AUKUS and the US alliance: Australian imperialism in the Indo-Pacific

by Tom Bramble • Published 15 February 2022

Australia is playing a leading role in the growing imperialist competition in the Indo-Pacific. The Morrison government, with the full support of the Labor Opposition, is backing the United States in its contest with China for supremacy in the region. This is consistent with Australia’s longstanding record as a junior partner of US imperialism. In this article, I will outline the various ways in which the Australian government is inserting itself into US attempts to halt China’s growing challenge to US hegemony. In doing so, Australia is making military conflict in the region more likely, with potentially devastating consequences. The left must oppose Australia’s involvement in the US-led war drive. At the same time, socialists must not give ground to the idea that China is in any way a lesser evil or supportable. Our main enemy remains our own ruling class, but the military adventurism of both the major imperialist camps, China as well as the US and its allies, must be opposed.

Australia’s spring offensive

The spring of 2021 saw a series of announcements that indicate Australia’s growing military aggression in the Indo-Pacific. The first episode in what could be called Australia’s Spring Offensive was the announcement on 16 September of the tripartite AUKUS pact, joining Australia together with the United States and Britain in a new military alliance. While the three countries have been military partners in many wars in the past century and have regularly conducted joint exercises in peacetime, AUKUS is a step up from the status quo. Certainly, that is the intention of its architects, with a top US official describing the pact as “a fundamental decision that binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations”[1] or, in Scott Morrison’s words, “a forever partnership”.[2] This new pact, supposedly put together to defend democracy against autocrats, was stitched together and announced as a fait accompli to the publics of the three countries without even a parliamentary vote.

AUKUS is an aggressive alliance designed to maintain US imperialist domination of the Indo-Pacific region. Australia’s decision to scrap the French diesel-powered submarine fleet in favour of an American-British nuclear-powered fleet is a significant step in this regard. The sole basis for this decision is to equip Australia with a submarine fleet capable of joining the US in a war far from its shores. Even more than diesel submarines, nuclear-propelled submarines are a purely offensive weapon. They can remain underwater for months, reducing the chance of detection, and can travel much longer distances without refuelling. These two factors make them perfect for engaging in operations in the South China Sea or close to Taiwan. True to its record as an imperialist party, the ALP welcomed AUKUS and the new submarine contract.

The significance of the AUKUS announcement goes beyond the new submarines, which will not be able to undertake missions for at least two or three decades. More important in any coming conflict were the other measures announced the following day at the annual meeting of Australian and US defence and foreign ministers in Washington, known as AUSMIN.[3] These included the development, through the AUKUS partnership, of “deeper integration and security-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains, as well as deeper cooperation on a range of defense and security capabilities”. The latter will involve the rotational deployment of US aircraft of all types in Australia, including B1 bombers, increased use of Australian ports by the US Navy and more joint exercises on land. The Northern Territory and Western Australia will be the focus of this increased military activity.

The NT has seen an increasing US presence in recent years and is becoming a staging point for military personnel, logistics and resources. The US already stations 2,500 Marines on rotation through what is effectively a US base outside Darwin and conducts regular exercises with the Australian Army. The US has announced about $2 billion in funding for future defence projects across the NT, including construction of giant fuel storage tanks on Darwin’s RAAF base, enabling the US to conduct more military flights to and from the Territory. The Australian government is supporting this US commitment with more than $700 million in infrastructure upgrades across the NT’s defence bases as part of a planned $8 billion military spending program over 10 years in the Territory.[4] It is likely that the US Navy will also seek access to the HMAS Stirling base in Perth for its nuclear ships and submarines, while the US will supply the Australian Navy with long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles. US chargé d’affaires in Australia, Michael Goldman, told the ABC that the rotation of US military forces was likely to be “only getting bigger, more integrated, more ambitious and better in the future”.[5]

Other joint US-Australian initiatives discussed at AUSMIN included the creation of a “Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise” in Australia along with hypersonic weapons and electromagnetic warfare research and production. Australian ministers acknowledged US certification of Australian-made TNT explosives as an alternative source of supply to the US military and welcomed the US Department of Defense’s decision to commission Australian company Lynas to build a factory in Texas to boost production of rare earths, for which China otherwise holds a monopoly.[6] The decision in December by the Australian Defence Force to ditch its entire fleet of European-designed Taipan helicopters, replacing them with new Black Hawks and Seahawks imported from the United States at a cost of billions of dollars, is another indication of Australia’s desire to integrate its hardware with that of the US to facilitate future military operations.[7]

