In the early 1980s, New Zealand walked out of the ANZUS pact on principle, rather than be an accomplice to nuclear war. We now seem to be heading back into being a nuclear fellow traveller again, via the AUKUS pact. This time around, we would have little or no say in the decisions that Australia, the US and Britain will make about matters like launching a military strike against our main trading partner, China.
At this point, the carrot being dangled in front of us by the Americans is that further down the track our participation might give us access to some top shelf cyber-warfare technologies. As Kurt Campbell, the influential US National Security Council co-ordinator for the Indo-Pacific said during a recent visit to Wellington:
I will say, we’ve been gratified by how many countries want to join with us to work with cutting-edge technologies like in the cyber arena, hypersonics, you can go down a long list and it’s great to hear that New Zealand is interested.”
Hmm. I wonder who told Campbell that New Zealand is “interested” in collaborating with AUKUS for the tech spinoffs we might get in return? After all, New Zealand is already a paid up member of Five Eyes, which is the Netflix of cyber security alliances. Why should this country now be expected to pay into the AUKUS streaming service as well, in order to win access to “cutting edge technologies… in the cyber arena?” Besides, those cutting edge military cyber applications probably wouldn’t be allowed to be spun off into our private sector, anyway.
From there, it gets worse. According to Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles, the latest review of federal defence spending has been premised not on – for example – global peace keeping or the defence of Homeland Australia. Instead, it is being premised on building the capacity for “impactful projection” from thousands of kilometres offshore, presumably onto the Chinese mainland.
In a better world, the proposed Aussie fleet of nuclear propelled (and readily nuclear-armed, if need be) submarines should be getting lots of concerned push back from the New Zealand government. Why? Because AUKUS runs dead against the spirit of our anti-nuclear legislation, and its founding principles, which – whether our military and their uniformed allies like it or not – are still a key part of this country’s national identity.
For starters, the Aussie nuclear submarines will be nuclear propelled, and therefore will not be allowed to make port visits here. More to the point, our new Poseidon P-8A surveillance aircraft (for which we have paid upwards of $3 billion) will be chock full of anti-submarine gear to help detect and destroy China’s hunter killer subs. By doing so, the Poseidons will be assisting the new Aussie attack subs to carry out their missions. Presumably, our Poseidons will be training to that effect in their military exercises with the Australians, Americans and British.
Being a willing accomplice to the offensive military strategies that are driving AUKUS not only makes a mockery of this country’s anti-nuclear stance. Our defence forces will be actively aiding and abetting the AUKUS missions, whereby long range nuclear powered attack subs will ultimately be directing their arrays of Tomahawk Cruise missiles (which can readily be nuclear armed) against China, within China. Of late, the hawks in Canberra have been heralding such a conflict as being virtually inevitable.
In the meantime, it is unclear just how Australia – which has no expertise in building, maintaining or crewing nuclear powered subs – would deal with any accidents at sea that could (potentially) radioactively contaminate much of the Pacific region. In addition, the Australian government has not informed even its own public (let alone its allies) about how it plans to go about disposing of its spent nuclear fuel. (By tipping it into the Pacific Ocean? By burying it somewhere west of Woomera?)
Footnote: Here’s a useful primer on the links between the Australian defence lobby in Canberra and their US mentors that have been responsible for bringing AUKUS into being. There’s more of the same here.
The AUKUS lobbyists include the usual mix of Scott Morrison’s former Cabinet and ambassadorial colleagues (Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey) some leading US think tanks, the Aussie shopping centre tycoon Frank Lowy and Rupert Murdoch. Media shows like Nine’s Red Alert series have done their bit by drumming up public fear and anxiety about the China Menace. Nine is chaired by Peter Costello, a former treasurer in the John Howard government.
In other words, AUKUS has a lot of doting uncles who hail from the arch conservative wing of Australian politics. That’s another good reason why an allegedly centre-left government in New Zealand should be keeping AUKUS at arms’ length.
AUKUS, and the South China Sea.
One perennial excuse for the US-led military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region is the threat that China allegedly poses (a) to global trade routes and (b) to the resources claimed by its neighbours in the South China Sea.
As has often been pointed out, the South China Sea truly is a vital trade route connecting the main arteries of trade in southeast Asia, linking Singapore and Malaysia to Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Yet what gets routinely overlooked is that keeping those trade routes open is as crucial to the Chinese economy as it is to the economies of Asia, Europe and the West. Basically, China has a compelling economic self-interest in avoiding war in the South China Sea. It doesn’t need to be deterred. In that sense, AUKUS looks more like a solution itching for an excuse to prove its reason for existing.
Yes, as the military boffins keep on reminding us, New Zealand is a trading nation and the South China Sea is a theoretical choke point for the goods we import and export. Over the past decade or more, China has been building landing strips and military installations on some of the islets, shoals and rocky outcrops whose ownership is disputed by some of Beijing’s near neighbours in the South China Sea.
A decade ago, China laid historic claim to everything within a so-called “Nine-Dash Line” that Beijing drew on the map of the South China Sea. However, after the Philippines brought a case in 2015 before the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the arbitration panel ruled that there was no legal merit to China’s historic claims to all of the maritime areas within the Nine-Dash Line. China has loudly rejected that conclusion.
Surprisingly little attention however, has been devoted to China’s subsequent behaviour in the South China Sea, and to the diminishing importance that its resources have within the wider pattern of China’s strategic needs. (Nor for the first or last time, China’s actions have been less menacing than its rhetoric.)
