From the moment of that strange press conference — Joe Biden flanked by two screens showing ScoMo and BoJo, for all the world looking like some performance art piece — it was pretty obvious that the new AUKUS alliance wasn’t really about the submarines.
No doubt that was what the Australian government wanted to lead with, at least for Australian domestic consumption — yet another chapter in our demented cargo cult about one class of ships, now running into its third decade. Since the early 2000s and the construction of the six Collins-class submarines, which still wheeze on in service, “submarines” have been a symbol of magical thinking about our defence needs and capabilities.
Submarines are intended as an auxiliary force to protect a navy proper and civilian shipping. Trouble is we have no navy proper. We have three destroyers and eight frigates, and after that it’s coastal craft. This is not a force that can defend a coastline such as ours. Thus the AUKUS boosters billed and cooed about the silent, deadly power of the nuclear-attack subs, these sleek beasts of the undersea, acknowledging, indeed celebrating, that their role would be well beyond our local waters as part of what is laughably being constructed as a defence against China, and is actually the encirclement of it. Our valiant subs would be an indispensable part of multinational defence, etc, etc…
Trouble is, this confrontation with China has also been constructed as occurring now. In the inevitable comparisons with World War II, we are being told we’re in the 1930s. And our first subs weren’t and aren’t going to arrive for 15 to 20 years — rather late for the rematch with Hitler/China.
Furthermore, the US has more than 50 attack-class subs and 18 nuclear-missile subs, and is committing 60% of its forces to the Indo-Pacific region. This notion of being a vital component by those plucky little fellas Down Under is all obvious spin.
No surprises who the spin is for either, as we explored last week. The DCNS French subs deal has been collapsing quietly, then more loudly, for some time. With $2 billion already spent on non-nuclear subs — nuclear boats refitted to run on diesel, body odour and cunnilingus, being French and all — and with suggestions the private contractor was gouging us on upgrades, cancellation of the deal had already been talked about.
Had such been done, the most likely course of action would have been to buy or lease subs the US or UK were upgrading, which could have been ready for service in years, not decades. But that of course would have raised the question as to why the Coalition had committed to the fantastically expensive and complex French deal in the first place. Now, instead, we’re talking defence, binding in the opposition and realigning the debate along a whole different axis. That is quite a win — unless it starts to look too clever by half.
The US and the UK were happy to let us have this angle, even though the AUKUS agreement, which of course no one outside the bubble has seen, is really about something quite other than territorial warfare per se. As the breathless leaders’ statement on it indicates, this is about the meshing and integration of high-tech development and deployment (robots, pilotless air- and sea-craft, cyber warfare, space warfare) in such a way that de facto materially abolishes the nation-state command division altogether. Questions of command that arise for olde-worlde forces like crewed submarines are the least of it.
It’s obvious that to work effectively in a conflict situation, the three or five or eight subs we had to contribute would need to be under US command as part of a larger force, no matter how that was dressed up. Still, some fig leaf of autonomy could be maintained. But with the more advanced forms of warfare that AUKUS has been designed for, that possibility disappears.
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There is a unified military process — you can’t sail your part of the code out of an ex-ally’s harbour; you might find you don’t even have actual command of your own ships or planes any more — that is not merely a new alliance, but which contemplates a wilful dissolution of national sovereignty under new conditions of geopolitics. Hopefully, hope to God indeed, our signatories understand this. But they probably don’t.
The nation-state, created in 1648 to achieve peace in Europe by granting a self-determining interiority to nations, cannot survive unaltered in the networked era, when the world-system from comms to transport is so radically borderless. But giving up the sovereignty that remains to a military alliance is only one way to respond to the new conditions, and it is the most craven.
Any alliance contemplating such a tech-meshing and integrating is thus going to need to be anchored by a mix of deep-shared interest and a commonality — or the appearance of such — that runs deeper. If you’re going to “share” tech at an ever-deeper level, then it obviously can’t be with an alliance such as “the Quad” — this ad hoc uniting of India, Japan, the US and the little fellas Down Under, in pursuit of, as we may have mentioned, encircling China.
Japan may eventually decide that it has no choice but to accommodate China; India and China may eventually form a grand alliance against the West, especially if they eventually decide it is in their interest to replace the US dollar with a new global reserve currency. The US won’t be sharing tech with them. But the three-way “special relationship” is made for such an enmeshing. Its actual grounding in shared ethnicity and cultural traditions is more branding than real; the US would conceivably bomb us if that would gain it some of our agricultural markets.
The US-UK Atlantic relationship has been bruised and battered by the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growing distrust of the US by many of the British public. Indeed, it looked as if Joe Biden — very pro-Irish and anti-Boris Johnson — was shaping up to be the least pro-UK president for quite a while. But was that some sort of double bluff while a more comprehensive deal was stitched up?
Biden’s desire for an alliance against China in pursuit of a return to “rules-based order” — heavily slanted in favour of the West — has been oft-expressed. The south must be ruled out. But so too, it would seem, must be the EU. Germany is still dependent on exports to China for its prosperity, and the Belt and Road Initiative is increasing China-EU trade at a cracking pace.
If the US doesn’t trust the EU regarding China, it would have a major interest in breaking any link between Australia and France, as the latter remains a Pacific power. It would have been ridiculous to mobilise NATO in the Indo-Pacific with the EU about to announce its own common defence plan. The US doesn’t want equals in its new alliance, but subordinates who look like equals. Australia has played that role for decades, knows it by heart. But the UK? Well, AUKUS from its end forms part of a new post-Brexit “global Britain” push. What could be more global than policing your old imperial waters? Does it actively want to do that? Maybe. Maybe not. But what it needs from the US is a free trade agreement.
Biden had said that the UK was at the back of the queue, especially if Brexit wrecked the “Good Friday agreement”. They may have just shuffled quite a bit further up it now. Thus AUKUS — contradictorily bound together by unspoken Anglo racial solidarity but also denying it, an alliance that is really a cover for the US to conduct itself in a way that would prove impossible to do in an actual alliance. And all in pursuit of a strategy that may amount to the US getting itself the best global settlement before it quits the hemisphere and accepts that it will have to, at best, share the century with Asia.
Which would leave Australian defence — which has a dubious interest at best at being in the South China Sea — like those cargo cult subs we’re forever waiting for: perpetually under construction, very high, very dry.