Just a few days after the AUSMIN meeting, the first in-person meeting of leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Pact (the Quad) took place in Washington, the third element of Canberra’s Spring Offensive. This brought together US president Joe Biden and the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan. The Quad has been many years in the making, but with Quad partners all experiencing growing tensions with China, it is now a strategic priority for the four nations.[8]

Although the Quad’s communiques promise cooperation on vaccine manufacture and distribution, international education and climate action, its main, if unstated, purpose is to coordinate nations to fight China in the name of advancing “a free and open Indo-Pacific”. To this end, the Quad members will cooperate on cyber security, new technology and secure supply chains. Joint military exercises are also a priority. Since 2014, the navies of Japan, India and the US have conducted annual exercises, and in 2020 Australia joined the trio in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.[9] If China attacks or blockades Taiwan, the Quad could coordinate military assets, including land-based anti-ship missiles and other strike capabilities that could hit China.

With the Quad now formalised, there is already talk of who else might join it, and of other regional groupings of small numbers of countries, so-called “minilateralism”, that might come together to form an overarching web of alliances in Asia to challenge China. In 2019 the Philippines joined Japan, India and the US in so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, while South Korea has held military exercises with Australia, Japan and the US. In 2020, Canada joined Quad members in anti-submarine exercises. Another option open to the Quad is sharing military intelligence with the “Five Eyes” intelligence partnership.[10] The confirmation in December of a $1 billion deal with South Korean company Hanwha to build 30 self-propelled howitzers and 15 armoured ammunition resupply vehicles for the army in Geelong is another indication of Australia’s growing military ties with Asian allies.[11]

The Quad is not yet Asia’s NATO. It is still a relatively untested alliance. Japan has little recent overseas military experience. India’s main military rival is not China but Pakistan, and the country has traditionally looked to Russia, rather than the US, for military supplies. Japan also has a history of fractious relations with South Korea rooted in Japan’s imperialist past. But regardless of such weaknesses, these alliances between major industrial powers are far stronger than anything China possesses.

The fourth element of the Morrison government’s Spring Offensive was its very public commitment to joining the US in the event of war with China over Taiwan. For years, the US has maintained what it calls “strategic ambiguity”, refusing to say whether it would go to war with China if China attacked Taiwan. Australia followed this protocol. The Biden presidency has now cast doubt on this principle, making ambiguous statements, and the Morrison government is keen to encourage a shift to a more openly belligerent stance.[12] In October, former prime minister Tony Abbott visited Taiwan in a supposedly private trip and told his audience of Taiwanese and other Asian leaders that Australia must throw its weight behind Taiwan.[13] Serving Australian ministers have become equally forthright. After the AUSMIN talks, Australia’s ministers described Taiwan as a “leading democracy” and a “critical partner” and in November Defence Minister Peter Dutton told The Australian newspaper that it “would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action”.[14]

While the dominant position on the Australian left is that Australia joins the US in wars because its political leaders are too weak to stand up to US bullying, the AUKUS pact is in large part the work of the Morrison government. The government recognised in 2020 that the planned fleet of diesel submarines was incapable of undertaking the kind of Australian missions required for a war with China.[15] It approached and won the support of the British government, the only nation to enjoy access to American nuclear propulsion technology, and together they approached the new Biden administration to add Australia to this very exclusive club. Australia is quite capable of stirring up imperialist tensions without in any way being pushed into doing so by the US.

None of this has anything to do with defending Australia, if that is understood to mean the people of Australia, which is how politicians usually try to promote military spending. These moves aim to boost Australian power and protect US domination of the region. As Australia’s ambassador to the US, Arthur Sinodinos, put it in November 2021, referring to the nuclear submarines:

We want to be able to, in these deteriorating strategic circumstances, be able to project our power further up, rather than taking an approach that all our defence has to be a defence of the mainland. This is about how we project power, and therefore how we are able to shape the security environment in which we operate in the Indo-Pacific.[16]

Canberra’s Spring Offensive emerges out of several years of heightened Australian antagonism towards China. Successive Defence White Papers (2009, 2013, 2016) have identified China as the chief threat to Australia’s imperialist interests in the Asia-Pacific. Coalition governments have steadily lifted military spending since 2013 and in the 2021 federal Budget, the Morrison government forecast that military expenditure in 2023-24 will be 27 percent higher than in 2018-19.[17] Acquisition of nuclear submarines will push the bill still higher.

