By Chris Trotter*
The formation of AUKUS, the new military pact linking Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, is a mirage.
It’s most important element, the arming of the Australian Navy with 8-12 nuclear-powered attack submarines, will almost certainly never happen. The Chinese Government, against which the agreement is aimed, will not be daunted. Indeed, in a shrewd diplomatic manoeuvre, Beijing has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) from which the USA remains self-excluded, and of which New Zealand remains the “secretary”.
What other word except “mirage” is fit to describe this latest, rather desperate fantasy of Anglo-Saxon imperialism? Long-term strategic decline cannot be wished away by dreaming up a new acronym.
Not that New Zealand’s foreign affairs and defence “establishment” (FADE) will understand AUKUS in such terms. To the contrary, it is already mounting a full-court press to convince New Zealanders that their country has been slighted and snubbed, and its long-term national security imperilled, because their government has not sung along lustily enough in the new “Indo-Pacific” chorus-line. Over the next few weeks and months FADE will attempt to apply maximum pressure on Jacinda Ardern’s government by wheeling out every academic expert, former military officer, US-aligned politician and journalist at its disposal.
The first of what promises to be a great many of these AUKUS promoters appeared on the Q+A current affairs programme just yesterday morning (19/9/21). Former New Zealand Deputy-Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, with the sparkling waters of the Bay of Islands as his backdrop, was interviewed with uncharacteristic deference by the programme’s presenter, Jack Tame. Absent entirely from this encounter was the hectoring tone usually reserved for the NZ First leader by mainstream journalists. What viewers saw was a senior New Zealand statesman invited to shed light on New Zealand’s disturbing exclusion from this new and important security agreement.
Peters, naturally, did not disappoint. Indeed his performance was excellent – full of gravitas and more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger exasperation at the failings of his former Labour colleagues. He didn’t quite say Si vis pacem, para bellum (he who desires peace, should prepare for war) but that was clearly the message delivered by this antipodean Cincinnatus. Peters also made it plain that words have consequences: a not-so-subtle reminder that while his speeches as Foreign Minister only strengthened this country’s relationship with the United States, the speeches of Nanaia Mahuta have produced the opposite effect.
With the National Party locked in what Matthew Hooton calls a “death spiral”, and Act out of contention as a coalition partner for Labour, NZ First presents the Americans with a tempting prize. Subject to proper nurturing, and the right kind of advice, Peters’ party could once again find itself in a position to dangle the keys to the kingdom in front of a desperate Labour caucus. As the price of opening the castle gates, Peters could demand – and would, almost certainly, be given – both the Foreign Affairs and Defence portfolios. The chances are high that, very soon thereafter, the doors to AUKUS would also swing open.
The next New Zealand General Election is, however, still two years away, and much can change in two years. Beijing has just handed Wellington an extraordinary opportunity to place itself at the head of those Indo-Pacific nations that would much rather expand the opportunities for economic co-operation and trade, than join in ratchetting-up the tensions of a new Cold War.
Imagine the diplomatic awkwardness for Canberra if Washington made it clear to “the fella down-under” that he was expected to blackball China from membership in the CPTPP. A China seeking to increase economic opportunities across the Indo-Pacific region would have been frozen-out by an Australian government more interested in the prospects of war than the benefits of peace. The contrast between the policies of Wellington and Canberra could not be rendered more starkly: to New Zealand’s Pacific neighbours, her trading partners, and, not least, to Beijing.
It is also quite possible that, by 2023, the United States will be embroiled in domestic strife bordering on civil-war. By fair means or foul the Republican Party appears poised to seize back control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in next year’s mid-term elections. With both the Congress and the Supreme Court under their effective control, the possibility exists that the Republicans will attempt to depose President Joe Biden and replace him with Donald Trump. The Trump-dominated Republican Party is certainly crazy enough to try. The real question, then, will be: who, in a constitutionally compromised United States, possesses either the means – or the will – to stop them? Is the American military prepared to destroy the American republic in order to save it? If it is, then AUKUS will be the last thing on its mind!
As for those nuclear-powered submarines the Americans have promised their Australian “mates”. To employ a popular Australianism: “Tell ‘em they’re dreaming!” The six diesel-powered Collins-class subs the Aussies already possess have been one long pain in the Australian Navy’s arse. Plagued by repeated breakdowns and difficulties in accessing spare parts, the Australian submarine fleet is almost never fully functional.
When it is ready for action, however, the Collins-class submarine is considerably nimbler and harder to detect than its larger, nuclear-powered, counterparts. Having only just learned how to get the best out of their current fleet, the idea that their incredibly hard to recruit submariners will have to master an infinitely more complex boat must be seriously depressing Australia’s naval commanders.
And that’s not even factoring-in the white-hot fury of the French – who have just been stiffed out of $93 billion!
All of which suggests that, upon hearing the news about AUKUS, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Canada’s Justin Trudeau would have both breathed huge sighs of relief. There is something ever-so-slightly bonkers about this supposedly “new” security arrangement. For a start, what, exactly, is new about cobbling together military alliances against surging nation-states threatening to up-end the status quo? Isn’t that the sort of carry-on that led to World War I?
More to the point, how is anyone supposed to take Boris Johnson and his brand new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth II, seriously? A man so enamoured with the life and times of Winston Churchill surely cannot have forgotten the fate of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse – sunk, almost casually, by Japanese bombers in December 1941? Surely, someone has told him about China’s hypersonic, carrier-killing missiles?
And what are the Chinese supposed to make of English warships in the South China Sea? Johnson may have forgotten all about the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century, but Xi Jinping has not.
Surely, it is time for New Zealand to break free of the imperial project in which it has been enmeshed for the past 181 years? Surely, as an independent nation, it is in our long-term interests to recognise Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States for what they are? The three countries which, in March 2003, and in blatant contravention of international law and the United Nations Charter, attacked and invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq.
In planning and unleashing an aggressive war upon a country which had not attacked them, the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia were guilty of the same war crimes for which the leaders of Nazi Germany were tried and convicted at Nuremburg in 1946. To join this “Coalition of the Waning”: this pact composed of the three military aggressors of the Iraq War; would not only be folly – it would be criminal folly.
The shimmering vision of Imperial Hegemony Regained: the mirage which leads Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison deeper and deeper into a waterless diplomatic desert; will be the ruin of them all.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.