The AUKUS pact turns a half-century of foreign policy on its head. Fifty years of ‘multilateralist’ fantasies about Australia’s role in the world, beginning with opposition leader Gough Whitlam’s visit to China in July 1971, have just been jettisoned. Our new trilateral military alliance with the United States and the United Kingdom, declares Scott Morrison, gives us a ‘seat at the top table of diplomacy’. At any rate, AUKUS cannot possibly be worse than fifty long years of delusion.
A valid criticism of the new trilateral partnership, and we could add in here the Quad partnership, is that it has come too late in the piece. Our eight nuclear-powered Virginia Class submarines will not be battle-ready for years. Meanwhile, the PLA Navy, according to Admiral Charles Reid, Commander of US Strategic Command, is undergoing an ‘explosive growth and modernisation of its nuclear and conventional forces’. Reid claims that ‘breathtaking’ may not be strong enough to convey the scale of China’s strategic nuclear expansion.
Nevertheless, AUKUS is fundamental to our future. Australia is now locked into an alliance that will put us at the cutting edge of not just submarine warfare but artificial intelligence (AI), cybersecurity and every other kind of military and technological capability. There is also the possibility, as Tom Lewis has written, of taking possession of America’s surplus nuclear-powered submarines in the interim. The bottom line is that if China’s strategic breakout goes unchecked, not just Australia but the USA, UK, Japan, India and the entire world will eventually go the way of Hong Kong. We will be leveraged by Beijing all the way to Doomsday.
Certainly, Helmsman Xi is going for broke. A report compiled by Judith Bergman indicates that nearly 300 new launching sites for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are currently under construction throughout China, while his submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) might soon ‘effectively counter the US threat’. Additionally, China’s next generation nuclear-powered submarine, the 096 Class, is expected to ‘carry up to 24 JL-3 missiles’. Game on.
Anthony Albanese has signalled his ‘conditional’ support for AUKUS and our prospective nuclear-powered submarines, but will he carry the party with him? From an electoral point of view, at least, supporting Morrison’s initiative makes sense. Latest polling shows that most Australians now realise we are in genuine danger of being forced to kowtow – one way or another – to Beijing. The communist regime’s trade war against us made that clear enough. The problem for Labor, however, is that many of its leading lights (past and present) remain committed to Whitlam’s China legacy. Senator Wong, shadow minister for foreign affairs, is a case in point.
In recent days, she has not only expressed her concern about the treatment of France because of the abruptness and secrecy of the termination of the Naval Group’s $90 billion diesel-electric submarine project, but Senator Wong has also been keen to assert that Labor cannot endorse a RAN submarine fleet armed with nuclear weapons, even though this a total non-issue. The point of our (eventual) nuclear-powered attack submarines will be to constrain PLA Navy nuclear-armed submarines.
Wong’s critique suggests a reluctance to yield to the reality that Whitlam’s ‘multilateralist’ foreign policy vision is literally dead in the water. As recently as July this year, Wong was waxing lyrical about the significance of Whitlam’s walk on the wild side – or, at any rate, walk on the Great Wall. Apparently, it gave us ‘agency’. Whitlam’s China initiative, according to the Wong narrative, began ‘a decisive shift in Australia’s world view, putting our region at the centre, alongside the multilateralism championed a generation earlier by Doc Evatt’.
Wong, in her appraisal of Whitlam, is careful to note that Whitlam’s China initiative did not revoke Australia’s ‘alliance with the United States’ as our ‘central strategic relationship’. Nonetheless, Wong’s account is just another instalment of the customary Labor tale: the visionary Gough Whitlam rescued Australia from the tyranny of distance – our dependence on the UK and subsequently the USA – by embracing the proximity of China, Indonesia and so forth. Thus, Mao was transformed overnight from a totalitarian monster into an historical icon and Suharto given the green light to annex East Timor.
Ex-PM Paul Keating has championed and advanced the Whitlam myth as much as any other (former) political leader. He truly believed that mutual self-interest in the Indo-Pacific region could override the traditional geopolitics of a country like China. Keating’s error might best be explained as a case of unalloyed cynicism matched only by his astonishing naivety. As recently as November 2019, for instance, Keating was upbraiding the media for being ‘recreant’ in its petty criticisms of Beijing and failure to grasp the ‘bigger picture’. Now, drifting further and further from the shores of reality, Keating lambasts AUKUS as a diminishment of Australia’s ‘autonomy’.
Modern-day Labor, at this historical juncture, has one or other of two very different foreign policy traditions on which to draw. In the first instance there is the Evatt-Whitlam vision of an ideal world in which the security of our underpopulated continent-nation is ensured by the ‘multilateralism’ of active membership in the United Nations and downplaying our British heritage and American connections. Alternatively, Labor could revert to the kind of enlightened patriotism that – with a little help from our friends – characterised the John Curtin era during the second world war.
Given that Australia is now confronted by Beijing’s version of Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the choice ought to be a no-brainer. Ex-PM Rudd’s recent opinion piece for Le Monde newspaper, where he explicitly preferences the sensitivities of the French over the security of his own nation, might have been regarded as an outlier – except for the fact his views parallel, albeit less brazenly, the sentiments of Senator Wong.
The way forward for Labor, if it hopes to win the 2022 federal election, is to give the Evatt-Whitlam legacy the heave-ho. Labor could do worse than revisit, with adaptions, John Curtin’s famous 1941 Task Ahead speech: ‘Without any inhibitions of any kind, Australia looks to America and the United Kingdom…. I demand that Australians everywhere realise that Australia is now inside the firing lines’.
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