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Defence in the Land Down Under: How Closer Australia-US Ties Can Influence the Geopolitical Balance

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Snap Shot Article

By Toby Gill

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, there has been a monumental swing of the pendulum in the pacific. Chinese encroachment in foreign waters, and their broader territorial expansionist rhetoric has fuelled concerns in Australia of a shifting power balance. These pleas for swift action against the Chinese military, and calls to shore up Australian defences and military alliances were seemingly falling on deaf ears. Until recently. The arrival of ‘AUKUS’ – the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US – announced in September 2021, marked a strategic policy shift in the West.

This comes as part of a broader campaign against China in the West. In the past couple of years, we have seen an increasingly hostile rhetoric deployed against the CCP; the war in Ukraine, and China’s reluctance to condemn the Russian invasion, has helped fuel this schism. Any hopes of rapprochement between the West and China are fading day-by-day. Recently, a plethora of governments have announced crackdowns on Chinese tech, with some debating complete bans on TikTok, the Chinese-run social media platform, citing data privacy concerns. Ultimately, the geopolitical divide is widening. AUKUS is a product of this.

The AUKUS pact binds together the three participating nations in a far-reaching defence alliance, aimed at confronting Chinese military expansion. Under the deal, Australia will get its first nuclear powered submarines, with targets to build at least 8 of these submarines. Nuclear powered submarines can stay under water for longer periods of time. While they are able to carry conventional missiles, their primary use will be intelligence gathering, and for deployment of special forces. Joe Biden stressed that the submarines would not be armed with nuclear missiles, in a bid to calm tensions, stating this agreement is not designed to be aggressive or aggrandizing.

Regardless, the Chinese government has responded with intense disapproval. China’s foreign ministry decried the pact and accused Australia of “walking further down the path of error and danger”. The criticism is not limited to China either. Former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, attacked the deal as the “worst international decision” by an Australian Labour Party government since World War I. Keating’s criticism primarily came from an economic standpoint, questioning where the money would come from to buy the submarines, and how the country would be able to financially sustain this new fleet in the years to come. The former PM’s comments came under intense scrutiny, with supporters of the AUKUS pact emphasising the necessity for the deal, to shore up Australia’s national defences. Similarly, polls from summer last year show that a large majority of Australians supported the deal, with between 60-70% of those polled in favour of the purchase of nuclear powered submarines.

Michael Shoebridge, Director of defence, strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute praised the deal, citing the “enormous defence capabilities and therefore ramifications for the region”. Even without being armed, the submarines will act as a “powerful deterrent capability” he added.

The emergence of the AUKUS pact marks a huge shift in the region. Despite China being Australia’s largest two-way trading partner, totalling $267 billion in trade revenue in 2020, relations have been souring between the two powers for years. AUKUS is the answer to Australia’s fears of an increasingly hostile China. It’s not only valuable to the Australians though.

The pact will tighten Australian-US defence and diplomatic ties, and will provide the US with a huge defence partner in the pacific to deter Chinese aggression. The deal not only signals to other Oceanic and Asian countries America’s willingness to support them, but it also beefs up pre-existing defence agreements, such as the QUAD between India, Japan, Australia and the US. For countries like Japan, where increased military spending in the face of Chinese aggression has already occurred, the pact is an assurance of Western support. The deal also proves greatly beneficial to the United Kingdom, as a means of reinforcing their global image and diminishing relevance on the world stage.

Last week saw the formalisation of the pact when Australian PM Anthony Albanese, Britain’s Rishi Sunak, and President Joe Biden met in San Diego. This coincided with the announcement from the US State Department of an $895 million deal to sell 220 cruise missiles to Australia, including tomahawk missiles. The Pentagon said the sale would improve Australia’s capability to work with the US and other allied forces, and Australia’s defence minister said they would enable the country to “reach out beyond our shores”.

With Britain’s Sunak defining China as a “challenge to the … international order”, and Australia ramping up defence spending, tensions are escalating.

The military agreements between Australia and her allies are challenging Chinese hostility and rebalancing the power scales enormously. The question is – is there an end goal? Will the heavy rhetoric and increasing militarisation act as enough of a deterrent, or could it spark a flame in an already tense region?


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