We are making a huge bet on the staying power of the United States, commentators from Hugh White to Paul Keating assure us.
There is no question the purchase of nuclear-powered submarines from the United States is likely to make us dependent on the Americans for a significant chunk of the maintenance of one of the mainstays of our defence. Moreover, in light of the political instability on the other side of the Pacific, and America's apparent relative economic decline compared to China, is this not a dangerous gamble?
Don't get me wrong. I don't harbour many illusions about the risks inherent in placing so much reliance on the United States. Donald Trump's disastrous presidency uncovered numerous vulnerabilities in the American political system, which could lead to even worse outcomes in the future. Moreover, regardless of American domestic politics, it could be that decades from now the US will simply no longer have the military and economic heft to compete with China in the Asia-Pacific.
But here's the rub. What if an American withdrawal from 'West of Hawaii' would leave Australia bereft of any good options to defend itself against China regardless of whether we aimed for 'strategic independence' or not?
Suppose, for instance, it's 2040 and the United States has fully withdrawn all its military assets from the Pacific west of Honolulu and declared it has no further interest in the region. Suppose moreover that Australia is now faced with a military conflict with China. Even suppose Australia has, for decades, undertaken a policy to diversify the ADF's suppliers away from the US and has built a formidable 'sea denial' force, along the lines outlined by Hugh White, to prevent a Chinese landing in Australia. Is Australia secure?
Let's grant that the ADF has an independent capability to prevent the PLA from landing on Australia's shores, what would China do? Quite simply, if they were being smart, they wouldn't try to land in the first place. They would cut off our sea lanes of communication and wait us out. While we are self-sufficient in food and many minerals, we depend crucially on imports for many other vital resources, especially oil.
During World War II, Germany came within three weeks of cutting off Britain's lifeline to North America, even though Germany, not much larger in population than Britain anyway, was devoting only a small proportion of its resources to the U-boat war and the United States was providing Britain with extensive help and the British had broken the Enigma code and the Germans did not have the benefit of modern technology such as long range anti-ship missiles. If Australia really did try to stand alone against China, it could be choked out from the high seas quite quickly, as Hugh himself recognises.
The only realistic alternative to the alliance with the United States, then, is not for Australia to try to stand alone but rather to join some kind of 'group of the rest' - other regional states also concerned about China's rise, most likely led by Japan. Yet here there are problems, too. Would Japan want this role? Could it overcome strong domestic anti-militarism? How could the members of a putative Asian alliance or coalition overcome the 'freerider' problems inherent in managing such an under taking? Generally, an alliance of many medium and small sized states will tend to be more unwieldy and less effective than one led by a large one.
Now it's quite possible, even likely, the scenario above will not come to pass. It's quite possible China's aims are entirely benign. But defence policy has to consider worst-case scenarios, even if they are unlikely. That's why most states maintain armed forces in the first place. There are many reasonable critiques of AUKUS and the subs deal. But, the argument it will make us dependent on the United States isn't one of them - because we are dependent on them anyway.
- Dr Charles Miller is a lecturer at the Australian National University's College of Arts and Social Sciences.