The last existential risk to Australia’s sovereign freedom of action ended with the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
The Charter of the United Nations of 1945 and its subsequent ramifications such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea seemed to entrench this situation.
Three generations of Australians then grew up in a world that is increasingly strategically, economically, medically and, until recently, environmentally secure.
The risks of nuclear extinction from the Cold War and regional wars that affected Australians peripherally or not at all, did not alter the overall strategic stability cocoon that most believed was just the natural order of Australian life.
Our defense investment and defense force have declined dramatically for decades, especially compared to other spending. We have not had a military conscription since 1972. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 has thickened the walls of the cocoon.
The energies in the People’s Republic of China since the mid-1970s have had only mild effects. They aimed to stabilize the regime under collective, rather than singular, authoritarian leadership.
The emphasis was on economic development and not on questioning an international system based, even nominally, on respect for the United Nations Charter. Australia prospered as mainland China prospered.
But, as Trotsky noted, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” And war must be deterred to preserve peace and sanity, especially when strategic stability falters.
The Aukus initiative is primarily a reaction to many of the assumptions and realities of our three-generation cocoon that have been gradually exposed in recent years.
The main cause is that the dismissive and openly coercive diplomatic and military behavior of the PRC now risks accidental, as well as potentially intentional, conflict.
No one has sought to limit the peaceful rise of the PRC. Nor is it because capitalism supposedly needs an enemy.
The fundamental question for Australia and our regional neighbors remains that of prudent risk management, without inventing, exaggerating, minimizing or denying strategic risks.
The current one-man leadership of the PRC and the illegitimacy of the one-party nature of the regime has led to overt dissatisfaction with the functioning of the international system.
It strengthens the leader’s ego and distracts attention from critics. But pretending that the world is rigged against China really does prosper because the regime lacks the constraints and release valves that real internal and external accountability mechanisms provide.
This shift in Australia’s strategic risk, after three generations of peace and ever-improving conditions, is difficult for many Australians to accept.
Especially if their remuneration, dividends, mercantilist profits or ideological cover depend on the denial or excuse of the authoritarian nature of the PRC and destabilizing international behavior.
The bottom line is that Australia remains an arid and sparsely populated continent, as well as a country. Our politics, way of life and standard of living depend entirely on maritime trade in an international system that operates freely.
If the PRC forcibly dominated our region, or globally, we would risk authoritarian coercion and a loss of sovereign freedom of action similar to that imposed on Finland by the Soviets.
The current coercive trade pressure from the PRC is just a taste of what a “Finnish” Australia would endure.
Much of Australia is still awakening from the deep complacency of three generations. Being awakened by events like the Aukus initiative is uncomfortable for many.
But unlike before and during WWII, Australia can no longer build many defense capabilities quickly or at all. Fighter jets cannot be built in a month or warships in six months. Hijacking state railroad workshops to build tanks is not analogous to building and maintaining long-range, cruise or hypersonic missiles, or AI-piloted drones.
Australia’s limited economic and technological capabilities mean that refocusing civilian industry on high-tech defense needs is often not a viable option and rarely quick. Politicians who buy votes through large-scale defense projects usually deny this.
Applying modern technology to counter strategic risk now takes much longer, greater expense, and greater reliance on the types and levels of technology available only from trusted allies. And the allies must be ready to do it.
Aukus therefore aims to reduce strategic risk by improving access to technology, interoperability and allied burden sharing, not just on new submarines.
It has long been widely accepted in Australia that the mid-21st century multipurpose submarines replacing the replacement for the Collins-class (now discontinued, French-designed, Attack-class) will be nuclear-powered – even if completed, for more stealthy missions. , by a few smaller submarines and underwater drones, powered by ever-improving battery technology.
It has also long been believed that the easiest way to cross a chasm is one-step, meaning Collins’ replacement should have been nuclear powered.
The main obstacles to this have traditionally been the cost, the fact that we couldn’t build them ourselves, that neither the British nor the Americans would sell us one, and that both sides of politics were reluctant to relaunch the debate on nuclear electricity.
Even though the cost difference between nuclear and conventional powered boats has increased from around 4: 1 to 1.5: 1.
But the development of sealed reactor technology has now made an even bigger difference. If the life cycle of the reactor and the ship is the same, then there is not the same dependence of the user on the possession of a civilian nuclear power industry and its technological depth. Neither security concerns – real, exaggerated, or mistaken.
Aukus stems from the strategic awareness by our allies that the risks of conflict mean that helping Australia with modern defensive technologies helps everyone reduce and deter such risk.