In this topical and detailed analysis, British based activist and scholar Dr Jenny Clegg explains how the recently announced AUKUS military alliance represents a serious escalation of the New Cold War and constitutes a threat not only to China but to the entire region. Friends of Socialist China co-editor Keith Bennett also contributed to this article.
The new military AUKUS pact between Australia, the United States and Britain, announced last week, is a serious escalation of the new Cold War against China and of the militarisation of the Asia-Pacific region. The sale of nuclear submarines and technologies by the US and UK to Australia is an act of nuclear proliferation which puts what remains of the international arms control system in deep jeopardy. The sudden announcement of an entirely new military coalition represents a profound disruption of the existing world order with the prospect of an even more dangerous reconfiguration of international relations.
Just as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan raised questions amongst its allies and partners as to the reliability and credibility of its commitment to their defence, President Biden comes back with a new assertion of power in the Pacific.
Ramping up the nuclear threat
That this involves a significant reordering of the world is evident in the incredibly irresponsible approach on the part of the new Troika – Biden, Johnson and Morrison – to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): by exploiting a ‘loophole’ in the treaty, their nuclear proliferation may well pave the way for others to follow.
AUKUS we are told is a necessity to defend the free world and the ‘international rules based order’. But what are the US and the UK actually doing? Playing fast and loose with international law, having just weeks previously committed to upholding the rules based order at the G7 and NATO summits, following hard on the heels of the UK’s illegal increase of its cap on nuclear weapons. All this then is a considerable blow to the international system of arms control developed to limit the previous nuclear arms race between the US and USSR.
The new Troika are evidently willing to tear down any international agreements that stand in their way – just like Trump – in their mania to contain China. And it should not escape attention that there are those in the military elites in both Japan and South Korea lining up behind Australia now for access to nuclear materials as a first step towards acquiring their own nuclear weapons.
The deal elevates Australia into the small club of six states, including the five recognised nuclear weapons states, that possess nuclear powered submarines. These are designed with the capacity to carry nuclear weapons as a back-up second strike force. Even though AUKUS professes otherwise, insisting that Australia will not actually be nuclear-armed, why should China believe them?
The close cooperation on underwater technologies under the pact seeks to undermine China’s submarine defences. With the capabilities of Chinese missiles also constrained under the high altitude missile defence system of THAAD, this would significantly shift the regional power balance in favour of the US military preponderance.
China keeps its nuclear capabilities at a minimum level with a no first use posture in case of a confrontation with the US, for example over Taiwan. However, it has made clear that this minimum level would change as China’s security situation changes. AUKUS then is playing with fire, at risk of stoking a new nuclear arms race – one this time focusing on Asia, making South East and North East Asia, including Korea, even more dangerous places than they already are.
At the same time should China consider it necessary to respond to the increased hostility, this could have a knock-on effect on India, which perceives itself disadvantaged in relation to its neighbour’s military capacities. The new pact then further risks exacerbating tensions between the nuclear-armed states around Afghanistan, a region already facing serious destabilisation after the 20-year US-NATO war and the chaotic withdrawal of US forces.
AUKUS not only threatens China but also Russia from the East. The new development is also perceived as a threat by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as a statement from their Foreign Ministry has made clear, thereby ramping up tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and further complicating any possible resumption of Six Party Talks, this at a time when north and south Korea have pretty openly embarked on an arms race, apparently reversing recent tentative moves towards a resumption of dialogue and reconciliation.
Opposition in the Pacific
The pact completely discounts the aspirations of the peoples and countries in the region to become nuclear free. The Treaty of Bangkok, declaring Southeast Asia a nuclear free zone, was agreed in 1997 although none of the nuclear weapons states have signed it. The Pacific has long been used as a nuclear test ground by the US, UK and France – Palau, the Marshall Islands among others – with indigenous peoples, not least the First Nations/Aboriginal peoples in Australia, among the principal victims. A Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, put forward in 1985, is something then that is supported by the majority of South Pacific island nations as well as the environmental movement, indigenous and independence movements (including in Okinawa, Hawai’i, Guam, New Caledonia/ Kanaky and so on), and women’s movements.