Gone are many of the diplomatic niceties that once prevailed. In 2014, Chinese president Xi Jinping became one of the few state leaders afforded the privilege of speaking to a joint sitting of the Australian parliament. Six months later, when the text of the new free trade agreement between the two countries was finalised, Abbott described it as a “milestone in bilateral relations” and congratulated the two negotiating teams who had drafted it:

What you have collectively done is history making for both our countries, it will change our countries for the better, it will change our region for the better…change our world for the better.[18]

This language has been relegated to the history books. In 2017, Abbott’s successor Malcolm Turnbull introduced foreign influence legislation, measures targeting supposed “fifth columnists” among Australia’s Chinese community, and tighter regulation of Chinese investments in Australia. At a time when Britain was celebrating its growing ties with China, including handing Huawei responsibility for rolling out 5G, Australia led the charge to exclude the Chinese company from Western telecommunication networks. In recent years, Australia has played a leading diplomatic role, hypocritically denouncing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet as well as China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. In 2020, the Morrison government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID, hoping to embarrass the CCP. Even decisions the Coalition government once defended, including leasing the port of Darwin to the Chinese company Landbridge, it is now looking to overturn under pressure from the US and the Australian national security agencies. The “serious” Nine print media and ABC have been cheerleaders for this turn in Australia’s foreign policy. There are still occasionally faint echoes of “not being forced to choose between the US and China” in speeches by government ministers, but the AUKUS announcement was definitive: Australia has chosen, staking out a role as one of China’s leading antagonists.

China of course is not a passive victim of all this: imperialism is nothing if not a contest. China is just as keen to push the US out of what it regards as its sphere of influence in Asia as the US is to preserve its dominance. For several years, China has been steadily expanding its military presence in the South China Sea, including building air strips on atolls. It has dramatically increased spending on aerial, naval and space weaponry. It has imposed direct rule on Hong Kong in all but name. It has increased its intimidation of Taiwan, including dozens of flights by the PLA Air Force into what Taiwan claims as its air defence zone. And it appears equally willing to spar with Australia. In response to the Australian call for an inquiry into the origins of COVID in 2020, China imposed restrictions on imports of Australian coal, followed by meat, cotton, wool, barley, timber, copper, sugar, lobster and wine. It then issued a list of 14 demands on the Australian government, demanding it back off its aggressive measures or suffer continued Chinese sanction. Soon after, it imposed restrictions on official meetings and communication with government ministers and expelled the last remaining Australian journalists. These actions demonstrate that what is taking place cannot be reduced to Western bullying of an oppressed nation, but is a contest between imperial rivals. While the US and its allies, including Australia, enjoy a series of advantages, China remains an active and aggressive protagonist in the overall system of competition

Labor’s response

The Morrison government’s more aggressive posture towards China has been fully backed by the ALP. Within 24 hours of the announcement of AUKUS and the submarine deal last September, the Opposition announced its support for them both:

Labor looks forward to strengthened cooperation with our close allies, through the AUKUS partnership announced today.

This affirms what Labor has been calling for; deeper partnerships with allied and aligned nations, to build a region which is stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty.[19]

Except for the Maritime Union and the Electrical Trades Union, no unions criticised the announcement, neither the tens of billions that will be added to the military budget nor the military threat that the submarines represent to the people of the Indo-Pacific.

The only time the Labor Opposition criticised the Morrison government was when it over-reached established protocols. And so when Dutton stated that Australia would back Taiwan, contradicting “strategic ambiguity”, Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong accused the minister of playing dangerous “political games” and “amping up war”. Dutton’s statement was, Wong argued, “wildly out of step with the strategy long adopted by Australia and our principal ally”.[20] If and when the US shifts strategy towards Taiwan, it is very likely Labor will follow suit, and if the US does go to war with China over Taiwan, Labor will be at America’s side.

