On 15 September, the Australian, UK and US governments announced AUKUS – a pact to share and jointly develop military technology, and to deepen military coordination in the so-called “Indo-Pacific” ocean region. Though this was officially unstated, and even tokenistically denied by Boris Johnson, the pact is universally understood as a move to counter and contain China.
The most prominently-advertised of the pact’s initial actions will be to equip Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines – taking the place of a now-scrapped deal in which a French manufacturer was set to replace Australia’s fleet of conventional (diesel-electric-powered) subs.
Only seven states possess nuclear subs so far. They are faster, quieter, and can stay underwater far longer, making them stealthier and longer-range. Where smaller, nimbler, conventional submarines may be more effective for defending coastlines and ports from invasion, this new deal to provide nuclear submarines would make the Australian Navy a stronger force further afield.
According to Paul Rogers, a writer and researcher on military and security, the switch is about increasing the fleet’s ability to roam up into the Indian Ocean and the tension-ridden South China Sea.
Military dominance in the region is hotly contested. The US-led power bloc wants to maintain the global hegemony by which it protects the existing economic order and its place as the number one imperial power. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese state resents western powers’ control in what it considers its “backyard” (mirroring the US’s own attitude to its own region). And it has ambitions to challenge this and impose itself, as an at-least-regional imperial power on that “backyard” and its inhabitants.
Matthew Kroenig (a former US defence official, now with the Atlantic Council think-tank) put it more bluntly, applauding the move as ideal for ensuring the US-led power bloc’s ability “to sink the Chinese navy in seventy-two hours”.
On the other hand, there are some sceptical voices even among Western ruling classes’ hawkish factions. Australian journalist Peter Hartcher pointed out that the switch will add further costs and delay replacement of Australia’s existing ageing submarines to 2040. Nevertheless, Hartcher ultimately applauded the pact for its confrontational posture towards Beijing.
On the left too, David Brophy (a left-wing historian in Sydney who opposes both China’s persecution of the Uyghurs and Australian politics’ intensifying hawkishness and McCarthyism) argues that the delay to 2040 means that the submarines are not the centrally important thing here. This makes sense - by 2040, the context could be completely different, so we should not get carried away attempting to assess this move in military-technical terms. Rather, he says, the pact is a strong signal that the Australian state is “locking in” to a stance of confrontation.
What the AUKUS announcement does represent is another provocative step in the ratcheting up of dangerous tensions between the big powers. Indonesia’s government has already expressed its concern about the “continuing arms race and power projection in the region”.
It will, in turn, boost the hardliners within the Chinese ruling class, who want to accelerate away from economic interdependence – the very interdependence that we might hope would pose an obstacle to open conflict. Rogers points out that AUKUS is not only good news for the bosses of the US, UK and Australian arms industries, but for their Chinese counterparts too.
Globally, the submarine deal also represents at least a “stretching” of nuclear non-proliferation norms. The parties to AUKUS have been at pains to clarify that Australia is not seeking nuclear weapons, and the submarines will not be nuclear-armed. But US and UK nuclear submarine reactors use more highly-enriched fuel than civilian power plants – we are talking about the spread of weapons-grade fissile material.
And if the nature of the deal shifts and Australia produces this domestically rather than buying it in, the necessary industrial development would shorten the time required if it did later choose to create nuclear weapons (so-called “breakout capability”).
The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty places strict safeguards on weaponisable nuclear material, but allows an exemption from these safeguards in the case of “non-proscribed” military uses like submarine propulsion. Australia would be the first non-nuclear-armed state to use this loophole. And even if Australia went no further, it would set a precedent that could make nuclear proliferation and breakout capability harder to contain.
There is further cause for concern when we look past the submarines to the wider, perhaps more materially impactful aspects of the pact – combined efforts to develop and apply yet more powerful military technology, and heightened coordination to strengthen the bloc’s military power. In the short term, the region is likely to see an increased presence of US military assets, via a step up in US military basing and rotation in Australia (for instance, more access to Australian ports for US nuclear submarines).
We will have to wait and see how China’s response unfolds. But its ruling class is no less hungry for profit and great-power-status power than that of the US. It is already building up its military power with determination, whipping up aggressive nationalism, and imposing itself on neighbouring states, as well as its internal national groups like the Tibetans and Uyghurs. It is not an agent for peace and it shares responsibility for the ratcheting-up of tension. So we should not be surprised if this leads to further rounds of tit-for-tat escalation.
Western hawks have made much headway by associating their drive for superpower confrontation with rhetoric about democracy and human rights. The likes of Iain Duncan Smith – co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China – justify militarisation with talk of the “free world” taking on the Chinese state’s suffocating authoritarianism and its brutal abuses against dissenters and against national and ethnic minorities.
But militarisation and escalating geopolitical hostility – let alone any actual outbreak into conflict – will do nothing to help the people of Hong Kong, Tibet, the Uyghur Region or Taiwan, nor workers, women and minorities in mainland China.
Moreover, the “democratic” states’ ruling classes have no interest in wielding their foreign policies and militaries for any ideal higher than their own power and profit interests. They consistently violate human rights around the world, and willingly prop up murderous tyrants when it suits them. AUKUS will be about as much of a force for justice, freedom or democracy as NATO is – i.e. not at all.
