Why the US-Australia alliance against China?

1 April 2024
David Peterson
A missile launch during the joint US-Australian Talisman Sabre military exercise in northern Australian in 2023 PHOTO: AFP

The B-52 strategic bomber is truly a weapon of mass destruction. Designed by the United States during the Cold War to drop nuclear bombs on Russia, modern variants can carry 32 tons of bombs and cruise missiles, with a range of more than 14,000 kilometres. These death machines will soon be regularly operating from Australia’s Tindal air force base in the Northern Territory, allowing the US to strike southern China with either nuclear or conventional weapons.

Australia is an integral part of US war-fighting capabilities in Asia, hosting not only the B-52 bombers, but also detachments of US Marines and strategically vital US spy and communications bases, including at Pine Gap near Alice Springs and at Exmouth in Western Australia. Military integration with the US will only deepen when Australia takes delivery of nuclear attack submarines purchased as part of the AUKUS security pact, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

In the contest between the US and China to be Asia’s hegemonic power, Australia has bet all its chips on a US victory. Kurt Campbell, US President Joe Biden’s top diplomat responsible for the Asia-Pacific region, has praised AUKUS because it “gets Australia off the fence and locks it in for the next 40 years”.

Both the Liberal and Labor parties celebrate the alliance with the US as crucial for protecting Australian security. In reality, the alliance makes us less safe, not more. It ensures Australia would be a target for Chinese attacks if war breaks out with the US. That includes a very real risk of nuclear attack, since US assets in Australia are a core part of its ability to target and deliver its own nuclear weapons.

Siding with the US also jeopardises nearly $200 billion annually of Australian exports to China. Those exports have underpinned decades of extraordinary profits for Australian capitalists, particularly in the mining industry.

It raises the question of why Australian policy makers have bound themselves so tightly to the US. There is now nearly total identification of Australian and US interests in Asia, more so than for any other country. A range of academics and policy commentators have criticised this position, including former senior government officials. Most notably, former Prime Minister Paul Keating has described AUKUS as “the worst deal in all history”.

According to these critics, Australia must accommodate to China’s inevitable rise in economic and military strength, even accepting a future in which Beijing replaces Washington as the region’s hegemonic power. They argue that the US cannot be relied upon for security, and so Australia should strengthen its own military capacity and refocus diplomatic efforts on building ties with China and other Asian countries.

Such criticisms have had zero impact on Australia’s political and military elites. They accept that China’s power cannot be contained in any simple way, and that the future will bring a contested multipolar international order. But they are not prepared to accept a future in which China dominates the region.

Australia therefore is looking to strengthen relations with countries such as Japan, Indonesia and India, which have their own reasons for opposing Chinese hegemony. But without the US maintaining a presence in Asia as a counterbalance, the sheer weight of China could quickly overwhelm any alternative regional alliances both economically and militarily. So in Australian eyes, the United States remains, in the words of former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, “the indispensable nation”.

The United States certainly remains the world’s pre-eminent military power. It has an unrivalled ability to project force around the globe, including in Asia from a string of bases in South Korea, Japan, Guam and the Philippines. China’s economy may now rival the US in total size of output. But the US is still much wealthier and can afford to spend more than double China’s spending on its armed forces. Its navy currently boasts eleven aircraft carriers, compared with China’s two. The US nuclear arsenal totals more than 5,000 warheads, dwarfing the 400 or so China can muster. Only the US is capable of providing the kind of support that has allowed Ukraine to resist Russia’s invasion, or security guarantees for Israel that permit it to wage genocidal war in Gaza without fear of retaliation from Iran.

Australia is a country with grand ambitions but limited economic and military means. The US alliance acts as a force multiplier, boosting Australia’s ability to compete with rival powers on the world stage. That includes US diplomatic backing and access to intelligence resources. More tangibly, Australia is permitted to buy the latest US military technology: not just nuclear submarines, but advanced jet aircraft, missiles, naval combat systems and more. Australia simply doesn’t have the industrial base to field a modern military without the support of a larger ally.

