Aukus’ real threat to Asean is not nuclear-powered submarines, but dreams of Western empire
- Contrary to regional concerns, the US and UK helping Australia build nuclear-powered submarines does not pose a material threat
- What is dangerous, amid US, UK and European naval operations in the South China Sea, is the imperial longing that drives Aukus
It reflected Australia’s desire to see imperial re-engagement with the region. It supported the dreams of empire favoured by then UK prime minister Boris Johnson. It slotted comfortably into US President Joe Biden’s hegemonic narrative which interprets the global rules-based order as an instrument of American foreign policy.
There is no question that Aukus aims to upset this balance and several countries see this as a first step towards a broader nuclear capability. In its submission to the United Nations review of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Indonesia formally raised its concern that the sharing of nuclear technology for military purposes could lead to the “emergence of new types of weapons of mass destructions derived from the combination of nuclear materials and conventional weapons”.
Malaysia has expressed disquiet at multiple levels, with both the prime minister and foreign minister raising concerns that Aukus could “potentially spark tension among the world superpowers, and aggravate aggression between them in the region”.
It remains an open question as to how significant this submarine threat really is. Delivery of any new submarine to Australia is not expected to commence, by some estimates, until 2040. The suggestion that the US might build off-the-rack boats for Australia has been dismissed as impossible. The US Navy is years behind in its schedule of repairs and maintenance, let alone the construction of new submarines for its own fleet. Any supply to Australia for Aukus is simply out of the question.
It seems that the submarine deal may be more of a red herring than something that should concern the region. With the first delivery not expected until 2040, there is every possibility that, by then, the strategic and military environment will have made the submarines irrelevant.
The importance of Aukus lies in its revanchist longing for an imperial order that is long past its glory days and has been comprehensively rejected in the region. This is the more insidious area of concern and it has become more concrete in recent weeks.
Northern Australia hosted the biennial air force exercise Pitch Black, which ended this month. While it was not an Aukus affair, the exercise involved air forces from the US and the UK. In addition, with Germany taking part in and sending fighter jets to the exercise for the first time, one could be forgiven for suspecting that a Western imperium was reassembling after the end of World War II.
Pitch Black has been quickly followed by Exercise Kakadu, to which Australia invited navies from more than 20 countries. While the exercise was originally conceptualised in the spirit of constructive diplomacy, gone are the days when China could be included as it was in 2018.
Yet, deafened by their own echo chambers, the Aukus partners cherry-pick lukewarm comments of support from the region and ignore any opposition.
Aukus makes no secret of its desire to counter Chinese influence in the Asean region. The agreement has been characterised as a paper tiger and this remains very much the case in terms of submarine capability.
However, Aukus is a stalking horse for those who look back fondly at Western domination of the region, either as part of an empire or a hegemonic imperium. It is the danger inherent in this kind of thinking that poses the real threat to the region and to the development of a rules-based solution to instability. On the first anniversary of the announcement, Aukus remains an awkward instrument, being neither defence treaty nor trade agreement.
Daryl Guppy is an international financial technical analysis expert and a national board member of the Australia China Business Council. The views expressed here are his own.