three countries were “severely damaging regional peace and stability, intensifying an arms race, and damaging international nuclear non-proliferation efforts”.

This response was endorsed by other significant states.  On 17th September, Indonesia’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Teuku Faizasyah said: “Indonesia is deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”.  He added: “Indonesia calls on Australia to maintain its commitment towards regional peace, stability and security in accordance with the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation”.  The Treaty is the code of conduct between the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Another ASEAN nation strongly opposed the pact.  Malaysian Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, defined AUKUS as a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region”.  He added: “As a country within ASEAN, Malaysia holds the principle of maintaining ASEAN as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality”.

Concern to keep the peace in the Pacific led the New Zealand government to oppose the pact.  On 16th September, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden stated that Australia’s new nuclear powered submarines would not be allowed into New Zealand’s territorial waters under its 1984 nuclear free policy.

The pact signatories have considerable histories of intervening against national liberation movements in the region.  Inevitably there will be concern about their agreement to increase their military profile.  The new, nuclear element is a particularly sharp issue for the region.  Between 1946 and 1958, the US tested 92 nuclear devices on Pacific islands.  Between 1952 and 1958, Britain teasted 21 nuclear devices on Pacific atolls, and in Australian desert locations.  It was the peoples of the region who suffered from the resulting fallout.

Building bases for war

Although not highlighted at the time, the pact’s announcement also involves an increase in base-building by the US in Australia.  On September 16th, Australia’s Defense Minister, Peter Dutton, reported to a press conference on plans to establish new armed forces facilities with “…combined logistics, sustainment, and capability for maintenance to support enhanced activities, including…for our submarines and surface combatants” and “rotational deployments of all types of US military aircraft to Australia”.  The US already has at least seven installations in Australia.(2)

Increasing base numbers cannot be defined as defence, this is increasing forward platforms for offensive action.  These will be added to the upwards of 750 US bases worldwide, after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. 750 bases is nearly three times the combined number of embassies, consulates and missions of the US worldwide.  Approximately 400 of the bases are situated in countries suitable for offensive action against China.

There has been no new announcement of additional bases for Britain in the region.  Currently the UK has around 60 military personnel deployed at various locations in Australia.(3)  This includes a drone testing site.  Britain has other bases suitable for confronting China, including a naval logistics base in Singapore, a naval base in Brunei, three facilities in Nepal, as well as training facilities in Pakistan, and personnel at unspecified locations in New Zealand.  Nor should it be overlooked that Britain has recently acquired naval base facilities in Bahrain and Oman which are linked to the use of the two new aircraft carriers.  One of these has already been used in the provocative deployment of a carrier strike group into the seas around China.  Again, the location of these bases defends neither the population, nor the territory of the UK, they are forward, aggressive placements.  With 145 bases worldwide, that tops the combined number of 84 British embassies and 49 consulates worldwide.

In comparison, the “predatory”, “assetive”,and “rising” China has one overseas military base in Djibouti.  In the same tiny country, there is the most extensive, permanent US base in the African continent, alongside the bases of five other countries.  It is difficult to see how this deployment is a threat to the US or UK.  But facts should not be allowed to interfere with the developing narrative for a new cold war.

Bipartisan politics in support of the new cold war

The House of Commons debate on September 16th demonstrated, once again, that Labour, under Keir Starmer, is in essential agreement with the Tory Party in promoting the cold war on China.  A bouyant Boris Johnson explained that: “Australia has … taken the momentous decision to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and it asked for our help in achieving this ambition.  I am delighted to tell the House that we have agreed to this request…”  In his enthusiasm he must have forgotten to explain that it will have been the US that decided on the release of the technology.

He gravely explained how we are joined to Australia by “blood and history” – while presumably the millions of Chinese who died as a result of British colonialism in their country had neither blood, nor history.  Nor could he contain his glee that there will be “hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK”.  Clearly nuclear proliferation is a price worth paying for “hundreds” of jobs.

Starmer’s response was in line with his general approach of supporting Tory foreign policy. Increasing military spending and increasing nuclear warheads had been endorsed when he welcomed the government’s strategic military review, earlier this year.  However, he was aware that the international situation was not quite as bright and simple as Johnson suggested.  He said: “The lesson of the past few weeks is that Britain must look after our most important relationships, or our influence and security quickly decline”.  This was an odd thing to say – given that our “most important” ally had acted entirely without reference to Britain in those “few weeks”.  But such painful truths are best suppressed.

Starmer did raise a very interesting question when he said: “…the UK must maintain a commercial relationship with China… So what plan does the Prime Minister have to ensure that this new arrangement increases rather than decreases our ability to influence China?”  After all, nuclear escalation is not the best calling card to offer a trading partner.  Johnson responded by squaring the circle, explaining that the pact: “is not intended to be adversarial towards any other power: it merely reflects… the close relationship that we have with the United States and Australia”.  Immediately after, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said: “We must work with and stand up to China.  This is about a more coordinated, long-term strategy in challenging China’s increasing, hostile dominance in the South China Sea”.  Strangely enough, Johnson didn’t bother to correct Ellwood.

Starmer’s parliamentary position was endorsed by Lisa Nandy in a Sky interview, that same day.  Whilst she reiterated the general stance of supporting the Tory government position,  Nandy did add to Starmer’s question about the tension between war-mongering and trading.  She said: “We have to take a far more strategic approach to how we manage that relationship and that involves working with our allies, which is why we welcome today’s announcement and we’d like to see the government go further”.

The luxury, or consolation, of opposition is to criticise the government without explaining your alternative.  Nothing in her interview suggested what Labour’s “more strategic approach” might entail.  After all, the Shadow Front Bench has endorsed the idea of China as a “systemic competitor”.  The Tories record levels of increased military spending and increasing nuke numbers is one possible strategic response to a competitor.  Having endorsed this expenditure, and its international furtherance in AUKUS, what really can Labour suggest as a more strategic approach?  Do not hold your breath in anticipation.

For the anti-war movement, and socialists inside Labour, AUKUS must be opposed. Locking Britain into decades of nuclear escalation in the Pacific is globally dangerous , hugely expensive and totally unnecessary.