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What is AUKUS, and What Does It Mean for Young People?

By Bridie Golding and Wilf Butler

Melbourne, Australia; London, United Kingdom

During the press conference where AUKUS was announced, observers understood that AUKUS was designed to combat the rise of China’s increasingly prominent military, despite the country’s name not being mentioned in any of the leaders’ remarks.

The emergence of the AUKUS security pact has become one of the biggest geopolitical news stories of the year. But how does it affect young people around the world, given that nuclear submarines won’t be supplied to Australia potentially until the 2040’s?

Announced on September 16th in a trilateral press conference, Australia, the UK and the US (thus, AUKUS), have teamed up in a security alliance. The UK and US have agreed to supply six nuclear submarines to Australia.

During the press conference where AUKUS was announced, observers understood that AUKUS was designed to combat the rise of China’s increasingly prominent military, despite the country’s name not being mentioned in any of the leaders’ remarks.

In tightening relations with the US and UK, Australia has sacrificed its diplomatic relations with China and an existing $60b submarine deal with France, leading to numerous high-profile French criticisms of the AUKUS pact.

In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said AUKUS “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race.” The Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. called it a “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice.”

Separate from other intelligence alliances like the Five Eyes (New Zealand, Australia, the US, UK and Canada) or ANZUS, the AUKUS group includes the sharing of real technology. Apart from the submarines, AUKUS will also include cyber capabilities such as Artificial Intelligence. The provision of nuclear-powered submarines from the US to Australia will allow Australia to become the seventh nation with nuclear subs. In order to quiet internal discontent, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been reaffirming Australia’s lack of intent to hold nuclear weapons, as contradictory as it appears to many Australian commentators.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (or IAEA, the United Nations’ key nuclear watchdog), Rafael Grossi, expressed concern over the legal and proliferation issues associated with AUKUS. He said the IAEA had set up a specialist team to look into the nuclear safeguards and legal implications, as it would be the first time a country has held nuclear-powered submarines without nuclear weapons capacities.

Three Australian former PMs have commented on the AUKUS deal. Kevin Rudd, a Labor PM twice between 2007-10 and in 2013, has been scathing of the pact. In an opinion piece published in the Guardian, he wrote “Morrison’s botched diplomacy has reverberated right across the Atlantic, fracturing relations between the US, the UK and France, and undermining Western solidarity on the overall challenge of China’s rise. All because Morrison wanted to deliver a huge political agenda shift back in Australia where he is now lagging badly in the polls.”

Paul Keating, another Labor PM between 1991-96, re-entered the political fray for the first time in 26 years with a National Press Club address, saying “We are at odds with our geography, and we have lost our way.” Keating argued in favour of an Asia-Pacific-oriented foreign policy while he was PM, and reiterated this view at the NPC, highly critical of the Morrison government’s approach to China.

Malcolm Turnbull, liberal PM between 2015-18, was deposed by Scott Morrison in a leadership spill. He has remained active in political commentary and is broadly critical of Morrison’s actions. “Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies,” Turnbull told the media.

“He has sacrificed Australian honour, Australian security and Australian sovereignty. Now that is a shocking thing for an Australian prime minister to do,” he added.

Adam Mount and Van Jackson, experts in nuclear strategy and US foreign policy, wrote in The New York Times that “[AUKUS] risks compromising long-term nonproliferation interests in favor of near-term militarism. It directs immense resources to ineffective strategies. It reacts to China’s military buildup but does not provide a credible deterrent or seriously alter the regional military balance against Beijing.”

After the AUKUS announcement, French President Emmanuel Macron took the unprecedented step of withdrawing French ambassadors from both Canberra and Washington. Australia and the US have both been accused of misleading the French. Macron stated that, “I don’t think, I know” that Morrison lied to him by implying that the original French submarine deal was still going ahead, only days before the AUKUS announcement.

Right after the announcement of the deal, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the abandonment of the French submarine deal a “stab in the back” on the Franceinfo radio station. “We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed,” he added.