Pacific island nations, such as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Timor Leste, that seek to maintain their independence and do not wish to be drawn into confrontations or forced to take sides between big powers, will not then be welcoming the new pact. Standing out also is the notable example of New Zealand – traditionally a key ally for the US and UK in the Pacific – in maintaining its strong and long-standing anti-nuclear line. New Zealand has already declared that Australian nuclear-powered submarines will not be welcomed in its ports or waters, a significant blow to the ‘Five Eyes’ Anglophone agreement.
Escalating the arms technology race
The pact also covers cyber-technologies, AI and quantum computing, all being hijacked now for militarisation purposes. Whilst the submarine deal involves big bucks – the now aborted deal with France has been estimated at around £50bn; no wonder Paris is apoplectic with rage – there is much else besides, a veritable bonanza indeed for the arms companies. The likes of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon etc have colonised the Australian economy and BAE systems too has a subsidiary there, and as the Royal Navy’s current Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group criss-crosses the East and South China Seas showing off its state-of-the-art technologies, British arms manufacturers are garnering sales in Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia. Together with the US companies, these are aiming to shift the foundation of the regional economy, reconstituting it around weapons production and integrating it globally into the US-UK military industrial complex.
In Britain, Johnson’s choice to side with the US, risking economic relations with China, is one that privileges arms over all other economic sectors. The deal is being sold to the trade unions and the wider public in terms of job creation, benefiting BAE systems in the North West and Rolls Royce in the Midlands and contributing, supposedly, to rebalancing north and south without addressing a Green New Deal, the development of renewable energy and so on. But as Stuart Parkinson of Scientists for Global Responsibility has shown, pound for pound, investment in green industries creates more jobs than in military production. Increasingly it seems that the future of the British economy is coming to depend on the success of its armaments sector. Opposition to arms sales for example to Israel and Saudi Arabia is growing; activists should now direct their campaigning also against AUKUS.
Destabilising the Asia Pacific region; heating up the Cold War globally
The pact further marks a major shift in the region’s security architecture: from the ‘hub and spokes’ pattern of US bilateral alliances (with Japan and South Korea) and other military partnerships, the US will now operate through AUKUS to put increased pressure on the region. The military escalation is also a signal to encourage the militarists within Japan’s elites as well as the right-wing opposition seeking to oust the more peace-oriented Moon in South Korea’s presidential election next year. The leader of South Korea’s right-wing party has already refloated the idea that Seoul should consider going nuclear.
AUKUS also has ramifications for the Quad (US, Australia, Japan, India), and no doubt NATO, increasing pressures to fall in line with the US anti-China strategy. New Zealand’s principled stand is, as noted, a blow to the Five Eyes, another key US-led security arrangement, but already there is talk of AUKUS as a possibly more flexible and amenable ‘Three Eyes’. And already there are some in Canada who are angling to get on board.
All this can only increase the possibility of the Cold War going hot. The Australian prime minister has already been talking about ‘preparing to send warriors overseas’ in case of a conflict over Taiwan. In the UK a recent House of Lords report on China states that a conflict over Taiwan would damage UK interests. Speaking in the House of Commons, Theresa May raised the question of the possibility of Britain being dragged into war over Taiwan. With Mrs May being the immediate past prime minister, this shows how deep are the rifts in the Tory Party.
Rifts amongst the Western allies
The impact on NATO, specifically the rift with France, is serious, coming hard on the heels of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left its NATO allies in the lurch. France is the loser with its own estimated £50bn deal with Australia to build diesel-engine submarines ditched without warning. But it is more than the money: what makes the snub all the greater is that France considers itself to be a Pacific power, still holding New Caledonia as a colony, and was involved along with the other G7 members and NATO allies in adopting the new ‘Indo Pacific tilt’ in order to ‘uphold the international rules-based order’. France now finds itself excluded – you could say made a complete fool of – its own strategy undermined ‘at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the region’.
Where does NATO stand now with a split between the US and France which alongside the UK provides the organisation with the backing of nuclear weapons in Europe? Trump was prone to drop heavy hints about the relevance of NATO to the US. It may be now that AUKUS becomes the organisation of preference for the US, with its possibility of providing a wider range of security cooperation around 5G and other technologies in a more flexible structure not tied up to collective security.