It is not just federal Labor that has failed to criticise the Morrison government’s aggressive militarism. Labor state premiers vie with their Coalition colleagues in promoting their states as defence manufacturing hubs. The Palaszczuk government in Queensland boasts of partnering with German company Rheinmetall to produce military vehicles and with Boeing to manufacture drones, backed by millions of dollars in subsidies.[21] The Andrews government promotes the arms industry in Victoria, stating that it is the home of hundreds of companies supplying the Australian armed forces with land, sea and air weapons systems.[22]

Labor’s stance should come as no surprise. Labor has a longstanding record backing Australian and US militarism. The party was in power during both world wars, as well as the 1991 Gulf War. It supported the war and occupation of Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq and Australia’s regular armed deployments in Pacific islands. Successive Labor governments have safeguarded the Pine Gap spy station and welcomed visits by US nuclear warships.

Support for the US alliance is an item of faith in the US parliamentary caucus. The ALP takes pride in the fact that the first steps towards what became ANZUS were taken by the governments of John Curtin and Ben Chifley, and every Labor leader pays homage to it. In March 2011, for example, then prime minister Julia Gillard addressed a joint sitting of the US Congress, in which she told those assembled:

In both our countries, real mates talk straight. We mean what we say. You have an ally in Australia. An ally for war and peace. An ally for hardship and prosperity. An ally for the sixty years past and Australia is an ally for all the years to come.[23]

Now that the stakes are being raised in competition with China, no Labor figure wants to be seen to be critical either of the US alliance or of the growing preparations for war with China. This was obvious in November 2021 in the responses to a National Press Club speech by former leader Paul Keating attacking Dutton’s commitment to join the US in defence of Taiwan.[24] Keating argued that Australia had nothing to gain from doing so. It would be not only militarily foolhardy but financially disastrous going to war with the country’s leading trade partner. Keating argued that rather than raising military tensions with China, Australia should try to suppress them. He argued that the nuclear submarines would reduce Australia’s military autonomy because the propulsion units would be controlled by US technicians and would as a result “simply be part of the United States force directed by the United States”.[25] He attacked the mainstream media for its hypocrisy, highlighting China’s human rights abuses while ignoring that of the US and its Asian allies.

In some respects, there was nothing exceptional about Keating’s speech: it was not a socialist or internationalist response to Dutton’s comments. It epitomised what had until recent years been a widespread opinion in ruling class circles, that Australian capitalism had more to gain by creating space for China’s rise in the region than by treating it as a threat. But while Keating’s comments might once have been regarded as a legitimate contribution to a debate, they were now regarded as anathema by most of the political establishment. Dutton said that Keating was “out of control and damaging our country” and called him “Grand Appeaser Comrade Keating”.[26] Mainstream media commentators such as Chris Uhlmann and Peter Hartcher, along with Australian Strategic Policy Institute council member and Macquarie University academic Lavina Lee, attacked Keating as well.

But Keating was also attacked by federal Labor. While Dutton tried to implicate Albanese in Keating’s statements, accusing the Labor leader of “backing in the Chinese government”, Labor’s deputy leader Richard Marles said that while Keating is “entitled to his view…Labor have made it completely clear the challenges that China represents”.[27] Marles is right – the ALP has worked in lockstep with the Liberals over the question of China. There is nothing to suggest that if Labor wins office at the coming federal election it will be anything other than an enthusiastic supporter of the US in its efforts to contain China’s power in the region.

Junior partner of US imperialism

Australia’s increasingly aggressive posture towards China runs parallel to that of the US itself. As I outlined in an article in the last issue of the Marxist Left Review,[28] the earlier approach based on “engagement”, in which the US believed that it could contain China’s rise within a broader framework of US hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, was abandoned by the Trump administration and replaced by a framework premised on “strategic competition”. The Biden administration has only amplified this foreign policy shift. The US is now openly confronting China’s rising power in the Indo-Pacific on a range of fronts: military, economic, diplomatic and political. Biden is increasing the military budget Trump bequeathed him. His foreign policy, spearheaded by noted China hawks, is pitched as a battle between the “democratic world” led by the United States and the “autocracies” led by China and Russia. Competition with China is also a big consideration in the administration’s domestic agenda, with tens of billions of dollars devoted to investment in strategic industries. The administration has continued Trump’s attempts to block China’s access to military-related industries and US technological know-how. Biden is pitching rebuilding America’s ailing infrastructure and patching over the yawning economic and racial inequalities in the US as winning the “competition with China for the 21st century”.[29] Other than the modest social spending involved in Biden’s financial packages, this agenda is backed to the hilt by the Republican party who rightly see in much of it a continuation of Trump’s agenda.