Most importantly, the alliance provides an implicit security guarantee that no hostile power can afford to ignore. Because it is a convenient location for its military and spy bases, the US has an interest in defending Australia from any overt military threat. This includes a presumption that any country using nuclear weapons against Australia would face retaliation from the United States.

And Australia gets all this on the cheap. Australian contributions to US wars have in recent decades been rather token affairs, providing niche capabilities rather than masses of troops. The real estate for US bases costs nothing. Although increasing, Australian military spending totals less than 2 percent of total economic output, compared with 3.5 percent for the US. Without the alliance, Australia would have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to develop “independent” capabilities, including likely building nuclear weapons of its own.

But if the US alliance boosts Australian military power, we should be clear that it has nothing to do with protecting people living here. Australia’s own strategic planning documents admit that actual invasion of this continent, by China or anyone else, remains a remote possibility. Australia is one of the most physically secure countries in the world, due to the geographic fortune of occupying a vast landmass surrounded by ocean and distant from other major powers.

Critics of the US alliance commonly explain it as the result of ingrained racism and paranoid invasion fears, with white colonialists simply assuming that other powers must covet territory they themselves had invaded by force. Hence a reliance first on Britain and then the United States as so-called great and powerful friends, bound together by racial solidarity against a hostile Asia.

Certainly, any national ruling elite forms strategic judgements based not only on objective material interests, but also on political factors including ideological persuasion, historical developments and institutional inertia. For the nascent Australian ruling class, as offspring of the British Empire, it was a self-evident truth that its own strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific were best served by the preservation of Britain’s naval supremacy.

When Japan shattered Britain’s power in World War Two, the United States was a natural fit as a replacement great power ally. In the subsequent 80 years, cultural and ideological affinities with the US have only strengthened. Diplomatic and especially military personnel from the two countries have worked closely together for decades. The US is the largest source of foreign capital invested in Australia, outweighing Chinese investment by nearly five to one. There are considerable corporate ties between Australia and the US, and a shared commitment to free market economic doctrines.

China, in stark contrast, appears alien and threatening, with very different political, legal and cultural traditions to Australia’s. In domestic politics, playing up fears of China resonates with racist sentiment among conservative sections of the population.

Nonetheless, the Australia-US alliance is based on more than racism or paranoia. Anti-Asian racism does not prevent Australian politicians seeking alliances for instance with Japan, formerly a direct rival for colonial possessions in the Pacific. China is perceived as a threat to Australian interests not simply because it is Asian, but because it seeks to overturn the status quo regional order that has prevailed under US hegemony over the past eight decades.

This is simply the latest manifestation of what Marxists call imperialism, in which each state strives to defend the interests of its own ruling class in the international arena. The result is systematic and unavoidable contestation over economic and strategic interests.

As China’s wealth and power grow, its ruling elites are increasingly impatient not only with US military dominance in the region, but also with the existing economic order. Under China’s state-capitalist model of development, central political authorities exercise substantial economic power, directing investment priorities and supervising business decisions. This sits uneasily with the liberal, free market model favoured by the United States and Australian capitalists. In terms of international relations, this model is codified in the so-called rules-based order.

This order is based on sovereign states, rather than colonies, empires or hierarchical trade blocs. Trade and investment decisions are largely left to the whims of the market, rather than governments directly negotiating specific trade deals or setting prices for goods. Underpinning this order is US military power, which keeps oceanic trade routes open, and a financial system based around the US dollar.

These arrangements have served the Australian ruling class well, for whom the last few decades have been a veritable golden age. As an advanced capitalist country, Australia has specialised in the efficient production of commodities like iron ore, coal and gas. Australian mining companies have reaped massive profits by producing these commodities at a quality and price that out-competes any other country. The corollary of this export strength is an equal reliance on the import of both simple and advanced manufactured goods. This reliance extends to key military inputs, including weapons and petroleum products.

