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AUKUS Will Fuel Arms Race and is Bad for Southeast Asia

Jan 05, 2024
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Former Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

On December 22, U.S. President Joe Biden officially signed the National Defense Authorization Act, after congress reached a compromise on the military spending bill the week prior, enabling the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia under the AUKUS agreement, a trilateral security pact among Australia, Great Britain, and the U.S. signed in 2021. This development is poised to reshape the defense landscape in the Asia-Pacific region for years to come. 

Richard Marles, the Australian Minister for Defense, says that AUKUS would create a "seamless defense industrial base" between Australia and the United States. 

At US$244 billion spread over 30 years, this is the most expensive military project ever undertaken by Australia, which will be initiated by the sale of three nuclear powered submarines to Canberra. Following this delivery, the nuclear propulsion technology will be shared with Australia along with developing a new class of submarines, which will be built in Britain and in Australia.  

Understandably, Beijing, while conceding Australia’s right to form partnerships or alliances with other countries, believes AUKUS directly threatens China’s national interests and thus undermines peace in the region. AUKUS members reject this claim. 

In addition to the submarines, the pact focuses on developing advanced capabilities such as long-range precision firing, artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons, according to an AFP report. 

Australia could be a testing ground for U.S. hypersonic and other long-range precision weapons under the AUKUS alliance, according to the U.S. Army Secretary, which reinforces the view that AUKUS is indeed a pact to counter China’s growing clout in the Asia-Pacific region. 

But why Australia for long range missile testing? This is primarily because the country has a tremendous amount of territory where that testing is a “little bit more doable,” according to the U.S. Army Secretary. This is reminiscent of Britain using the vast space in Maralinga (Western Australia) during the mid-1950’s for nuclear testing that resulted in countless aborigine deaths due to radiation, according to the McClelland Royal Commission 1984-1985. 

Generally, pacifist Australia’s Labor Party has historically been anti-nuclear and anti-war. With this, it is puzzling how quickly the Labor Party adopted the AUKUS deal, originally signed by the liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Australian liberals are actually what most countries consider conservative). Both he and his successor Labor Prime Minister are widely criticized for committing approximately US$237 of the taxpayer’s money without much parliamentary or public consultation. 

Opposition within the Labor grass roots has been building for months, which forced a debate at the Party’s triennial conference in August that demonstrated a much deeper disapproval of the AUKUS alliance within the party. Deterrence, critics of AUKUS claim, is not a one-word justification for every military position. Key architect of U.S. strategy in the region and Biden’s nominee for the U.S. Deputy Secretary State, Kurt Campbell, remarked that submarines provided to Australia “are not lost,” worrying many in the Labor Party over potential compromise of their sovereignty. 

The Labor’s common members believe that leadership has shifted focus from Australia’s defense to defending American strategic and commercial interests. It is considered a detraction from Labor values, traditionally seen in the party’s commitment towards peacebuilding and “skepticism of U.S. militarism.” 

More than 100 university academics penned an open letter decrying AUKUS - “the government has not made clear how AUKUS will translate into a safer Australia,” the letter said. 

On the regional level, after being seen for years as America’s deputy, Australia is trying under Labor, as it usually does, to emphasize Australia’s regional engagement. Despite clear anti-China undertones of AUKUS Penny Wong, the Malaysia-born foreign minister, traveled to Beijing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.   

A former Australian diplomat, Jocelyn Chey, who has worked in China, admitted that “Canberra’s decision-making had long been primarily informed by Washington’s views.” The AUKUS deal, she adds, has finally confirmed that it (Australia) does not see itself primarily as a member or partner of the Indo-Pacific region. “I see an Australia that has reaffirmed its primary interests and affiliations are primarily with the U.S. and the Anglosphere,” said Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to Beijing. 

Within the region, though, Malaysia and Indonesia are the most vocal expressing AUKUS concerns and cautioning about the consequent arms race. The pact is viewed in the context of American military buildup in the region to counter China. Much of academia in New Zealand also thinks Canberra is close to the U.S., and AUKUS has confirmed the strength of its alliance with Washington. The only open support of AUKUS as a means of maintaining peace has come from the Philippines, who believe China is pushing them away from their territory in the South China Sea. The Philippines’ recent military collaboration with the U.S. is riling up its dispute with China, as it embraces U.S. military strategy and partnership in the region. 

The Australian psyche is tied to its Anglo-Saxon origins and unless it rethinks its lack of independence from its racial interests, it will not be able to become a trusted partner for the Asia-Pacific nations. The rhetoric of “great competition” in Southeast Asia, based on a presumed China threat, fuels populist politicking, further isolating Australia from the region. Southeast Asia “does not see China as a competitor,” according to the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. It would not “split between two camps,” he adds, amid the China-U.S. rivalry. The AUKUS partners should leave it at that. 

The region needs economic engagement, and not military involvement.  

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