by Aris Roussinos
Friday, 17
September 2021

AUKUS is a risky bet on American hegemony

How confident should Australia and the UK be that US dominance will last?
by Aris Roussinos
Joe Biden (c) with Boris Johnson (R) and Scott Morrison (L). Credit: Getty

The announcement of the new Pacific AUKUS security triad has naturally given rise to a great deal of technical speculation: on whether the Australians will choose a British or American SSN design, what degree of nuclear infrastructure the Australians will acquire, and what timeframe the partnership will take to materalise. Fundamentally, though, the AUKUS alliance is a political one: a statement not just of Australia’s desire to maintain its autonomy in the face of China — by far its largest single trading partner — but also of its commitment to an American-led international order.

The United States is the greatest single beneficiary of the announcement, in that AUKUS is a major vote of confidence in its ability to win the coming challenge. It is, as a senior Biden administration official announced:

Designed not only to strengthen our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific but to link Europe, and particularly Great Britain, more closely with our strategic pursuits in the region as a whole… a fundamental decision — fundamental — that binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations.
- White House Official

Whether or not binding yourself to the US will pay off in the long term is another question. As veteran Australian strategist Allan Gyngell observes: “the agreement is a big Australian bet on the future of the United States, and at a more uncertain time in American politics than at almost any point in the history of the alliance,” in which “American expectations of Australian support in almost any contingency, whether it involves China or not, will grow.” As he notes, Australia’s PM Scott Morrison asserts that “This is a “forever partnership”… assuming a perpetual alignment of interests between our three countries and forgetting chunks of Australian diplomatic history,” when “even America’s “forever wars” lasted only 20 years.”

As Australian defence analyst Sam Roggeveen suggests elsewhere,

Australia is gambling that, over the 30- or 40-year lifetime of this submarine fleet, our interests will remain solidly aligned with those of the United States… we don’t know is exactly what limits Washington plans to set on China’s ambitions. Is the US prepared to live with a much bigger and more powerful China, and effectively share leadership? Or is the US preparing for a long contest for dominance? If it’s the latter, then Australia has just signed on to a closer military partnership that increases the prospect of war between the US and China. And as China’s military modernisation accelerates, it becomes increasingly clear that this is a war the US would lose.
- Sam Roggeveen

The outcome of a potential conflict is not predetermined: perhaps China will shrink from open confrontation, and even if it doesn’t, America could potentially emerge victorious from the contest.

But in either case, it would be reassuring to know what exactly Britain is committing itself to in the Pacific: there is a strong moral and political case for committing ourselves to Australia’s defence, whatever the risks involved. Taking on a subordinate role in defending America’s increasingly contested military hegemony in the wider region is another matter entirely, especially when there is little clarity from the United States over whether or not it intends to defend Taiwan.

These questions are unanswered in Washington, let alone Canberra or London. Before signing open-ended commitments to unknown goals, we should demand some clarity from the government over what we are committing ourselves to, and what precisely our desired aims are.

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  • This is a conflict where we cannot afford to see the US lose. As one American once told his European counterpart during the Cold War: “If you think we’re bastards, wait till you see the next lot.”

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