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The Trouble with AUKUS
An arrangement that is meant to solidify the alliance with the U.S. could very well end up straining and damaging it a decade or two from now.
The AUKUS deal for nuclear-powered submarines has come under a lot of fire in Australia this week:
Ex-Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating condemned the center-left Labor government’s deal with the US and UK to obtain nuclear submarines, saying the nation’s military sovereignty was being surrendered to the “whim and caprice” of Washington.
Criticism of AUKUS in Australia has been steadily growing, and it’s not surprising that there would be significant resistance to a major policy commitment that was made with so little deliberation beforehand. It is an expensive, decades-long commitment with substantial implications for Australia’s relations with all its Asian neighbors, and it is questionable whether there is enough of a political consensus behind it to keep it going. The massive price that Australia will have to pay for these submarines raises obvious questions of whether this is a wise and efficient use of their resources. The New York Times reports:
Although the AUKUS agreement was announced a year ago, the current debate has in part been sparked by the revelation that the deal is projected to cost $246 billion (368 billion Australian dollars) over the next three decades, said James Curran, a professor of Australian-U.S. history at the University of Sydney. That hefty price tag effectively asks whether China’s threat to Australia is worth that much money, he said — and the answer is unclear.
As I look at it, it seems to be a very big gamble that the Chinese threat to Australia is much greater than it really is, and they will be paying a steep price to guard against an exaggerated danger. There may be agreement between the major parties right now, but that could easily break down if the costs come to be seen as outpacing potential benefits. An arrangement that is meant to solidify the alliance with the U.S. could very well end up straining and damaging it a decade or two from now.
As today’s NYT report also notes, the Albanese government hasn’t done much in the way of assessing the downsides or how they might be managed:
Questions of cost, how to handle nuclear waste, and the potential pitfalls and delays the project might encounter were not discussed publicly by the government prior to the announcement on Monday, Professor Curran said, on the unspoken premise that any cost would be justified by the national security that would be provided.
Some of the other potential pitfalls of this arrangement concern Australia’s relations with its neighbors. Indonesia and Malaysia have both expressed strong reservations about the deal in the past and fear that it will further fuel regional arms racing. The Australian government will likely have to keep doing damage control with these countries for some time. The Chinese government is predictably angry with a deal that is squarely aimed at containing them, and that risks causing more deterioration in relations between Australia and China. There is also a legitimate concern in Australia that they will end up being too closely tied to the U.S. and that the arrangement compromises their ability to pursue their own independent interests.
On the U.S. side, there is remarkably little dissent on AUKUS, but it should greatly trouble us that this arrangement reinforces the unbalanced “military-first” approach to the Asia-Pacific that the U.S. has had for many years. As Van Jackson put it in 2021:
Mobilizing more military hardware, stationing U.S. forces closer to opponents, and spurring weapons proliferation among allies only makes the region more of a powder keg.
AUKUS does all of these things, and that is why it needs to be scrutinized much more carefully on both sides of the Pacific than it has been.