The main difference between the Biden administration and Trump’s is that the Democratic president spent much of his first year in office smoothing over diplomatic relations that were sabotaged by his predecessor. This presents the Australian ruling class with opportunities. One of its main objectives since the nineteenth century has been to secure first Britain’s and now America’s military engagement in the Asia Pacific. From the 1880s, when the Victorian government urged Britain to occupy the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), through the 1960s when the Menzies government dragged the US deeper into the Vietnam conflict, to the 1980s when the Hawke government spearheaded the creation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, anchoring the US in the region, the Australian ruling class has done its best to keep its chief imperialist patron embedded in the Indo-Pacific.

The Australian ruling class sees the involvement of a friendly great power in the Indo-Pacific as the best guarantee of its own interests. Chief among these interests is the security of the sea approaches to the island continent on which are carried critical trade and military supplies to and from Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and the United States. In addition, Australian capitalists have long regarded the country’s neighbours, in particular PNG and the Pacific Island states, as Australia’s backyard, with Australian companies dominating their economies and extracting profits. Looking to a great power to secure these sea lanes and prevent nationalist threats to its investments has been one of Australian imperialism’s main priorities. Only when the imperialist big brother could no longer perform these duties, as occurred in early 1942 when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to divert the Seventh Australian Expeditionary Force, then returning from the Middle East to Australia, to the Burmese theatre, leaving Australia and its colony PNG defenceless against Japanese attack, did Australia turn to the US instead. Prime Minister John Curtin’s call on the US to stand with Australia as a matter of its own self-interest captures an important element of the relationship to this day:

Australia is the last bastion between the west coast of America and the Japanese. If Australia goes, the Americas are wide open.[30]

The US’s victory in the Pacific War contributed significantly to Australia’s fortunes as an imperialist force in the post-war decades. It has benefited not just from the US Seventh Fleet patrolling the region, preventing any rival from threatening the security of Australia’s maritime approaches, but also from the US-dominated architecture of economics and finance, the so-called rules-based liberal international economic order. The alliance with the US provides Australian imperialism access to the latest military hardware, shared intelligence networks and diplomatic backing from the world’s most powerful state. Without this military umbrella and outside this financial architecture, the Australian ruling class would be much weaker. What is more, Australia gets US protection on the cheap. Australian military self-reliance would involve a military budget several times larger than what it currently spends.

Some left and liberal critics of AUKUS argue that it locks Australia into US military planning and renders the country a subordinate power.[31] But integration into US imperialist plans in the Indo-Pacific enhances Australia’s clout with the United States and augments its capacities as a regional player. Without US backing, Australian imperialism would not be stronger, nor would it spend less on the military. To be self-sufficient within a capitalist framework, Australia would need to triple or quadruple its military spending and probably acquire nuclear weapons. As well, without the guarantee provided by the US Seventh Fleet, Australia would probably feel the need to involve itself in more regional conflicts to protect its vital interests and establish a credible presence.

Growing rivalry with China over the past decade has created a debate within the ranks of the ruling class, one wing of which argues that, to preserve good relations with its biggest trading partner, Australia must forge a path more independent of the US.[32] But, even if we were to focus only on the economic question, the continuing alliance with the US still pays Australian capitalism significant dividends. It is true that Australia earns eight times as much foreign exchange from merchandise exports (iron ore, coal, gold etc) to China as it does from exports to the US and twice as much from services exports (international education, tourism etc), but the US underwrites the basic framework of trade, investment and finance which underpins Australia’s relations with the world. New York is one of the world’s two main financial centres and the US dollar is the de facto world currency for international trade, investment and central banks. America’s IT industry and IT protocols dominate the world. Its aerospace industry, universities, entertainment industry and other sectors are the default for most countries. The US is still the world’s preeminent place to do business: one quarter of the global stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) is invested in the US, five times as much as is invested in China.[33] As for Australia, while trade with China is more valuable than with the US, the latter is a far more significant investor in Australia, accounting for one quarter of total overseas investment in the country, as compared to China’s 2 percent share. Even adding Hong Kong investment only takes the Chinese figure to 5.5 percent.[34]

Australia appears thus far at least to be able to have its cake and eat it, trading barbs with Beijing and even becoming the target of substantial trade bans, while at the same time running a record trade surplus with China.[35] China’s imposition of trade bans may even have worked to Australia’s advantage: Australian coal producers have been able to find markets elsewhere following China’s ban, but Chinese steel producers must now make do with more expensive, poorer quality metallurgical coal from other sources.[36]

