New Zealand’s absence from AUKUS is very much part of the debate

The immediate reaction in the UK to the AUKUS announcement was focused less on the UK’s new commitment and more on the lamentations of French politicians at the loss of a $90 billion Australian submarine deal.  It was left to former PM Theresa May to probe unsuccessfully the extent of Britain’s obligation to defend Taiwan.

Chuckles aside, you might think that anything which outrages France and China has something going for it.  

The most surprising thing about the proposed AUKUS pact is that it was so unexpected.  Yet its logic – assuming of course that the parties can deliver on its promise – seems inescapable.

The three powers – based on shared values and history – have a common interest in deterring China’s willingness to threaten or use force in the region. Integration of their war-fighting ability signals preparation and capability. And the agreement can provide a framework for alignment of like-minded powers (a little like NATO’s objective of containing the potential for Soviet military pressure in Western Europe and the Mediterranean).

To be clear, these arrangements flow directly – if belatedly – from the policy changes embedded by China’s President Xi. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, post-Mao China pursued ostensibly consensual policies in relation to Hong Kong and Taiwan and did not directly challenge US interests. China’s more assertive policy now offers countries in the region a choice between US and Chinese hegemony (leaving aside the usually-temporary option of standing aloof).  

The difficulty for Xi is that US hegemony is predictable and undemanding by historical standards (you might cite Trump and Afghanistan as exceptions which prove the rule).  And while there is much for the historian to admire in the Chinese empire’s relationship with tributary states, this model will only appeal to contemporary leaders threatened by their own people.  During the cold war, the Soviet Union effectively neutralised democratic Austria and Finland, but there wasn’t much doubt where laid the sympathies of their people.

So if this new alliance does its job, it will deter the use of military strength in regional diplomacy.  While China will be free to pursue economic influence, that seems a fairer – and safer – fight.  But the alliance will only succeed if it signals a willingness to defend clear and fundamental interests.

Regional states need to decide on which side they stand – and how closely.  Japan, India, South Korea and Taiwan seem pretty happy with the new deal.  The extent of support from Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines will be an important measure of how much work the partners still have to do.  

China’s leaders, meanwhile, will hope to expand their regional support beyond Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and the Taliban.  The deal also spotlights the importance of China’s relationship with Russia.  A secure understanding is key to both their ambitions. But Russia under Putin finds it hard to make credible commitments and neither side can forget that Russia snatched huge chunks of Qing territory during the 19th century.

The pact will also sharpen scrutiny of the policy choices for the other Five Eyes partners, Canada and New Zealand.  Countries shielded by bigger neighbours get lots of opportunity for irresponsibility and grandstanding.  Drift towards an unprincipled semi-neutralism just got more obvious and a little harder.

The implications are significant even for far-side-of-the-world Europe.  America still has a standing commitment to Europe’s security.  European failure to respond will encourage yet another reappraisal of US interests.

Should the French government continue to sulk, the situation might shift from amusing to troublesome.  After reflecting on the reasons for their exclusion (hint: there is no I in TEAM), they should decide if they have the audacity to offer to join the pact and put France’s technology at Australia’s disposal.  Now that would spark a truly meaningful security debate.

The power and novelty of this alliance is the clarity with which it conveys that certain behaviour will be resisted.  And by a mutual commitment, it will show up those parties not willing to share the burden of collective security under the UN Charter.  

Astute realists might at this point ask about the linkages with global climate policy and, in particular, China’s commitment to spend huge resources shutting down its 1,000 mostly-new coal-fired power stations.  Wars have been started for less.  Well, no one said diplomacy was easy.

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