Despite AUKUS, a China-Australia relationship reset is possible

Originally published on November 15, 2021 in the South China Morning Post


In one respect, there is nothing surprising about AUKUS, the new security agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. These three countries trust each other, have shared values and similar institutions. They should be expected to cooperate on security matters, as they have for a century. In another respect, it is however surprising for Australia to buy nuclear-powered submarines, questionable on national defence grounds and unsettling for the region. To prevent a new arms race, we all need to pause and figure out how to ease tensions and build more trust in the neighbourhood.



The unremarkable thing about AUKUS is the traditional balance of power thinking that underlies it. The US has, since defeating Japan in 1945, believed that it must maintain a strong presence in the Pacific. Many countries in the region will continue to seek a US role in balancing other major powers. Australia has traditionally aligned itself with US strategy, assuming that if Australia was ever threatened, the US would defend it.


Any over-reaction by China to this unremarkable alliance of traditional partners would only reinforce their current China “threat” narratives. In Australia and the US, populist leaders in recent years have tended to hype the China “threat” to evoke external and internal enemies. China’s over-reaction to what it perceived as a series of Australian government provocations, but which were sometimes clumsy measures targeted at the domestic audience, simply deepened distrust. China’s subsequent trade sanctions have been as ineffective as US trade sanctions on the countries it seeks to influence. If such actions have driven Australia even deeper into US arms, it is surely time to re-evaluate.


China is capable of managing its relationship with Australia, just Australia is capable of managing relationships with both China and the US. A reset is possible in the future.


Despite its geography and its rich endowments, Australia has never developed a grand strategy for its own security and its role in the neighbourhood. It clutches instead to the apron strings of its traditional protectors, particularly when it feels threatened.


As Donald Horne observed more than half a century ago, Australia is a “lucky country” with generally mediocre leadership. Indeed, in the past decade, Australia has suffered a series of weak, rotating leaders. Australia has been incapable of finding answers to the big questions concerning its role in Asia, in addressing climate change and developing industries of the future, and even its long-term success in sustaining harmony in its multicultural society, which appears under stress because of the distrust being broadcast by populist figures.


It was not always this way, and may change again. When Australia has had strong and inclusive leadership, it has been a model of social and economic reform and has played an outsize role in the region. It played a visionary role in working with Asian neighbours to design the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, bring China into the World Trade Organization, make peace in Cambodia and Timor Leste, and welcome students from across the region to its world class universities. These examples remind us Australia has not always been as disengaged from its region as its current leadership appears to be.


The decision to invest in long-range nuclear submarines without any domestic nuclear industry makes Australia dependent on the US and UK - distant countries beyond the region - for decades to come. The decision certainly came out of the blue, with no strategic development process or adequate explanation. In this, the Morrison government resembles conservative governments of the past in their enthusiasm to commit to US adventurism in Vietnam and Iraq.


However it is not certain Australia will proceed with a technology for which it has no sovereign capability. The nuclear submarine announcement could prove to be more about geopolitical posturing than anything else. Future governments will have to consider a wider range of strategic considerations demanding attention for Australia’s security. For a start, Australia would be well advised to focus the Southwest Pacific, where it has undermined relationships because of its stubborn, politicized approach to climate change, and on maintaining peace in Southeast Asia, where Australia should have natural partners if it did not keep snubbing its neighbours. The responses of Indonesia and Malaysia to AUKUS demonstrate Australia has some fence-mending to do.


The Asia Pacific region meanwhile is where a new world order is emerging. Asia is the new hub of the international economy and that will result in more evenly distributed power in the global system. This shift to a multipolar world understandably upsets the US and UK. But must the Asian century generate so much anxiety in Australia? For decades, strong leaders on both sides of Australian politics recognised that the Asian century brings wealth and opportunities to Australia.


Australia and China have strong mutual interests in many fields. Both benefit from trade, investment and people-to-people ties. Even if elements of Australia’s leadership continue to be vocal protagonists for the US-UK view of the world, China is capable of accommodating such a reality. After all, China has long argued for non-interference in other nations and a multipolar world order. Even if Australia becomes more self-confident and self-reliant, there are likely to always be different perspectives on security matters. That’s all the more reason we must take a breath, develop pragmatic confidence-building measures and broaden areas of cooperation to keep the peace, if we are to enjoy a prosperous future.


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