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What does AUKUS deal mean for Asia?

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) meets with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the 76th UN General Assembly on Tuesday in New York. AFP

What does AUKUS deal mean for Asia?

In a televised unveiling of Aukus, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and US, President Joe Biden called Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison “that fellow from Down Under” in what appears to have been a senior moment. Considering that the military alliance has upset a lot of people from China, France and even their own commentators, this gaffe should not have been surprising.

Has Australia, one of the four advanced Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries from the Asian region (Japan, South Korea and New Zealand), seriously thought through AUKUS implications on her Asian neighbours?

First, do eight nuclear submarines by 2040 make serious military sense for Australian security? We can understand that a maritime power in the South Pacific with lots of coastal waters to patrol needs a strong navy. But as former Prime Minister Paul Keating rightly pointed out, China is a land-based power and, being over 3,220km away from Australia, does not present a military threat to the country. Assuming that the nuclear submarines will be similar to those planned by the US, which will acquire 12 of the Columbia class nuclear submarines for $128 billion by 2030 (US GAO), Australia may be paying at least $85 billion for equipment that may be obsolete by the time they come onstream.

By 2040, even the US director of National Intelligence has admitted that China’s GDP (22.8 per cent of world GDP) would outclass the US (20.8 per cent). Twenty years is a long time to improve defences against submarine attacks. Submarines have at best deterrent effects under conventional warfare, but their real threat comes from carrying nuclear missiles. But even the potential of carrying such missiles would invite enemy nuclear retaliation.

This is exactly why ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Indonesia showed serious concern that the Auskus deal may become a catalyst to the nuclear arms race. If that is the case, Australia would lose her status as a haven for nuclear-free living, something that New Zealand cares seriously about, which is why she distanced herself from the deal.

Second, who would spend nearly the same amount of money that they earn to point a gun at their best customer? China imported $100 billion in 2020 from Australia, with the latter earning a trade and service surplus of $55.5 billion. Then to spend $85 billion (with likely huge over-runs based on past experience) on defence against your top trading customer defies business logic.

Third, the Anglosphere military alliance created a split with Europe, already sore after Brexit and Kabul. France is not only the first foreign ally of the US (helping in the US Independence War against Britain), but also has serious Indo-Pacific interests with 93 per cent of her maritime economic exclusivity zone (10.2 million sq km), the second largest in the world, located there.

Fourth, you have to ask whether Australian military intelligence is an oxymoron when they recently ordered 70-tonne US Abram tanks that are too heavy to carry by train nor across Northern Territory bridges by road to defend the Northern Australia coast.

Her Asian neighbours would be much happier if Australia took the lead in the Asia-Pacific region on climate change, rather than spending on arms. Among the rich countries, Australia has the highest per capita emission rate, similar to the US. But out of 200 countries, Australia ranks fifth or sixth as biggest global emitter, so her voice on fulfilling the requirements of the Paris Accord matters. Unfortunately, given the huge influence of the mining lobby, Australia may not even achieve her Paris agreement to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, let alone improve on that commitment by COP26.

Australia may be rich enough to mitigate against her own risks of climate warming, but the effect of climate change on her neighbours, particularly the Pacific Islands, is going to be devastating. In 2019, Pacific island nations such as Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, East Timor and Tonga declared that by 2030, their lands could become uninhabitable by rising seas, water salination, reef destruction and more natural disasters.

The latest World Bank model suggests that the global decline in biodiversity and collapse in ecosystem services such as wild pollination, food from marine fisheries and timber from native forests could result in $2.7 trillion decline in global GDP by 2030. The injustice is that the poorest countries, including those in Asia-Pacific, will bear most of such eco-system and GDP losses. In particular, many indigenous people whose livelihood depends on nature will bear the costs of loss of habitat and livelihoods.

Why are we not surprised that on 13 September 2007, when the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by 144 member countries, the four votes against were Anglosphere countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US? In all four rich countries, the record of treatment of the indigenous people have been shameful, such as the unmarked graves of indigenous schoolchildren in forced assimilation schools in Canada. According to Human Rights Watch, Aboriginal and Torres Islander people comprise 29 per cent of the Australian adult prison population, but just three per cent of the population. In the US, states with large native populations have incarceration rates for American Indians up to seven times that of whites.

The Aukus military alliance essentially signals to the world that money spent on real war is preferred to money spent on social justice at home and concerns for people and the planet. Who really profits from the nuclear submarine contract? Look no further than the exclusive submarine suppliers such as General Dynamics (US) and British Aerospace (UK).

The Aukus deal confirms essentially that Australia opts to sink or swim with their rich Anglosphere few, rather than the global many.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective

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