Sailors assigned to the Australian Collins-class submarine HMAS Sheean prepare to receive hotel services and supplies during bilateral training event with USS Emory S. Land, Sept. 13, 2019.

Sailors assigned to the Australian Collins-class submarine HMAS Sheean prepare to receive hotel services and supplies during bilateral training event with USS Emory S. Land, Sept. 13, 2019. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jordyn Diomede

AUKUS Is the Death Knell of Australia's Strategic Ambiguity

At what cost is Australia attempting to strengthen its deterrence of China?

Following last week’s inauguration of the AUKUS defense partnership, which will see Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines drawing on British and U.S. technology, few could disagree that Australia has made its definitive strategic choice.

No longer can anyone in Washington harbor doubts as to where Canberra stands in the evolving contest with China.

After all, as recently as March 2019, when Arthur Culvahouse Jr. arrived to take up his position as U.S. Ambassador to Australia, he shocked senior officials in Canberra by revealing that before his departure, whisperers in Congress were asking “who lost Australia?”

The very proposition was absurd, but it underlined a lingering view in some U.S. policymaking circles that successive Australian governments had for too long maintained that prosperous economic relations with China could co-exist with a strong military alliance with the United States.

And in 2017, this writer was told by one analyst in Washington—now a senior official in the Biden administration—that Australia was a “great ally of the United States everywhere in the world except in Asia.”

From that time, Australian governments have not only been willing to call out China’s assertive international behavior, they have also been at the vanguard of pushing back against Beijing. This was most evident in the government’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, a stance that infuriated China and precipitated the beginning of a series of punitive economic tariffs against a wide range of Australian exports.

Seen in that light, AUKUS represents something of a logical end point for Australia’s recent experience at the pointy end of Chinese coercion. It is a culmination, too, of an assiduous, relentless building of a ‘China threat’ narrative by elements of the Morrison government, some commentators, and think tanks, a narrative which has sunk deep roots in Australian public and elite opinion. The Lowy Institute’s Poll for 2021 found that 63 percent of Australians see China as a security threat, a 22 percent rise on the previous year. The rapid deterioration in relations with Beijing has only intensified calls for Canberra to do more to deepen even further its U.S. alliance. In that sense China is clearly the objective of AUKUS.

Moreover, Scott Morrison’s government will now claim that with AUKUS the full tapestry of Australian strategic policy is unfurled: a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan signed in November 2020; increased defense cooperation with India—symbolized by participation in the annual Malabar naval exercises; the Quad leaders meeting, which both the Trump and now Biden administrations have pushed to the forefront of U.S. Asia policy; and now this agreement for three of the oldest partners from the Second World War.

All of these measures push in the same direction: aligning Australia with the U.S. in what many analysts now accept is a “new Cold War” with China.

Canberra is emboldened. The prime minister, characteristically immodest in selling his diplomatic achievements, has already carved a niche for himself in the pantheon of Australian leaders: claiming to stand alongside John Curtin, who led the nation in World War II; and Robert Menzies, whose government negotiated the ANZUS treaty.

But this is also probably the biggest strategic gamble in Australian history. Other so-called ‘turns’ to America, such as those by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin in 1908 and John Curtin in 1941, have been expedient calls for assistance in a time of survivalist anxiety. AUKUS, according to a White House briefing, “binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations.”

Never mind that the first submarines will not arrive until the late 2030s, although there is now talk of leasing U.S. submarines in the interim. Or that Australia has no experience with nuclear technology. Or that cost blowouts will likely be massive. Never mind, too, that Australia will be captive to its technology partners.

The announcement’s biggest gamble, however, is its assumption that the United States will not return Trump or another similar politician to the Oval Office. Or that a future U.S. administration may take a different view of what the United States can and cannot do in terms of maintaining its regional primacy in Asia.

AUKUS represents the death knell for strategic ambiguity in Australian foreign policy. Although Canberra does have a record of shrewd alliance management in the past—of roaring loud in allied solidarity but committing the minimum muscle up front, as in the case of Iraq 2003 when Australian special forces were pulled back after the initial assault on Baghdad—it is fanciful to suggest that in any future military conflict with China, especially over Taiwan, the United States will not expect Australia to play a role in the battle.

Will a future Australian government of either political persuasion be able to resist U.S. pressure to be part of any such conflict? History suggests not. Australia, as we are constantly reminded in the speeches, has been by the U.S.’s side at every major conflict since the First World War.

Yet the irony of course is that by the time Australia’s submarines deploy, the region’s strategic contours may look very different indeed.

While the partnership is expected to see a series of further measures tightening the AUKUS embrace—more U.S. marines rotating through northern Australia, the pre-positioning of U.S. military equipment in Australia, and cooperation on missile technology—it involves no NATO-style collective defense mechanism. And great powers, as Australia knows only too well from experience, can turn on a dime.

Contrary to some of the excited claims to novelty in this announcement, AUKUS might more accurately be described as the latest example of that nervous, reflexive twitch in Australian strategic psychology.

Namely that when an Asian threat or menace appears on the horizon, Canberra’s impulse is to look to its Anglosphere cousins for protection. The history of Australian defense and foreign policy is replete with such moments. In that sense AUKUS is clearly freighted with powerful cultural assumptions and expectations.

That means regional perceptions of the announcement were always going to be crucial.

Yet Australia’s diplomacy on this front was again clumsy. Leaving aside the sidelining of Paris that led to Gallic fury, key regional partners, especially Indonesia, were given only the most cursory notice. While the deal could not have been done even with more warning given to Jakarta, the Indonesian response was the sharpest, expressing caution at the move and concern that it might feed a renewed regional arms race. For others, excluding fellow Quad members in Tokyo and New Delhi, it may only reinforce residual perceptions about which loyalties Australia cherishes most. At the very least, Morrison should have dispatched a diplomatic envoy to the region on the day of the announcement to fully brief regional capitals.

Twenty-five years ago, in thinking about the new strategic order arising from the ashes of the old, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis classified Australia as a “torn country”—trapped between its British and North American cultural moorings and its geopolitical reality on the edge of Asia.

Huntington, in an extraordinary flight of fancy, argued that the policies of the Keating Labor government in Canberra at the time, with its emphasis on Australia finding security in, not from, Asia, might prove to be a symbol of Western decline. 

Such a conclusion was rightly ridiculed at the time as a mark of Huntington’s broad brush strokes hiding more than they revealed. But somewhere, Huntington might very well be smiling at the coming of AUKUS. He has his proof that Australia has opted to cleave to older outlooks rather than forge a new path to a more secure Asia.

James Curran is Professor of Modern History at Sydney University. A former intelligence analyst with the Australian Office of National Assessments, he is also a foreign affairs columnist for the Australian Financial Review and is writing a book on Australia-China relations, to be published in 2022.

This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.