There is a long-term threat to the AUKUS submarine deal over which the leaders of Australia, Britain and the United States have no effective control. It is the inevitability that the people of the three nations will grow apart as identities shift over the 30-year timeline for the partnership.
AUKUS begins with an assumption of a shared white history, and democratic values. But Australia already stands apart from its allies as a majority migrant nation with a Eurasian ethnic face. Britain remains predominately Anglo-Celtic, while the US is Latino-American and the most racially divided of the trio.
US President Joe Biden shakes hands with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese looks on.Credit:AP
How do we reconcile our diverging cultures in the future? We happily acknowledge, even boast about our differences with the US in any other context. We are resistant to the American viruses of gun violence and religious extremism. Our electoral system is among the world’s best and our judiciary hasn’t been corrupted by partisanship.
Those differences should not matter if AUKUS delivers its twin promise of securing Australia’s defence and preventing conflict in the region. But what happens when our partners destabilise the international order they seek to uphold, or place their interests ahead of ours? These aren’t hypothetical questions for the next generation of leaders. Our allies have already demonstrated their unreliability – even as the AUKUS concept was being developed.
Britain is accelerating China’s rise through the role that Brexit plays in shifting economic power from the North Atlantic to Asia, while the US has been undermining the collective effort of Australia’s trading partners to reduce our economic dependence on China.
Australia can’t manage AUKUS passively, trusting that our flawed allies will muddle their way through the 21st century. We are the only buyer in a sellers’ market for nuclear-powered submarines and the country with the most to lose if either Washington or Beijing talk the world into war. A future Australia leader should reserve the right to mediate between the US and China.
Illustration by Dionne GainCredit:
First, consider the question of identity. Imagine what Australia will look like when we take delivery of three Virginia class submarines from the US early in the next decade. The federal Treasury projects that our population will hit 30 million in 2033 – an increase of almost four million people. Migrants from Asia and their local-born children will be responsible for the majority of that growth.
Australia is the first English-speaking nation to become majority migrant again. Almost 51 per cent of the population was born overseas or had at least one migrant parent at the 2021 census. Ten years from now, that figure will be about 55 per cent nationally and approaching 70 per cent in our two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney. Migrants from India will likely form the largest overseas-born community in every mainland capital, with the possible exception of Perth, where the English-born might retain top spot.
The Chinese will be ranked second behind the Indians in at least Melbourne and Sydney; a fact Australia’s defence hawks must bear in mind when they predict war in three, 13 or 30 years’ time. No Australian leader should ever repeat the mistake that Scott Morrison – the father of AUKUS – made when he needlessly alienated loyal Chinese Australians during his shouting matches with Beijing.
The US and Britain will also rely on migration for the majority of their population growth into the future, but they are decades behind Australia’s diversity. Barely 30 per cent of the American or British people are born overseas or have at least one migrant parent at the moment.
Britain is the weakest link in the AUKUS chain, economically and diplomatically. The reason is Brexit. The latest data from the World Bank reaffirms that both the European Union and Britain are the poorer for it. China’s economy overtook the European Union’s in size in 2021 – the year of formal separation under Brexit – while India’s economy passed Britain’s to become the world’s fifth largest after the US, China, Japan and Germany.
The gap between the US and China continues to narrow. The latest figures show the US accounts for 24.2 per cent of the global economy, while China has 18.4 per cent. This replicates the state of play in the mid-1990s when the US accounted for 24.6 per cent of the world’s GDP and its challenger at the time, Japan, had 17.9 per cent. It was the closest the Japanese came before their long stagnation.
Will China surpass the US, or suffer a version of Japan’s fate as its population ages? If it’s the latter, the next number two behind the US will be India, which is now the world’s most populous nation, and with a much younger demography than China.
Either way, the US has recovered the ground it lost during the global financial crisis and recession. But the twist here is that America’s resilience does not necessarily benefit Australia in our trade disputes with China.
Recall the sanctions that Beijing imposed on us after the Morrison government called for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus in 2020. The then prime minister used the meeting of the G7 in Cornwall in June 2021 to rally western leaders to our economic defence. Morrison shared the list of 14 grievances that the Chinese embassy in Canberra said should be addressed before the relationship could return to normal. The G7 was in furious agreement that we should continue to stand up to the bully in our neighbourhood.
As Morrison told journalists following the meeting: “There is not a country who would sit around that table that would (agree to) concession(s) on any of those 14 points.” The idea for AUKUS was also discussed on that trip, during Morrison’s trilateral meeting with US president Joe Biden, and the then UK PM Boris Johnson.
One would have hoped that the American side would connect the dots and demonstrate their solidarity with Australia by helping our exporters gain access to new markets to replace those the Chinese had shut down. Unfortunately, we were left to navigate the turbulent waters of coercion without the support of our ally.
The good news is that we did manage to reduce our economic dependence on China over the course of 2020-21 and 2021-22 without US assistance. Exports to Japan soared by 66 per cent; to South Korea by 76 per cent; India by 80 per cent and Taiwan by 84 per cent.
But exports to the US fell by 2 per cent. The irony is that our sales to China actually increased by 7 per cent over this period as higher demand for our iron ore, gas and gold covered for the loss of markets for coal, wine and barley. The data which has just been published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is subject to revision. But it is a reminder of the power imbalance within AUKUS: When Australian and US interests clash, the Americans will always look after number one.
The question for the present, and future is, can Australia trust the US to see the world as we do? If not, will we have the courage to stand up for our interests and even break with our history of military dependency by pushing back against an American call to arms?
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