If we consider the military balance of power, alongside questions of economics, the reasons for Australian imperialism’s continued strong support for the US become even more clear cut. Abandoning military ties with the US would involve an extraordinary transition cost in military hardware and software. Australia and the US militaries have a long, shared history, having fought together in every major war since 1900. Australian weapons systems are designed for interoperability with those of the US. The US is an unrivalled military power globally with a wide network of allies, giving it the opportunity to protect Australian interests in the Indo-Pacific if the two allies come to blows with China. By contrast, China would be in no position to defend these interests from a US attack if Australia opted for China as its imperial patron. And unlike Britain in 1942, the US shows no signs of walking away from its military relationship with Australia; far from it, relations are only growing tighter.

The Australian ruling class’s desire to keep first Britain and now the US strong and engaged in Asia explains why Australia has backed imperialist wars since the nineteenth century, which in most cases have had nothing to do with the security of the mainland. Sometimes, this has involved the dispatch of substantial forces, as with the world wars; at other times Australian support has involved quite modest deployments, as with the 1991 Gulf War and the invasions and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Australia’s biggest contribution to America’s military power in recent decades, however, has not been soldiers, sailors, ships or submarines but surveillance – the jointly-run spy and communication bases in Australia, most importantly those at Pine Gap outside Alice Springs and North West Cape at Exmouth. Without the information gathered by these spy bases, the US Navy and Air Force in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific would be operating blind. The Australian ruling class hopes that by offering the US these kinds of assets, the US will come to its assistance if Australian imperialist interests are ever threatened, something it believes will deter any would-be aggressor.

Australia and the ‘China threat’

These are the considerations that help to explain the recent intensification of Australia’s imperialist tub thumping in the Indo-Pacific. If a strong US presence in the region is vital to Australia’s imperialist interests, China is a clear and growing threat to US interests and therefore to Australian imperialism. The Australian ruling class sees an opportunity to reinforce America’s attachment to the region, including Australia itself.

Biden’s inauguration as president came as a welcome change for much of the Australian ruling class. Trump’s erratic foreign policy had raised alarm in Canberra. His decision on his inauguration to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was meant to lock in a US-centred economic bloc in Asia, sparked particular concern, as did his attacks on the World Trade Organization and imposition of tariffs on many US allies. These appeared to weaken the US’s commitment to the imperialist order from which Australian capitalism has long benefited. The Australian foreign policy community was also worried by Trump’s personal relations with the Russian and Chinese leaders and his tendency to take in good faith North Korean president Kim Jong-un’s promises to denuclearise his country.

Biden, by contrast, is a known quantity. As vice president to Obama for eight years, Biden had a track record pursuing policies that suited Australia’s needs. His emphasis as president on taking on China and rebuilding alliances as part of that process was what the Australian government wanted to hear; the adults were back in charge. And Biden’s decision to commit to AUKUS comes with none of the political overheads such an agreement would have carried in Australia had Trump been the US signatory.

This does not mean that the Morrison government and Biden administration are completely in harmony. The Morrison government’s reluctance to take even performative steps to tackle global warming jars with the White House, which has mastered the art of talking climate-friendly policies while doing the opposite. The Biden administration has kept Trump’s tariffs and taken no steps to rebuild the World Trade Organization nor to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (the re-badged TPP following US withdrawal), areas that Australia as a trade-dependent nation is keen to see action on and where China sees opportunities to promote its claims to regional leadership. And the Morrison government, along with America’s European and Asian allies, was shocked at the collapse of the US presence in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rapid advance on Kabul in August 2021 and, apparently, annoyed that it had not been forewarned. Mitigating this shock, however, was its understanding that America’s exit was part of a retreat (in the Middle East), the better to advance (in Asia), something that the US now promises with its AUKUS and AUSMIN commitments.

