AUKUS Signals Long-Awaited Pivot From Middle East to China

Too little, too late?

This week the Biden administration, together with leaders from the UK and Australia, announced the creation of a new strategic deterrence partnership called AUKUS to offset the increased aggression from communist China in the Indo-Pacific.

The deal includes the US sharing nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia, something we’ve only previously shared with the U.K. Relations between Australia and China have devolved to a low point, with the communist party’s state media referring to Australia as the “chewing gum on the sole of China’s shoe.”

China wants to lead the world but can’t force the smaller Australia to bend the knee. No sooner had the two countries signed a free trade agreement in 2015 then did Australia have regrets. Australian leaders were unnerved by China’s attempts to buy favor for its policies in Australian elections. Several Australian leaders criticized China’s aggression in the South China Sea, and China’s construction of bases on their man-made islands so as to lay claim to the entirety of the waterway, posing a threat to Australia’s shipping industry and trade. When former Australia PM Malcolm Turnbull aligned with the Trump admin and banned China’s telecom giant Huawei and later raised questions about Beijing’s involvement with the development and release of the Wuhan coronavirus, the CCP responded with fury, declaring an economic attack on Australia by implementing tariffs and and export restrictions.

Even with this China still lacked the advantage against its smaller neighbor as Australia is one of the few countries in the world that exports more than it imports to China. China published a list of its grievances against Australia and, in an incredibly rich stroke of irony considering the Uyghur detentions, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted the image of an Australian soldier holding a knife against an Afghan child’s throat as a troll for war crimes discussed in the Brereton Report. Zhao was roundly condemned, even by New Zealand, while Russia predictably came to China’s defense. China even sent spy ships to Australia as part of their intimidation campaign.

While some have called what’s happening with Australia as the canary in the coal mine, it’s worth noting again that Australia is mostly unbothered by China’s aggression; it exports more to China than it imports, and over have of those exports are iron ore. China needs this too much to inflict further penalty. China’s dependency on the world’s consumption is the protection. Their economy isn’t doing very well.

Stopping trade is impractical (and especially aggressive when, if we’re trying to avoid conflict, de-escalation is key to avoiding armed hostilities), especially when the U.S. and other nations aren’t able to replace the antibiotics and rare earth elements from China. The new AUKUS initiative is a move to further counter CCP aggression with shared military capabilities.

Of course, not everyone is happy with AUKUS. A keystone of the initiative has upset relations with New Zealand and France.

New Zealand of late has weakened its resolve against communist Chinese aggression; PM Jacinda Arden was blasted in the press for prioritizing cheap product from China over her commitment to the Five Eyes intelligence network created as an alliance against the ever-bellicose CCP. She and New Zealand’s parliament refused to condemn as genocide China’s continued extermination of the Uygurs. New Zealand also refused to condemn China’s increased aggression in the South China Sea. Because they have distanced themselves from the Five Eyes network, it’s not surprising that New Zealand was not approached for inclusion in AUKUS, which is more focused on military capability. This also means that Australia’s forthcoming nuclear-propulsion submarines would be banned from New Zealand’s waters under an agreement from the 80s:

Since the mid-1980s, New Zealand has had a strict policy keeping its territorial sea, land and airspace as nuclear-free zones. The policy, made partly in solidarity with Pacific islands suffering the fallout of nuclear testing, created a rift with the United States, which suspended its obligations to New Zealand under the Anzus treaty.

[…]

The pact does not include Canada, the other Five Eyes partner, either. In recent years, Canada and New Zealand have had similarities in their orientation toward Beijing – condemning human rights breaches on specific issues in a case-by-case way, but avoiding strong statements on the country more broadly.

France is angry because the pact cost them $66 billion dollar contract to built 12 submarines for Australia, with France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian telling French press that it was a “stab in the back.

"We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed," Mr Le Drian said.

It’s worth noting that France has struggled to fulfill its deal with Australia:

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has had “candid” discussions with President Emmanuel Macron over delays and cost overruns in his government’s deal with France’s Naval Group SA to build a new fleet of submarines.

[…]

While Australia’s deal with Naval in 2016 to build 12 Attack-class submarines was initially estimated to be worth A$50 billion ($38 billion), Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute said in November the cost to the government is now at least A$89 billion. With the first of the new submarines not expected to be delivered until about 2035, and the last in 2050, there’s concern among defense strategists there will be a years-long dearth in Australia’s naval capability at a time when tensions in the Indo-Pacific region are expected to increase.

Australia can’t risk its own national security against increased threats and aggression from communist China because France can’t deliver on time and on budget. British PM Boris Johnson downplayed any erosion of relations between the countries.

AUKUS is a long-awaited pivot away from the Middle East (time will tell if it’s a successful one) — but whether it’s too little, too late remains to be seen. China’s imperialist goals and anticipated move on Taiwan is viewed not as an “if,” but a “when.” In order to avoid another war that none of us want, projecting peace through strength is key.

*Edited to add: Interesting point from listener/reader Jason: “I would be careful how far in bed with Australia you want the US to go, now that the Australian government has become tyrannical with the lockdowns and passports. Unless, the US government has similar future aspirations and doesn’t see this as a problem?” True — but for now we should separate that issue from the geopolitical matter at hand unless this becomes an obstacle to the initiative’s objective.