The United States did not directly mention China in announcing its historic new security partnership with Australia and Britain last week, but it didn’t have to. The defense deal is a clear escalation and indication that Washington views Beijing as an adversary.
It also has thrust Australia into a central role in America’s rivalry with China. After hinting at a more self-reliant defense posture for the past several years, Australia’s government is now instead betting big on the future of its alliance with the United States with the new pact. Australia seems to be assuming that America will remain engaged in Asia for the long haul and will be prepared to face down China if necessary — but it shouldn’t.
The crux of the partnership, called AUKUS, is an agreement for the United States and Britain to share their technology to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines. But this is no ordinary arms agreement, nothing like exporting fighter jets or howitzers. Only a handful of nations have nuclear-powered submarines, and Australia will be just the second country, after Britain, to benefit from the top-secret U.S. technology.
Why is Australia worthy of such favorable treatment? It’s not just that it is one of America’s oldest and closest allies. It’s that for many American observers of China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, Australia is also the canary in the coal mine for great power competition with China.
Australia has been subject to economic coercion from China against its exports, such as barley and coal. Chinese hackers were implicated in a breach of the Australian parliament’s website in 2019. Its security agencies report widespread espionage and interference activities. And its ministers have been frozen out by their Chinese counterparts. Last year, a Chinese diplomat even released a list of 14 grievances Beijing holds against Australia — a document that featured in deliberations at the Group of 7 summit in June.
Those grievances reflect the tough line Australia has taken against Beijing, from barring Chinese telecom giant Huawei from competing for a 5G infrastructure project to introducing far-reaching legislation to curb foreign interference in politics and tearing up a state’s Belt and Road agreements with China. Australia also has increased its defense spending over the past five years, particularly its naval procurement. AUKUS takes this to a new level.
Like the United States, Australia’s government has watched with increasing alarm the rapid and extensive buildup of China’s military capabilities, particularly its naval forces.
For most of its history, Australia has relied on a friend or ally to help secure the Pacific Ocean. The only serious threat to Australia’s territorial integrity since European settlement more than 200 years ago was during World War II. If Chinese — not American — maritime power were to dominate Asia’s waterways, Australia would undoubtedly face a more uncertain future.
So although the AUKUS initiative was a surprise to many around the world, the Australian government’s motivation is clear. Saddled with a late and over-budget French submarine project, the Australian government saw an opportunity not only to bolster its naval strength by getting the world’s leading submarine technology but also to bring the United States into a closer embrace.
The Biden team agreed because it, too, is worried about China. But there is a difference. The United States is in Asia by choice; Australia has no such luxury. Washington’s gesture, this commitment of American military and technological prowess, is hugely significant. But it is no guarantee the United States is prepared to enter into a new Cold War-style contest with China.
The United States is blessed by geography, friendly neighbors, a huge economy, unrivaled military and a nuclear-weapons arsenal to help maintain its security. But China is strong too. The size of its economy alone makes it one of the mightiest adversaries the United States has faced in more than a century. So the United States would need a very good reason to take on a power as great as China.
The fact that China is authoritarian and bullies its neighbors should not be reason enough. Nor should the threats against U.S. allies like Australia, as alliances exist to further the aims of both partners — not just the junior one. Nor the fact that America would be somehow diminished if and when China attains global supremacy. There would need to be clear indications that China poses a threat to America’s core national security interests, to its territory and to its way of life. Since China does not clear that bar, there’s no urgent reason for the United States to undertake grievous risks to prevent its rise to regional leadership.
That doubt should be nagging at the minds of Australian decision makers who just staked their future on the alliance, and it should be on the minds of Americans, too. Why should the United States commit itself to a contest with China when the stakes are less than existential? Without a clear answer to that question, Australia must assume that it will ultimately need to ensure its security alone.
Sam Roggeveen (@SamRoggeveen) is the director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, a research center in Sydney. He previously worked as a senior analyst for an Australian intelligence agency.
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