In a recent article published by the Lowy Institute, the Australian economist John Quiggin made a convincing case that China regards the fisheries, oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea as being of limited value, and almost certainly not worth fighting over. Thus, fishing boats from even the Philippines are being allowed to operate within the disputed Scarborough Shoals region.
Despite its belligerent rhetoric, and it’s occasionally aggressive air and naval patrols, China has also taken little or no effective action to prevent other nations from exploring for and extracting oil and gas in or adjacent to some of the disputed parts of the South China Sea.
Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, Quiggin points out, have all developed resources on the periphery of the “Nine-Dash Line”. Despite the occasional hyper-inflated estimates, those resources aren’t all that extensive, or valuable. For example:
Vietnam’s state-owned PetroVietnam produced about 10 million barrels of oil last year. That implies total revenue of around US$700 million at current prices, most of which would have been spent on extraction costs.
That’s chicken feed. (BTW. Vietnam’s key oilfield Bach Ho is situated offshore in the South China Sea, east of the Mekong River delta.) Much the same chicken feed worth applies to the gas deposits.
China’s own Hainan gas field is currently yielding about 20 million cubic metres a day. The price of gas is notoriously opaque, but it is unlikely that this amounts to more than US$1 billion a year after extraction costs. That’s about the annual operating cost of a single aircraft carrier in peacetime.
Globally, the era of oil and gas fields (conceived of as critical resources) is drawing towards a close. They’re being driven to extinction partly by climate change concerns, and partly by the high cost of deep sea drilling. Finding and exploiting new oil and gas fields makes less and less financial sense. Looking ahead, China already happens to be a world leader and rival for Tesla in the development and marketing of EVs.
Of course, China will still have a transitional need for oil for its combustion engine vehicles for the next couple of decades. Yet largely thanks to the stupidity of Donald Trump in scuppering the Iran nuclear deal and imposing harsh trade sanctions on Iran – China has now won access to cheap oil supplies from Iran for the foreseeable. China really doesn’t have a pressing need for the oil extracted from fields in the South China Sea.
Similarly, China will have a genuine (but closing) window of need for gas-fired electricity over the next couple of decades until the combination of wind, solar and hydro fully ramps up. Meaning: There is a steeply declining necessity for China to risk a resource-driven conflict in the South China Sea.
However, that’s the escalating timeframe in which AUKUS is being framed. The delivery timetable for the new generation or Virginia-class nuclear submarines envisaged for the AUKUS members stretches right into the early to mid 2030s for Australia. In the case of the UK, the final delivery timeframe is well into the mid 2040s. To repeat: China has no existential need to go to war in the South China Sea, either over trade access or over access to natural resources. It is (a) already letting its neighbours use and exploit some of those resources (b) will have a declining need for such resources in future and (c) has as much reason as the West to keep the trade routes open in the meantime.
For years, both sides have engaged in aggressive patrolling of the maritime areas in dispute. If there is a risk of war in the South China Sea it arises from rival claims – China’s Nine-Dash Line vs the US Freedom of Navigation zones– that may erupt by accident into a major conflict.
Point being, if we sign up to AUKUS – even only in a helpmate role – and agree to take part in the related military manoeuvres off the coast of China, we will be adding further fuel to the most credible cause of a superpower military conflict in the region. As Quiggin concludes:
There are plenty of serious reasons to see the current Chinese government as an enemy of freedom and democracy. But the threat of a costly conflict over resources of diminishing value in the South China Sea appears low among them.
If not AUKUS, then what?
Given that the nuclear -propelled submarines central to the AUKUS pact are equipped with forward projection offensive weapons, they will have little or no role in defending Australia and New Zealand from invasion. When it comes to targeting invaders and enemy shipping, conventionally powered submarines do the job in a far more cost effective way.
So, finally…. What could a peace-making nation with a truly independent foreign policy bring to the table? To take just one example, drawn from history. The last time the world stood on the edge of nuclear destruction was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Eleven months after the US and the Soviet Union had backed away from the brink, they mutually agreed to institute a “hotline” between their leaders, to ensure that wars between the superpowers didn’t start by accident, or through a misunderstanding.
Of course, both parties have to agree to pick up the phone. Both parties also have to agree not to use the hotline to try and “mop up” diplomatically in the wake of a deliberate provocation.
What passes for military and civilian hotlines between China and the U.S. aren’t the classic red phones on a desk. Under a 2008 agreement, the China-U.S. military hotline amounts to a multi-step process by which one capital relays a request to the other for a joint call or videoconference between top officials on encrypted lines. The pact gives the other side 48 hours and up to respond, although nothing in the pact stops top officials from talking immediately.
To be of much use in stopping the missiles from flying, a separate and direct hotline would need to be accessed only by the leaders of both countries, and not by their officials. No such hotline currently exists between Washington and Beijing.
So… Couldn’t New Zealand advocate for such a safeguard to be put in place, in order to minimise the global tensions that the AUKUS pact will exacerbate ? Given her work on the Christchurch Call, former PM Jacinda Ardern would seem well placed to promote these kinds of exercises in dialogue, and in tension reduction.
Arguably, we could achieve more by standing with other Pacific nations at a distance from the AUKUs pact than we can by being one of its fellow travellers. We shouldn’t be lining up to spend further billions on military hardware, only in order to be tacked onto AUKUS as an afterthought.
Soldiers of the Lord
Talking of Armageddon, here’s Jimmy Outler and the rest of the Soul Stirrers doing a fantastic job on “ I’m A Soldier.” The lead singers in this group were uniformly tremendous. Besides Outlet, the group‘s leaders included Sam Cooke, and the future “Disco Lady” hit-maker Johnny Taylor. Outler deserves to be ranked right alongside them.