Such developments help explain why Australia has in recent years become one of the most belligerent powers towards China. In part, this is because China’s growing ambitions in the Indo-Pacific threaten Australia’s informal empire in PNG, East Timor and the Pacific Island states, its trade routes and, potentially, its influence in Indonesia, a critical player to Australia’s north. But more broadly, Australia sees itself playing a leadership role urging those concerned by China’s rise (in particular, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Britain and now India) to stand together to challenge China. In this way it both advances its profile as an imperialist power and proves its value as one of the US’s most important allies in the region. Australia can offer the US support from the strongest military in south-east Asia, with far greater capability to project force beyond its borders than any of its near neighbours. Strategically, Australia can also offer the US basing facilities beyond the reach of all but a few of China’s long-range missiles, thereby providing the US with the ability to reduce its reliance on bases in Guam and Japan. An Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines will make it even more of an asset to the US, even if these submarines will only make a modest contribution to the overall US war effort.[37]

This is the context in which we can understand Morrison’s talk of the “forever partnership” between Australia and the US. In contrast to the portrayal of Australia in the accounts of many liberals, the Australian ship of state is not a forlorn life raft, tossed about randomly on the stormy seas of great power rivalries. It is itself an active participant in the imperialist competition which characterises international relations under developed capitalism, using its substantial power to defend the interests of the Australian ruling class. Socialists need to stand firmly against Australian imperialism and oppose the US alliance, including the presence of American armed forces and military facilities such as Pine Gap and North West Cape. We must oppose the drive to war with China and imperialist measures that fall short of war, including restrictions on trade (tariffs, quotas, bans), financial and economic sanctions. As tensions with China rise, we can expect increasing demonisation of Chinese Australians and Chinese students; racism must be actively fought to prevent the ruling class undermining opposition to Australian militarism. Finally, we must reject any idea that China is in any way to be preferred to the United States in the contest for power in the Indo Pacific. China too oppresses and exploits people in the region and wider world.


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National Museum of Australia 2021, “Curtin brings home troops”, updated 31 August.

Parker, George, Sebastian Payne, Anthony Klan, Katrina Manson, Anna Gross and Victor Mallet 2021, “Aukus: How transatlantic allies turned on each other over China’s Indo-Pacific threat”, Financial Times, 25 September.

Ransley, Ellen 2021, “Labor ‘does not share’ Paul Keating’s view on China after former PMs national address”, The Australian, 12 November.

Rudd, Kevin 2021, “Why the Quad alarms China: Its Success Poses a Major Threat to Beijing’s Ambitions”, Foreign Affairs, 6 August.

Sanger, David 2021, “Biden Said the U.S. Would Protect Taiwan. But It’s Not That Clear-Cut”, New York Times, 10 November,

Tillett, Matthew 2021, “PM hails new subs deal as ‘forever partnership’”, Australian Financial Review, 16 September.

Victoria State Government, “Defence Excellence”.

Walker, Damien 2021, “In defence of Queensland”, The Australian, 1 June.

Wong, Penny 2021, “Expanding Australia’s Power and Influence: Speech to the National Security College – Australian National University”, 23 November.

[1] Borger and Sabbagh 2021.

[2] Tillett 2021.

[3] Source for the detail in this paragraph: AUSMIN 2021.

[4] Mackay 2021.

[5] Mackay 2021.

[6] Lynas 2021.

[7] Greene 2021.

[8] Rudd 2021; Jaishankar and Madan 2021.

[9] Kaushik 2021.

[10] The “Five Eyes” comprises the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

[11] Greene and Dziedzic 2021.

[12] Sanger 2021.

[13] Hurst 2021a.

[14] Bramston 2021.

[15] Knott 2021; Parker et al 2021.

[16] Cranston 2021.

[17] Hawkins 2021.

[18] Conifer 2015.

[19] Albanese et al 2021.

[20] Wong 2021.

[21] Walker 2021.

[22] Victoria State Government.

[23] Gillard 2011.

[24] Dziedzic 2021

[25] Hurst 2021b.

[26] Dutton 2021.

[27] Ransley 2021.

[28] Bramble 2021.

[29] Cheng 2021.

[30] National Museum of Australia 2021.

[31] See for example Anti-Bases Coalition 2021.

[32] See John Menadue’s website “Pearls and Irritations”, which runs regular contributions by retired ambassadors and foreign affairs and defence department bureaucrats criticising Australia’s aggressive policy towards China and what they regard as excessive deference to the US and associated “loss of sovereignty”: Bramble 2011 provides an early review of this debate.

[33] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2020.

[34] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2020.

[35] Hartcher 2021.

[36] Bartholomeusz 2021.

[37] The US currently has 68 nuclear submarines and is building more. Australia is committed to only eight, the first of which will be operational no earlier than 2040.

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