The AUKUS Agreement: the Costs and Benefits

The AUKUS Agreement: the Costs and Benefits

Emmanuel Macron is still voicing his incredulity about the Australian government withdrawing from an agreement to purchase French-designed and co-build submarines and instead enter into the AUKUS agreement where the US and UK will provide Australia – at considerable expense – eight nuclear-powered submarines.


This week Marcon claimed that AUKUS has brought Australia into a ‘nuclear confrontation’ with China while becoming ‘completely dependent’ on the US and the UK to deliver and maintain nuclear-powered submarines. He even suggested it was not too late for the new Australian Labor Party government to return to the French submarines and forget about acquiring nuclear-powered ones because ‘AUKUS will not deliver’ for Australia. 

Australian critics of AUKUS have expressed similar concerns. Hugh White, in a recently widely discussed essay, Sleepwalk to War, presents the case for Australia taking a more accommodating position to China’s rise from a hardnosed power politics realist perspective. White, a former senior public servant in the Department of Defence and a senior advisor for the Hawke and Keating Labor governments and the conservative Howard government, writes with verve and clarity about Australia’s “China choice,” as he has called it elsewhere. Although I do not entirely agree with White’s worldview or conclusions on where Australian China policy should head, I recommend his essay to anyone interested in AUKUS or the future of an independent Taiwan. 

White, who has long argued for a “defence of Australia” oriented security policy, contends that acquiring nuclear-powered submarines from the US and the UK is unnecessarily provocative towards China because these are offensive rather than defensive weapons. Instead, White believes Australia needs more conventionally powered submarines to defend the Australian coastline. What nuclear-powered submarines will particularly excel at – because they do not need to be regularly refuelled – is long-distance missions, which will be ideal for supporting US military efforts to contain China. For supporters of Australia acquiring nuclear submarines, the deterrence impact on Chinese intentions over Taiwan is central to why the AUKUS announcement and the eventual building of nuclear-powered submarines justifies the geopolitical risks involved and the huge expense to Australia. 

Under the AUKUS Umbrella: Australia-US Relations in the Shadow of China’s Rise

Although I am an AUKUS skeptic, if the submarines were to guarantee the future of an independent Taiwan, I would argue for more progressive tax policies in Australia to be able to afford these weapons (recent expert estimates put the cost of eight nuclear-powered submarines as between $116-171 billion, which at the top end of this range is four times the annual Australian defence budget). However, as White convincingly argues, Australia having nuclear-powered submarines in the late 2030s or 2040s is unlikely to deter Chinese ambitions over Taiwan because of China’s asymmetrical will and resolve regarding Taiwan compared with Taiwan’s “allies” and supporters like the US and Australia.

In short, Australia’s resolve to defend Taiwan will never match China’s resolve to take back Taiwan. I hesitated for a minute to write “take back” as it implies Taiwan is part of China, but it once was, just as Australia and Hong Kong were also once part of the British Empire and the idea they should be taken back is rightly considered wrong. Where I think Hugh White is wrong is his implication that America and Australia should adopt an accommodationist position on Taiwan. Signalling this could be perilous to Taiwan. The status quo of strategic ambiguity needs to be maintained as long as feasibly possible by the US and Australia in the hope that Chinese policy toward taking back Taiwan will change. Although it does not look the case after the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party reaffirmed Xi Jinping’s ongoing leadership, experts on China often suggest things are not as stable and fixed as Western reporting on Xi Jinping’s leadership projects. With all of this in mind, does the AUKUS agreement buy Taiwan time? No one can answer that question without a crystal ball that works. 

What is generally agreed upon is that AUKUS ties Australia more closely to the US militarily. This is concerning as it means Australian sovereignty and independent decision-making capacity could be compromised. The apparent appeal of AUKUS to the US is that it is a sign that Australia has clearly chosen the US over China, while being a constraint on Australian defence and foreign policy independence from the U.S.This interpretation has been confirmed by former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who recently wrote that: ‘One of the leading figures in the US administration intimately involved in the AUKUS negotiations have been reported in Europe as having justified the deal as “getting the Australians off the fence. We have them locked in now for the next forty years.”‘ If one closely examines the actions and statements of Australia’s leading political parties – the Liberal, National and Labor parties – this sense that Australia was ‘on the fence’ is hard to understand. It reflects the attention that American officials have paid to commentators like Hugh White and former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who are very critical of Australia’s security relationship with the US, even though these commentators have little influence on the leading figures in the parliamentary Liberal or Labor parties. Australia’s politicians chose America well before the recent AUKUS agreement. 

Australia’s resolve to defend Taiwan will never match China’s resolve to take back Taiwan.

On the sovereignty-restraining potential of the nuclear-powered submarines, Allan Gyngell, the former head of Australia’s foremost intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, has written: ‘they have one large strike against them. We cannot operate them alone. The capability they provide is only available to us if we cede a degree – quite a high degree in this case – of Australian sovereignty.’ Gyngell said this would lead to even ‘deeper operational integration with the United States’ and give the US a “veto” over Australia’s ‘most expensive and powerful defence asset.’ Malcolm Turnbull has similarly contended: ‘As Australia has no nuclear industry, let alone any ability to maintain or sustain a naval nuclear propulsion system, the submarines could not be safely operated other than under the supervision of the US Navy. This means an abandonment of Australian sovereignty’.

The costs, the geostrategic risks involved and the sovereignty-restraining aspects of AUKUS all mean that Australia needs a more reliable US ally than ever. One that is committed to liberal democratic values abroad and at home. Only the most overly optimistic reading of US politics could conclude that liberal democratic norms and values are respected and supported by most leading figures within the Republican Party. 185 Republicans that have claimed Joe Biden stole the 2020 election are projected to win their mid-term races. The number of Republican voters that believe Biden is an illegitimate president and think that violence ‘can at times be justified’ is alarmingly high. Then there is the return of Donald Trump to the campaign trail. The political environment in America will likely make a nuanced debate over China and Taiwan policy tough to achieve soon. Given this febrile politics in the US and the constant use of disinformation, reckless exaggerations and conspiracy theories by Republicans like Trump, Australia should be taking a more cautious approach to its defence policies with the US. 

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