As long as trade networks remain open, Australia’s economic specialisation is a strength. But if China displaces the United States as Asia’s hegemonic power, it could rewrite the “rule book” in its favour. In particular, Australia is one of the few countries that exports more to China than it imports. Market-determined pricing results in Chinese companies paying a premium for high quality Australian commodities. In the future, China could seek to impose a centrally negotiated trade regime with prices more in its favour. This might extend to future trade in lithium and rare earths.

Other concessions might also be forced on Australian capitalism. For example, China could seek to overturn the current ban on its companies operating 5G telephone networks in Australia. This ban was imposed over fears companies such as Huawei would serve as a Trojan horse for Chinese state espionage against both Australian security and commercial targets.

In short, the Australian ruling class has no desire to see an economic order based on direct political control and relative military strength, rather than free market principles. It fears being reduced to a satellite of the Chinese economy, incorporated into a trade bloc with the terms of engagement dictated by Beijing.

To date, Australia has been confident enough in resisting China’s so-called coercive statecraft. But the situation would be far less favourable without the firepower of the US navy. The experience of World War Two is deeply ingrained in Australian strategic thinking. Once British naval power was broken by Japan, Australia was cut off from its economic and military partners. It was exposed to Japanese raids, and its sphere of influence in the Pacific islands was invaded.

In the same way, Chinese military power in the future could be brought to bear on Australia well short of attempting outright invasion. Australia is particularly susceptible in both economic and military terms to any disruption to its long sea-borne trade routes. The Australian navy does not have sufficient scale to protect these routes alone, leaving Australia vulnerable to naval blockades. Small-scale raids on Australian territory or long-range missile strikes on infrastructure are further vulnerabilities. Australian fears are enhanced by Chinese success in defying the norms of international law to extend its power in the disputed South China Sea, and its threats of military action against Taiwan.

But rather than retreat into a defensive shell and seek to avoid confrontation with China, Australia’s strategy is to strengthen its own military power. In particular, that means acquiring weapons such as long-range missiles and nuclear-powered submarines, which can effectively fight Chinese forces thousands of kilometres from Australia’s shores.

Strengthening the alliance via the AUKUS deal not only gives Australia access to these weapons. It is also an attempt to influence the US itself. Since World War Two, there has been a remarkable convergence of strategic interests between Australia and the US. Writing in Australian Foreign Affairs, security studies academic Michael Wesley argues:

“The priorities for both countries are maintaining commercial access and political influence in Asia; keeping the great Pacific archipelago in friendly, or at least neutral, hands; and preventing regional domination by a hostile power that could use Asia’s resources to menace North America and Australia.”

But in the face of China’s rising power, there is the possibility that the US will simply abandon its position in Asia as not worth the cost of defending. At the very least, the US will expect its allies to make a more substantial contribution than previous token efforts to defending their joint interests. Australia hopes that by proving its worth as an ally, AUKUS will encourage the US to remain committed to their shared imperialist interests.

This is not unprecedented within the alliance relationship. During the Cold War, Australia promised to send troops to fight in Vietnam in the hope of encouraging the US to fully commit itself to containing the spread of Communism in South-East Asia.

Such manoeuvres demonstrate that the US alliance is not only an expression of Australian strategic fears, but also of its own imperial arrogance and born-to-rule mentality. Australia can and should play a role among Asia’s great powers, according to this logic, but that is possible only through a partnership with the US. Australia’s capitalists will not abandon their position in the international hierarchy lightly.

Australian confidence that a US-led regional order can be sustained against China’s challenge might ultimately be misplaced. If so, a fundamental rethinking of Australian economic and political alignments will be required. But for now, they are doubling down on the alliance with the US that has served their interests well for decades. In doing so, they risk dragging us all into a deadly confrontation between nuclear-armed rivals.

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