A very awkward acronym landed like a big rock in the diplomatic pond last week.
Aukus – the alliance of Australia, the UK and the US – was announced by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden (who continued a long and amusing US presidential tradition of forgetting an Australian leader’s name during the official virtual gathering).
This deal, on the face of it, is for the British and the Americans to enable the Australians to have nuclear submarines. And, on the face of it, it’s a predictable alliance of allies who go way back. The Australians sent troops to South Africa to support the empire in the South African War and have slavishly followed either Britain or the US into just about every global conflict since then, up to and including Afghanistan. (It’s little known here that conscripted Australian soldiers even fought in Vietnam on the back of the obsequious slogan “All the way with LBJ”.)
So, nothing much in Aukus for us to care about in SA, you would think. But this is seismic in ways that matter to everyone.
As much as the three leaders deny it, this surprise deal, which no one saw coming, is aimed squarely at the Chinese. Forget all of Vladimir Putin’s sinister provocations or Kim Jong-un’s crazed sideshow, THE global diplomatic issue of our time, and of the next 50 years, is how to deal with China. And, very specifically, what to do if they follow their own overtly stated and often repeated policy and move to gain control of Taiwan.
After centuries of being subjugated or, at best, patronised by the West, the Russians and the Japanese; the Chinese are the dominant player in their region (and arguably the world) both economically and politically. They are bellicose and armed to the teeth. They have a leader-for-life in Xi Jinping, who is fostering a personality cult. And they are mighty prickly. You deal with the Chinese on their terms on everything or you get cut off brutally.
How to handle them has become a major stress point. The Americans are prepared to front them – presidents Obama, Trump and Biden have on occasion taken economic measures against China and spoken firmly. They can afford to because the Chinese know they’re decades away from maintaining their essential growth path without the US market. They also know that the American military machine is the only one big enough to constrain them.
But virtually no one else has stood firm. Most nations have done an awkward dance to keep critical trade or credit flows going. They avoid meeting the Dalai Lama, use arcane language like Chinese Taipei when they mean Taiwan, skirt the appalling repression of the Uighurs, and are all talk and no action on the crushing of protests in Hong Kong. And, above all, they don’t insist on answers to the most important question on the planet – how TF did Covid-19 start? It’s eggshells all the way.
But Aukus indicates that the Chinese may have overplayed their ultrahardline hand which is labelled as “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.
When the Australian government back in May 2020 called for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and its initial handling – an entirely reasonable request to ensure that something similar doesn’t happen again – the Chinese threw a grade-one hissy fit and slapped 80% tariffs on some key imports from Australia.
The rest of the world did not exactly rally to the cause against the blustering bully but it was undoubtedly a turning point. This moved beyond all reason and indicated that maybe it was time to stop playing China’s game on its terms.
Aukus was the result. It eventually will put more nuclear submarines into the south-western Pacific which China considers to be its front yard swimming pool. It also commits Britain, Australia and the US to the defence of Taiwan. Exactly the kind of alliance which, if honoured, can cause global conflict – similar international treaty obligations to Russia, Austria, Serbia and Belgium lead to World War 1 and those with Poland formally triggered World War 2.
The Australians and the Brits have now picked sides in this new Cold War and will have to live with the consequences. Can Australia sustain its economy in the face of another punitive Chinese response? If it can (or it calls a bluff and manages to trade profitably anyway) then the Dragon will have lost a lot of its fire and others will be emboldened. Japan and Taiwan are publicly happy with this deal and, more quietly, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines will be so as well.
And there are plenty of subplots.
Australia, controversially, is going nuclear for the first time. Its neighbour and traditional ally New Zealand (Anzacs at Gallipoli and all that) has a very stern policy against nuclear power in any form and still wants to do the money dance with Xi.
The Australians scrapped a long-standing US$36.6-billion contract with the French to build these subs and switched it to Britain, giving Boris a Brexit trade deal to shout about. This has riled President Emmanuel Macron, who has frothily withdrawn ambassadors.
And how long will this last? Johnson laughably has called Aukus a “forever alliance”. As plenty of commentators have pointed out, if Donald Trump returns to power in 2024, this will be in the dustbin after only three years, along with any other agreement Biden reaches. Just because that’s how Trump rolls. DM