Clinton Fernandes argues in provocative new book the security pact will make it impossible to have an independent defence policy
The Aukus deal will lock in Australia’s dependence on the US and make it impossible to have an independent defence policy, a former Australian army intelligence officer has warned.
In a provocative new book to be released this week, Clinton Fernandes argues the true character of Australia’s relationship with the US is “a transactional, dramatically unequal one”. He argues the rhetoric about mateship is merely “window dressing”.
The former intelligence officer and now academic at the University of New South Wales takes aim at bipartisan consensus on Australian foreign policy and pushes back at the idea that Australia is a “middle power”.
Australia routinely acts to defend US power and grand strategy, he argues, and is better described as a “sub-imperial power”.
Fernandes warns of a “dramatic acceleration” of that trend as a result of the Aukus partnership with the US and the UK, under which the two countries plan to help Australia acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.
The professor of international and political studies said Australia was “creating a structural dependence on the United States, leaving ourselves unable to defend ourselves except in the context of the US alliance”.
“That is not a mistake. It’s not an oversight. It’s not an error,” Fernandes told Guardian Australia in an interview ahead of the release of Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena.
“The people who are responsible for the policy … are doing it in order to make it impossible for future Australian governments to defend ourselves outside of an alliance relationship.”
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A report in the Wall Street Journal last weekend suggested the Biden administration was considering a plan to fast-track nuclear-powered submarines for Australia by the mid-2030s by producing the first few submarines in the US.
However, given existing production constraints at US shipyards, the deal would depend on Australia making a financial commitment to expand the US’s submarine-production capacity to ensure it could also meet its domestic demands.
“It is a mistake to think that we are buying submarines,” Fernandes said. “We are, in fact, subsidising the US navy submarine budget.”
Fernandes also said the then defence minister, Peter Dutton, was “just being honest” when he said he found it “inconceivable” that Australia would not join if the US defended Taiwan in a war against China.
Dutton later reflected on the issue in terms of the relationship with the US, saying Australia was “a great and reliable friend and ally” and he did not think “we would shirk away from our responsibility to be a good ally with the United States”.
In the book, to be released on 5 October, Fernandes cites a US embassy cable, leaked to WikiLeaks, that described a conversation between the American ambassador and the then Labor leader, Kim Beazley, before the 2007 election.
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Beazley, according to the cable, assured the ambassador that Australia “would have absolutely no alternative but to line up militarily beside the US” in the event of a war between the US and China, adding: “Otherwise, the alliance would be effectively dead and buried, something Australia could never afford to see happen.”
Fernandes said policymakers in Australia were “not naive” and were determined to show Australia’s relevance to US strategic planners. Successive Australian governments have publicly and privately urged the US to maintain its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region amid concerns about China’s growing power and intentions.
The 2020 defence strategic update said security arrangements with the US were “critical to Australia’s national security” and Washington “continues to underwrite the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific”.
Fernandes writes that the world is now one of independent nation-states rather than empires and colonies – but he argues an imperial system remains in place with the US at “the apex” and Australia “subordinate to the imperial centre”.
He argues physical occupation is not the only way to effectively control another country’s sovereignty. Australia, in turn, “projects considerable power and influence in its own region”, notably in Timor-Leste and the south-west Pacific.
While Australia and the US publicly profess to uphold a rules-based international order, Fernandes contends these rules are applied selectively, and that Australia has been drawn into military conflicts with a view to maintaining the US alliance as a core part of the strategic objectives.
“The rules-based order permits the United States and its allies to invade Iraq illegally and attack a hospital in the city of Fallujah,” Fernandes writes.
Middle powers such as Norway and the Netherlands insist on parliamentary authorisation of military deployments but Australia does not. In Australia, the executive government has the power to deploy troops without parliamentary approval and its leaders tend to be “so reflexive about requests from the United States”, Fernandes says.
Fernandes is not the first analyst to raise concerns about the impact of Aukus on Australia’s sovereignty. Such concerns were fuelled last year when Joe Biden’s top Indo-Pacific adviser, Kurt Campbell, predicted “almost a melding” of Australian, US and UK military forces.
Campbell later sought to allay those concerns, saying he understood “how important sovereignty and independence is for Australia” and did not want to “leave any sense that somehow that would be lost”.
In June, however, the prominent Australian strategic analyst Hugh White warned that building and operating nuclear-powered submarines could “increase our dependence on whichever of our Aukus partners supplies the subs”.
White’s Quarterly Essay was titled Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America. The chief of the Australian defence force, Gen Angus Campbell, responded to the essay by stating: “I take my directions from the government of Australia.”
The executive director of the Lowy Institute, Michael Fullilove, said he believed the “larger threat to Australian sovereignty and independence doesn’t come from a like-minded democracy” but instead from China.
Fullilove said Aukus would “strengthen our independence and sovereignty because it will give us access to technologies that increase the deterrent power that we have”.
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