At their meeting on March 13 at the US Naval Base in San Diego, President Biden, Prime Minister Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Albanese finally revealed the long-awaited details on the AUKUS pact, the trilateral security agreement between Australia, the UK and the US, first unleashed on to an unsuspecting world in September 2021.
It confirmed that Australia is to buy five U.S.-made Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines as well as to build a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. These, given their ‘hunter-killer’ capability to stay submerged for long periods of time, will be able to reach not only into the South China Sea but also up to Taiwan and Japan.
The new fleet will be built in Australia but according to British design and incorporating the technology of all three partners. The adoption of the UK’s next generation submarine design represents a significant development in the military pact; construction will begin within the decade with Australia and the UK eventually both operating SSN-AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines by the 2040s.
BAE Systems is to play a key role and Sunak endeavoured to sell the deal in terms of more work for British shipyards. Certainly the aim is to give a big boost to the UK military industrial complex. BAE Systems is currently in the final stages of building the last two of seven Astute class nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Navy, with the first three of four Dreadnought submarines to replace Trident also under construction – all at the site at Barrow-in-Furness. That these arrangements involve a sharing of weapons-grade uranium, flouting the NPT stipulation on the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, is simply not considered to be relevant.
Australia in fact has no nuclear industry and no skills in handling nuclear materials and how it is to dispose of the nuclear waste remains unresolved.
The submarine programme alone will come at a cost to Australia of a whacking $368 bn ($250 US dollars).
In addition to submarines, the pact is committed to information and technology exchange between the three partners including in areas of intelligence, AI and quantum technology as well as the acquisition of cruise missiles.
The Biden-Sunak-Albanese show of strength comes at a time of serious deterioration in US-China relations, with many seriously raising the question: will the US and China go to war? Over the last year, US warmongers have insisted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ‘raises the spectre’ of a China attack on Taiwan. There is no logic here; China has reiterated time and again it is looking to a peaceful reunification with the island just 100 miles from its coast and separated in 1895 under Japanese colonial rule.
Now Australia and the UK are to bolster each other’s military-industrial bases and to strengthen their diplomacy and power projection in the Pacific according to the US anti-China global strategy.
This closer alignment was to be confirmed by the revised Integrated Review, published three days after the AUKUS meeting, with its commitment to ‘deeper integration in the Indo-Pacific’s security architecture.’ And following this came Hunt’s commitment to increase the military budget by £5bn of which £3bn is set aside to deliver the AUKUS agreement. In total, including the previous announcement by Boris Johnson for a £26 bn payout from 2019, the UK’s military spend will increase by £11bn over the next five years,
Sunak backed the revised Integrated Review with the claim that China now represents an ‘epoch-defining challenge to our values’ though quite how more and more nuclear-powered submarines can serve as a deterrent against values beggars comprehension. All this just two weeks after China put forward a proposal for world peace featuring dialogue not confrontation, and days after China successfully brokered an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic ties, seen as a significant step towards easing tensions in the Middle East.
In quite the opposite direction, the pursuit of Western values through AUKUS, stokes tensions and division in East Asia and the Pacific no doubt with a view to opening up lucrative markets for arms.
Driving regional militarisation, AUKUS now also sets a precedent that others may follow, opening the door for India, Japan and South Korea for example to seek their own nuclear-powered submarine fleets.
The announcement of the pact in 2021 emboldened the Japanese government to rebuild itself as a major military power in the Pacific for the first time in 70 years. It is the only ally to share the US view of China as the main threat.
As the San Diego meeting was taking place, the Chinese foreign ministry warned the three states of “walking further and further down the path of error and danger” and accused them of fuelling a new arms race. Something which would add to the global dangers which have been escalating due to the war in Ukraine.
Since 2021, North Korea has been warning that AUKUS could trigger a nuclear arms race. And outside intervention by the ‘Anglosphere’ is not welcomed elsewhere in the region. After the deal was finalised the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement warning against “any provocation that could potentially trigger an arms race or affect peace and security in the region” and calling for full compliance with South East Asia’s Nuclear Weapons Free Zone; whilst the Indonesian Foreign Ministry also called for all countries to maintain peace and stability in the region and to uphold the NPT.
Meanwhile Australia’s former Labour Prime Minister, Paul Keating, branded AUKUS the “worst deal in all history” and “the worst international decision” by a Labor government since Billy Hughes tried to introduce conscription.
Local peace campaigners in Australia are pointing out the utter absurdity of claims to defend the country’s trade routes against the country’s no.1 trading partner. Asked how he could be certain that China did not pose a threat to Australia, Keating replied: ‘Because I have a brain’.
Meanwhile the UK’s Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey said Labour’s support for the AUKUS partnership would be “absolute,” conveniently forgetting how the 2021 Labour Conference overwhelmingly voted in favour of Labour CND’s emergency resolution calling for opposition to the pact, and for support for the commitment to the NPT and for de-escalation.
In today’s world, despite its imperial vanities, Britain is just a medium-sized state but the military hawks seek to trade on historical links with former colonies in Asia and the Pacific to serve the US so as to maintain global status through the US-UK ‘special relationship’.
The last thing people in Britain need is to be saddled with the costs of perpetual military upgrading: we should be directing our resources, our industries and jobs, our scientific research communities to addressing the real security challenges: if we are going to make war, lets make it on poverty and the climate emergency, not on China!
Jenny Clegg is a member of CND’s National Council. She is a former senior lecturer in International Studies, specialising on China. This article was written with contributions from Russell Whiting.