PFormer minister Anthony Albanese is set to commit Australia to the biggest national industrial redevelopment project since the Snowy Hydro power project and the British-Australian nuclear weapons research collaboration in the years 1950.
The project involves considerable risks. Covering three nations (each with multiple jurisdictions) over two decades or more, including the governments of multiple presidents and prime ministers in three countries. It seems inconceivably difficult on some level – without the galvanizing effects of:
the rise of an increasingly authoritarian and confrontational China;
the fallout from Brexit, which has helped British government officials find new trading partners in the Indo-Pacific and new ways to validate the “special relationship” with the United States;
advanced artificial intelligence, persistent satellite surveillance and drones, which make it much easier to detect diesel-electric submarines traveling long distances (thus making existing Australian submarines more vulnerable and less stealthy).
The project risks consuming vast resources and distracting the Australian Government and its Aukus partners from addressing pressing environmental and governance issues in the Pacific and beyond.
Australia, which has long struggled to reconcile its history (with its Anglospheric leanings) with its geography (a sparsely populated island continent on the edge of Asia), has shown signs of wanting to be on good terms with the ‘South East Asia. and its Pacific neighbors, but Aukus leaves less bandwidth for governments to address these issues.
Recruitment, training and retention of a workforce with specialist skills in the nuclear sciences (including physics and engineering), coupled with a significant expansion of skilled trades, will expand the capacity of the sector of Australian education already taxed.
After spending decades moving from just-in-case to just-in-time supply chains, Australia today is less resilient than most realize. Existing capabilities exist to threaten and disrupt Australia’s many supply chain vulnerabilities. The nuclear-powered submarine complicates a potential adversary’s planning options knowing that he could not act with impunity.
Australia has long been afraid of abandonment.
In the first half of the 20th century, Australia relied on British martial prowess to supplement its own military forces (not without consequence), and from 1942 relied more heavily on the United States. In the 72 years since the signing of the Anzus Treaty in 1951 (itself only an 800-word essay devoid of mutual security guarantees), the ties that bind have deepened and widened.
For a boutique defense force like Australia’s, which proudly insists on its sovereignty, militarily it has become increasingly intertwined and dependent on US systems – ironically enough in order to reinforce its own self-reliance.
Beyond this already fairly dependent level of integration with US forces and systems, Albanese has strenuously asserted that the acquisition of the Aukus submarine will not dilute Australian sovereignty.
The math is that in the face of sanctions, wolf-warrior diplomacy, an increasingly authoritarian and pushy China that has expanded its land, sea, air, cyber, space and strategic missile forces at an alarming rate, caution dictates cautious public engagement and a tougher approach – speaking softer and carrying a bigger stick.
Some critics suggest that the United States will eventually leave the Pacific or be expelled, so we must be careful before doubling down on our security ties. But its geographic presence is not ephemeral and its friends want it to be maintained more than ever.
Others point to domestic political uncertainty in the United States. But even Trump as president doubled down on his alliance with Australia and made a concerted effort to reduce the prospect of war, including on the Korean peninsula.
The view that America should back down defies the will of many in the region (notably Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and many (albeit more discreet) in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. On the contrary , Aukus seems ready to provide greater resolve to remain engaged in Australia’s neighborhood.
Critics also suggest that the submarines will only heighten tensions. I do not agree. If treated with discretion and with neighbors treated with respect and as informed as possible, the new arrangements should enhance security and stability in the region, not undermine them.
Weakness invites adventurism, they say. This high-stakes, high-risk plan aims to reduce the prospect of adventurism.
Others say we will be drawn into a war for Taiwan. But what we want is the maintenance of the status quo, not reversed. And it’s not just us. While most regional neighbors are reluctant to say so publicly, privately they want the American presence to continue and the status quo to continue. The best way to ensure that, in the face of a more assertive and more muscular China, it seems, is to muscle up in response.
Some would respond by saying that the United States cannot be trusted. Look at Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. They miss today’s changing dynamics.
American strategists have a lucid appreciation of the diminishing American marital prowess and the high risk of failure in any Indo-Pacific confrontation.
The unduly arrogant confidence of 2003 and 2011 is a thing of the past. In my opinion, chastened Americans can be trusted to do the right thing, after “trying everything else,” as Winston Churchill once said.