AUKUS Already Seems to Have Done Its Job

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SingaporeThe doctrine of deterrence is to put in place measures that make the cost of an attack unacceptably high so that it never takes place.  This is the logic of the mission for Australia to acquire nuclear powered submarines via AUKUS in the face of the enormous growth in both the numbers and capabilities of the Chinese navy.  The calculation is that with the ability to transit enormous distances fully submerged at great speed, these vessels will be able to inflict an unacceptable level of losses on the navy of any aggressor.

If the various discussions at the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this weekend are anything to go by, Australia might have already succeeded in creating the impression that it is a force to be reckoned with even though the first submarine is at least a decade away.  This event is Asia’s premier defence and security summit – making it arguably the most important in the world – and 54 countries are represented, along with the participation of 14 Defence ministers or heads of government.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gave the keynote speech on Friday night; Defence Minister Richard Marles has been a continuous presence with back-to-back meetings, and they have both been supported by CDF Angus Campbell and Defence Department Secretary Greg Moriarty.  The US delegation was led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and the UK by his equivalent Ben Austin.

China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu was also here – and for the first time ever took questions from the audience at the end of his speech.  There was also a very significant European presence showing that talk of the importance of the Indo-Pacific region is far more than just rhetoric.

AUKUS was a frequent topic of conversation.  Other prominent issues were China-US relations; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Myanmar; and the Korean peninsula.   It is clear that China opposes Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine plan and while not singling it out several speakers in a coordinated manner tried to portray it as an anti-China move designed to increase regional tensions.

Even though this plan has some way to go – and still must overcome many hurdles before it becomes reality – the Chinese phrased themselves as if it were already a fact.  If so, that would be a welcome development because critics of it – including occasionally APDR – have been pointing out that it is so far in the future it will not have an impact on when it is most urgently needed, namely now.

It might be that Beijing views AUKUS as an alarming template of what the pushback against their militarisation of the South China Sea might look like.  The big player is the US, but the UK still counts, and the feeling might be that if transferring military technology to Australia isn’t sufficient to deter aggression then the same principle could be applied to other countries with their capabilities also being progressively boosted.  The US has very deep pockets and could continue that process indefinitely with a variety of military technologies.

Make no mistake, the US still swings a huge stick – though Secretary Austin made it abundantly clear that he and the Biden administration much prefer a process of discussion, dialogue, and consultation rather than of coercion and the application of force.  He said that the US would prefer to have a normal, cordial relationship with Beijing and he has extended the hand of friendship – quite literally – to his Chinese counterparts, who have not taken it.  He also pointed out that US defense spending has been increased by a further US $80 billion per year and that military cooperation with many regional countries is increasing.  These include, but are not limited to, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Singapore.

China on the other hand can only count on a single ally – North Korea – and the friendship of an insignificant number of others such as Myanmar and Laos.

He also reaffirmed US commitment to supporting the status quo for Taiwan, within the framework of the One China policy.  This brought a furious response the next day from Minister Li, who almost shouted what have become the regular cliches about Taiwan being an inalienable part of China. Alarmingly, he categorically refused to rule out the use of force to reclaim the island – which is in total contrast with other statements about wanting a harmonious and prosperous region.  An invasion of Taiwan would lead to the exact opposite.

Speaking of shouting, a strange intervention came from Indonesia’s Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who in a somewhat emotional address called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine, with both forces pulling back 15km and for the UN to send in peacekeepers.  He became visibly angry at the push back from the audience with many participants pointing out that such a plan would simply reward Russia for its aggression.

One of the fascinating internal dynamics of the conference is that Indonesia has been back peddling rapidly with a counter narrative being circulated that General Prabowo might have been speaking personally rather than enunciating government policy.

The keynote speech from Prime Minister Albanese seems to have been very well received, walking as it did a fine line between calling out Chinese expansionism and military growth without crossing over into fear mongering or alarmism.  In fact, he was more middle of the road in this regard than some other figures, such as both the Japanese – and somewhat surprisingly – Canadian defence ministers.

He spoke of the importance of China and the country’s undeniable huge contribution to world prosperity but at the same time cautioned that all nations in the region, no matter how small, are entitled to feel secure and that no one likes to be bullied.  He spoke of the need for guardrails to exist for how countries should conduct themselves towards others. The chances are probably good that Beijing will be more inclined to listen to this nuanced and reasonable messaging rather than to the outright hostility of some of his predecessors.

On the final day, Defence Minister Richard Marles also continued the process of seeking closer engagement with China and made it clear that he will continue to be as open and transparent with his counterparts as possible.  In essence, his message is that Australia’s Defence policy is about making the region secure and stable – and that it is certainly not some sort of Cold War strategy to encircle China.

Speaking with the media, he also mentioned that Australia is close to finalising a further package of military aid to Ukraine.  He acknowledged that Ukraine needs further assistance urgently and indicated that an announcement is not too far away.  He declined to go into the specifics of what that will be but said that the two governments had been working closely together on the most appropriate package.

As an aside, when speaking with Ukraine’s Defence minister Oleksii Resnikov – an absolute force of nature – the first words he said to APDR were “Hawkei vehicles, please.”

Overall, the conference has been a success.  Organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies and always located in Singapore’s Shangri-La hotel, it has become an invaluable annual forum for the exchange of views between governments.  As importantly, it is also a venue for many off the record or informal meetings – and simply the occasional chance encounter.  It provides a neutral setting and is structured for openness and information sharing.

Despite this, there are still a couple of dark clouds on the horizon.  The first is Russia’s continuing brutal assault on Ukraine, which looks set to continue for some time.  The critical position of China – which has good relations with Moscow – seems to be shifting slightly from support of the invasion to something way less than that with statements to the effect that it would have been better if it had not occurred.  However, China still sticks with the Cold War analysis that NATO has somehow caused the war.

Perhaps the most succinct pushback to this thinking came from Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kalles, who said that NATO is a voluntary alliance that is not a threat to Russia – but it is a threat to Russian dreams of imperial expansion and conquest.  She politely ridiculed the idea of NATO invading anyone, pointing out that it will soon have 31 members when Finland and Sweden join and that dividing up conquered territory between so many partners of such different sizes is just plainly silly because it would be an impossible task.

One hopes that these sorts of comments will help reduce the paranoia of China, which continues to use outdated Marxist and Cold War language when talking about relations with the US and the region.  The main hang up of Beijing now appears to be more psychological than tangible, with repeated calls that the country needed to be treated with more respect.

It’s not entirely clear what China wants because if the Shangri-La Dialogue is anything to go by, speakers such as Anthony Albanese, Lloyd Austin, Richard Marles and others always spoke of China with great respect and civility.  Perhaps it just takes time for the message to sink in that countries wish to work together with China, not destroy it.

In fact, it is China’s rhetoric that continues to be a problem with speakers such as Minister Li suggesting that if people want peace then they should just stay out of the region, which is a practical and political impossibility.

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