Wednesday 22 March 2023

AUKUS Revealed


Details of the AUKUS programme have finally surfaced (excuse the clunky metaphor) after leaks that moved the emphasis from its content to the media reaction.

Paul Keating's criticism was characteristically direct and comprehensive, and he has been consistent on this topic for decades. His personal attacks on the current cabinet were not constructive in terms of the debate, except to give the fifth estate a serve which they probably deserved. His rationale was lost in the crossfire.

There are plenty of defence analysts who share his view, but from a different perspective.

The Chinese are not going to be worried about a few extra nuclear boats that rotate through Australian ports, even if they have hostile intent. 

What is more significant to me, as an ex-conscript who lived through the sixties and seventies, are the memories of fear being used to wedge the Australian voter into supporting US led adventures into Asia. 

That fear of isolation, of the Asian "other" and threats "coming down" from the north of the continent has always been embedded in the Australian post-colonial psyche. It is powerful, and has been used to great political effect for more than a century. 

It saw its origins in the anti-Chinese riots during the gold rush era, morphed into the White Australia policy, was supercharged by Imperial Japan during World War Two, and persisted through Korea and Vietnam.

The only time it was real was in 1942, although archival material has revealed that the Japanese had no intention of a military invasion of Australia. It helped maintain conservative governments in power until 1972, when press and electronic media coverage of the situation in Vietnam revealed that the war was a tragedy, and its rationale based on mythology.

Another thread running through our recent history as a result of the events of 1940 - 44, is the belief that we always need strong and powerful friends to have our back. We can learn two historical lessons from that era. The first is that those strong and powerful friends can be rendered useless in very short time. Fortress Singapore fell between December 1941 and February 1942, when the British and Commonwealth forces were routed by the Japanese. After the fall of Singapore Churchill made it clear that he was prepared to sacrifice an Australian division to save his jewel of the Empire in Burma.

The Americans came to our aid not to save Australia, but to establish an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the South-West Pacific. In the case of both these "great and powerful friends" their self-preservation was always the first cab off the rank. The Japanese overreached, and Australia was lucky.

We cannot assume that this history will repeat, and that the USA (especially if an isolationist like Trump is in power) will continue to support us. 

This is the fundamental weakness of AUKUS. It involves one "friend" who abandoned us in 1942 because it needed to save itself, and another who helped us only because it was in their security interests to do so.

The only lesson we can take from the recent past is that we cannot ignore the geography. We need to build alliances, strategic and economic, with our northern neighbours, and at the same time develop a totally independent defence policy.

Whilst Keating is right, he probably should have avoided personal criticism of his party, but Labor has been wedged by the politics of fear. They really had no choice but to back AUKUS, but their timidity is shameful, and it does not bode well for our future security.

The images provide a clear narrative of these politics. Recent headlines in the local media are eerily redolent of the anxieties of the past that led us into tragedies such as Vietnam and Iraq.

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