Our leaders also spoke of protecting the conditions for “prosperity” as they announced the new pact. They mean the current economic order – the “imperialism of free trade” that dominates the world today, guarded at final resort by the current US-led military hegemony. But this is a system that ensures prosperity for our bosses, not the working classes around the world. It is not ours to defend. Of course, nor do we have any interest in replacing it with an equally exploitative new order tilted towards Chinese billionaires instead of Western billionaires.
So clearly, we oppose AUKUS as part of our stand against militarism, imperialism and war. In the context of rising tensions, we must redouble our fight for that stand. We must denounce and push to reverse the UK Labour Party leadership’s abject (though hardly surprising) endorsement of the deal.
But the nature of our opposition, of our anti-militarist politics, matters. It is not enough to simply be against our own government’s militarism.
As we’ve seen, the right situates its military talk as part of a wider narrative about the “free world” versus a threatening China. They have found this framing useful and effective in building consent (from enthusiastic support to passive acceptance) for their hawkish policies. To win people round, and to build internationalist solidarity, our response must be founded on challenging that narrative with one of our own.
The Stalinist leaders of the “No Cold War” campaign respond by presenting the Chinese state as, broadly, a bastion of anti-imperialism and socialist struggle. Such apologists tend to argue that to highlight the Chinese state’s crimes is to “beat the drums of war”, or worse.
Whether out of naivety or malice, they offer left cover to the “Communist” Party of China and the brutally exploitative, repressive, unequal socioeconomic system over which it presides. They peddle denialist conspiracy theories, or even attempted justifications, for the CCP’s racist and colonial atrocities against Uyghurs, Tibetans and others. And they excuse or ignore the Chinese state’s own contribution to the arms race, its whipping up of militaristic nationalism, and its sabre-rattling and threats to Taiwan.
A left that is serious about socialism, and the democratic and human liberation that real socialism would represent, can only utterly reject this kind of morally and intellectually abject garbage.
Founding an anti-war, anti-militarist movement on apologism for the Chinese state betrays the internationalism that should be at the heart of such a movement. It will disgust and alienate all the people who understand these crimes and want to oppose them, especially leftwing exiles and diasporans who ought to be a core part of such a coalition.
It is a particular slap in the face to those workers and oppressed people in China (and in Taiwan and other countries over which China looms) who are resisting.
It cedes these issues entirely to be coopted by right-wing hawks, who seek to appeal to those alienated by this betrayal.
The suggestion that the left must downplay criticisms of our government’s enemies, or else risk losing the working class to nationalist warmongering, is also an insult to workers’ intelligence. It is not beyond the ability of working-class people to simultaneously understand the reality of the Chinese state and ruling class, the dishonesty of the western powers’ claims to be advancing freedom and democracy, and the danger posed by arms races and great power confrontations.
Many of these supposed socialists, internationalists and anti-imperialists are happy to endorse the Chinese state’s rhetoric about a “multipolar world”. But a multipolar world is not a world free of oppressors and empires – it is simply a demand by a rising power for a bigger slice of the pie. A demand that the US-led alliance should be pushed back, not in the name of wider liberation, but to secure China its own sphere of domination.
The world has been “multipolar” before. The indigenous peoples of the Americas were played off one other, slaughtered and dominated amidst the competition between the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires. The butchery of the First World War was conducted in service of a competition between great powers seeking to re-divide the claims and spoils of their empires.
To be sure, the US is currently the hegemonic power – its reach and dominance still vastly outstrips that of China. We have no interest in defending the existing order. But nor would it be any kind of socialist or liberatory advance to replace one big stars-and-stripes boot to the face of the world, with a slightly wider variety of different coloured boots. So as we oppose AUKUS, we cannot for a moment suggest that it would be preferable for Australia to instead attempt to align itself with China in the superpower rivalry.
At their crudest and slimiest, the pseudo-left western cheerleaders for the ascendent Chinese empire lapse into “sinophilic” stereotyping. Appearing on Owen Jones’ show to discuss the rising tensions, Martin Jacques held forth with a thoroughly orientalist fetishization of the Chinese national culture as so fundamentally different from the US that its coming superpower hegemony will be essentially benign.
(To his credit, Jones – who has repeatedly spoken out against the Chinese state’s repression of the Uyghurs – did attempt to stake a position against such essentialism.)
Confronting the US-led powers’ attempt to maintain their hegemony on the one hand, and the rising rival that is China on the other, the internationalist left’s difficult but necessary task is to build a “third camp” against both. The force capable of replacing imperialism and militarism with socialism and freedom is not a rival state, for which we must become vicarious chauvinists and reverse nationalists. It is an impoverished, myopic version of internationalism that cannot think beyond existing geopolitics, as if we can only relate to events abroad via opposing or encouraging actions by our own state toward other states, and as if the horizon of our ambitions is a rebalanced international order of states and the ruling classes they represent.
Instead, the potential power that socialists look to is working class and oppressed people around the world, linking up and organising together in solidarity for our collective self-emancipation.
Therefore, the internationalist left’s response needs to be positive, not merely negative. A “lowest common denominator” approach will not cut it. We are not merely against war and militarism: we are for another world. For emancipation from exploitation and oppression, for freedom, democracy and self-determination. To rebut the hawks’ cynical postures, we must put forward our ideas, and our socialist project, as the real way to combat oppression globally. It is in these broader principles that we must root our anti-militarist activism.