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AUKUS sceptics are missing the point

Posted By and on November 6, 2023 @ 13:00

The wars raging in Europe and the Middle East remind us that conflicts erupt suddenly. It’s a point that some AUKUS critics have seized on to say Australia and its partners are not making sufficient progress to be battle-ready in the Indo-Pacific.

Certainly, we need urgent investment to increase our military preparedness. But this fact doesn’t reflect badly on AUKUS.

AUKUS is about a longer game. Sceptics who are already declaring the partnership a failure because it won’t deliver nuclear-propelled submarines for decades, and therefore will produce no military or strategic returns in a useful timeframe, are missing the point.

This was always about much more than filling a single or immediate capability gap. It is about giving us the best chance to deter aggression, now and in the future, and therefore prevent a war with the Indo-Pacific’s major strategic challenge, China.

Deterrence relies on having strong capabilities, but also on credibility. Intent matters and it was missing, for example, in Europe before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. AUKUS, even in its nascent stage, is the clearest signal that the three countries are resolved, and working together, to meet the China challenge.

With the right political and industrial support, and the necessary resources, AUKUS shows Beijing that we are collaborating on security-related technologies such as quantum, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems that will be decisive in the strategic competition defining our period and the decades ahead.

By turbocharging the advantages inherent in our market-based innovation culture, we will be best positioned to offset China’s massive technology push supported by military spending.

Even by the historical standards of geostrategic competition, this current intense period is marked by an unprecedented convergence of economics and security. Implemented effectively, AUKUS demonstrates the intent that underpins the capability and credibility necessary to deter war and deny Beijing any benefit from starting one.

Projecting this intent, Defence Minister Richard Marles met his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in Washington last week following Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit with President Joe Biden the week before, injecting further impetus and political commitment in the AUKUS process.

Demonstrating bipartisanship in the long-term national interest, Labor not only backed AUKUS but doubled down on the arrangement—with senior government figures including Marles supporting it at the party’s feisty national convention—as a generational, whole-of-nation endeavour.

AUKUS addresses the reality that a collective approach to security with trusted partners is a strategic advantage. No country, not even the US, is strong enough alone to confidently deter and compete with a power of China’s size.

Pentagon officials say that, for now, US submarine technology is better than Chinese technology, but the sheer numerical advantages of China’s maritime fleet demonstrate the old military saying that ‘quantity has a quality of its own’. This captures the strategy that Australia, the US and partners must follow and explains why we need AUKUS: comparative advantage is gained by working with and strengthening friends.

Leveraging each other’s aptitudes by working together puts us in a firmer position to tackle a strategic competitor in China. Fusing its civil and military sectors, China’s strategy openly seeks to monopolise key economic, defence and technological capabilities, including through a combination of intellectual property theft, coercion, interference, and unfair subsidies and investment arrangements. It is these practices and Beijing’s malign intent that motivated AUKUS.

The belated realisation that the world cannot be walled off into neat spheres and regions, due to the global nature of technology and economic supply chains (including in space and cyberspace), makes it significant that the AUKUS partners span the geography of the planet.

And while our open, market-based economic approaches confer advantages in spurring innovation and generating industrial energy, national resilience is strengthened when friendly nations work together and governments concurrently collaborate with industry and incentivise defence and technology industries to cooperate across nations.

There are of course legitimate challenges with AUKUS. They include real workforce and skill shortages, funding and infrastructure gaps, and regulatory restrictions. Each of these poses risks.

The answer, however, is not fatalism but government and industry leadership and a cultural shift to understand that our respective interests lie in collective power. As much as sceptics focus on political distractions in Washington, Albanese and Biden ensured AUKUS was a top priority [1] at their recent meeting, noting progress across both pillars including the first graduation of Australian military personnel from the US Navy’s Nuclear Power School, the first Australian port visit by an American nuclear attack submarine, and the first demonstration of AUKUS artificial intelligence and autonomous capabilities. This was a clear signal of intent and resolve ahead of Albanese’s trip to China.

At the same time, a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces showed the strength of bipartisan support for AUKUS, with members—including Republican Mike Gallagher and Democrat Joe Courtney—backing supplemental funding and export control reform.

Support doesn’t equal a blank cheque and reasonable questions are being asked in Washington—not just in Congress but in other parts of government—yet these aim to ensure that AUKUS is a success.

The expectation that the necessary domestic political reforms for such a tectonic shift as AUKUS would come easily were always unrealistic. Meanwhile, many of the criticisms about technology-transfer restrictions, difficulties building submarines in Adelaide or the potential for a war this decade are issues that would apply more acutely without a bold initiative like AUKUS.

This is about having a coherent, long-term strategy, at which many authoritarians excel because they are untroubled by the demands of democracy (from elections to protecting the rights of citizens). As a senior figure instrumental to AUKUS remarked at a Washington dialogue ASPI hosted with the Center for a New American Security earlier this year, this partnership is about ensuring the three allies are so intimate that we ‘finish each other’s sentences’ on matters of strategy and security.

There is still much work to be done to deter China and preserve our own sovereignty, but AUKUS is already making a difference, establishing a tight-knit, collective approach to defence policy and the key capabilities that will shape the rest of the century—not just today or tomorrow.

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[1] top priority: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/united-states-australia-joint-leaders-statement-building-innovation-alliance

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