Threatening the fight against climate change and against world poverty
There are also serious implications for the fight against climate change. This is the last thing that is needed before COP 26 – China is flagged constantly in the media as the biggest carbon emitter (its per capita emissions are in fact far below that of the US), but it is a developing country with an average per capita income still a quarter that of the UK and with nearly 40 per cent of its population in the countryside. It is very vulnerable to climate change with much of its population concentrated in the low-lying coastal provinces. It is making every effort to address the problems, but the US pressure to constrain China, squeezing trade and investment as well as potentially driving China into an arms race, will limit what can be done. This point needs to be taken up in the climate change movement.
Nor can we overlook the impact on South-South cooperation and global economic development. Through the adoption of the dual circulation policy expanding domestic demand, China’s aim is to increase its capacity to import from the Global South whilst continuing to export machinery and technologies at affordable prices to assist development. By increasing constraints on China’s growth, these US Cold War style initiatives might also have a negative impact on the development of South-South cooperation.
The so-called ‘China threat’
How will China react? The Chinese government will doubtless make a judgement about the escalation of the AUKUS threat and act accordingly, including as suggested earlier increasing its nuclear weapons if necessary. The military ‘threat’ from China is hugely exaggerated by the US hawks, who are claiming that China’s nuclear arsenal will grow quickly in the next 20 years or so with the supposed building of more than 100 new missile silos. If completed these would represent a “historic shift” for China’s nuclear arsenal. (The US has at least 450 silos). China meanwhile points out that silos are normally used for liquid-fuel intercontinental missiles which are high-thrust and long-range, and could carry higher-yield nuclear warheads, but China’s intercontinental missiles – there are about 16 – are solid-fueled and loaded on high-mobility launcher vehicles. The necessity of putting them inside a silo is therefore questionable.
The mainstream media also constantly insists that China has the biggest navy in the world. However these forces consist largely of coastguard vessels and small corvettes. China has hardly any ocean-going capacity with just two aircraft carriers and a third being built, none anything like up to the state-of the-art standards of the US which has 11 carriers and inter-interoperability arrangements with the UK newly built two; and of China’s 56 submarines, only six are nuclear-powered with reach across the Pacific, whereas all the 72 US submarines are nuclear-powered and can threaten China’s coast. The US military build-up and increasingly hostile attitude must surely increase public anxieties in China. At the same the militarisation of the South China Sea is clearly a concern for the smaller countries of Southeast Asia and the goal of demilitarisation and denuclearisation of the maritime area is vital.
Has the US miscalculated?
What does the US want? The US aim is likely not to go to war intentionally but to use an overwhelming nuclear and conventional threat to intimidate and subordinate China into giving up its sovereign control over its economy and finance, and to open up fully to US capital. The US is demanding that China place its nuclear weapons under the START arms reduction negotiations with Russia, in effect under a US-dominated arms control regime. The US intention is also to intimidate Russia to break its partnership with China in order to secure its own hegemonic reach.
As US-China tensions have escalated over the past couple of years, a risk has been that one or the other would over-reach. There has been some debate in China as to whether it has ‘done too much’ in acting more assertively in pursuing its rights: should the government ease back or continue to stand up to the US, going ’tit for tat’? But is it in fact the US that has been driven to make a mistake?
Acting in haste to assert ‘America is back’ and counter the perception of US decline, Biden has deepened the rifts among the Five Eyes and in NATO, with increasing calls in Europe for an independent security strategy. And does Australia really wish to make itself a target for Chinese missiles? How far will the UK want to go in jeopardising economic relations with China, which is now its largest trading partner in goods? China’s recent application to join the CPTPP free trade agreement, coming hard on the heels of the announcement of AUKUS, further flags up the two contrasting approaches – military led by the western powers; trade and economics led on the part of China.
This is by no means some flash in the pan: the repercussions of this latest twist in US global leadership will play out over the coming months and years. The US continues so doggedly to pursue world dominance through military power, learning nothing of the lessons of its failed wars. In turning a blind eye to the mess it has created in Afghanistan, this has shocked sensibilities around the world and it may indeed have woken up an influential actor on the world scene: the international peace movement – the “we the people” of the UN Charter – on which a peaceful world order must surely be founded.