American and British intelligence officials told the New York Times that Australian officials approached the US soon after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, saying they had concluded that Australia had to get out of a $60 billion agreement for a dozen French attack submarines. The Australians reportedly feared that the French technology would be outdated by the time the submarines were produced, due to an already lagging timeframe.

There is currently widespread support for the AUKUS deal in America and Australia, despite opposition from China as well as Indonesia and Malaysia. According to the Associated Press, the majority (60%) of US residents responded affirmatively to the question that “the new AUKUS deal will positively affect global security.”

Downing Street has pushed the benefits of the deal repeatedly, saying, “The design and build process will create hundreds of highly skilled scientific and engineering roles across the UK, and drive investment in some of our most high-tech sectors.” Boris Johnson took pains to assure the House of Commons in September that “our relationship with France, our military relationship with France, again, Mr Speaker, is rock solid. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the French.”

Johnson’s predecessor as PM, Theresa May, asked him if the deal would lead to the UK being dragged into a war over Taiwan. He avoided ruling any options out, saying the UK would “remain determined to defend international law.” The PM also attempted to make clear that AUKUS was not intended to be adversarial towards China.

In the UK, Labour conference delegates defied leader Sir Keir Starmer in condemning AUKUS, saying it “undermines world peace” and should be opposed, calling it a “dangerous move.”

The submarines have an uncertain delivery date—and an uncertain deliverer. The UK and US will battle it out for the contract, which means they may not be delivered until the 2040’s at the latest. Despite Scott Morrison’s labelling it as a “forever partnership,” it does not have widespread support from the young people who will actually be affected by it.

Alexa Kathaloor, 17, from Melbourne, believes AUKUS is somewhat “comedic.” She thinks “It seems a bit ‘high school,’ keeping secrets and pursuing the most ‘popular’ state from Australia’s standpoint. I don’t think now is a time for us to be establishing enemies, particularly with states such as France that we were otherwise on decent terms with. From a political view, it leaves us open to more criticism, such as about our climate policies at COP26, which is never good for international standing, but hopefully, from an optimistic view, it may at least be good for climate action?”

“In all honesty, I have a feeling our relationship with China has been damaged to an extent which we probably won’t return from any time soon. However, that does position us to form potentially beneficial relationships with states such as the Philippines or Vietnam who aren’t really China’s biggest fans,” she mused.

Kathaloor adds, “Although, Australia does seem to enjoy pursuing the ‘bigger fish’, and aligning ourselves with the U.S. And with globalization, I guess state borders are becoming more and more futile.”

Cori Rushdi, 16, says, “I definitely think AUKUS makes Australia way more vulnerable given the way that we treated France, and the potentially negative relationships that’ll arise as a result. Overall, I guess AUKUS has its criticisms but potentially benefits too, especially if it does help amend our current position regarding climate action.”

“I feel like Australia should engage with countries in the Indo/Asia-Pacific so that their decisions take others into account? I guess the whole AUKUS alliance seems really Euro-centric to me. With the nuclear-powered submarines, if Australia’s use of those is going to affect countries in that region, they should definitely consult with them first before taking any actions, especially as those countries have expressed disapproval,” Rushdi said.

Sophie Chiew, 18, from Melbourne believes, “The Australian decision to abandon our deal with France was really unwise; it simply wasn’t the honourable thing to do given that Australia hadn’t been entirely honest with France in the lead up to the announcement. We essentially severely damaged our relations with France in order to continue drawing closer to the US and UK.”

“Given Australia’s role as a significant actor in the Asia-Pacific region, I think it would be much wiser to develop better relations with states nearer to us. Especially given China’s growing significance on the world stage, it was a really bad move to anger them (as well as France) and make ourselves look dishonest and dishonourable, all to become the UK and US’s puppet in the region rather than developing independent influence in our own region,” she added.

Young people from Australia don’t seem as keen on AUKUS as Scott Morrison may imagine, considering that their thoughts travel towards the necessity of climate action. As time passes, the real timeframe of the deal will emerge. Chiew sums up the concern that much of Australia’s youth has with AUKUS: “I honestly think it’s dangerous to develop reliance on larger powers in this way; we can’t trust them to just bail us out when we need them.”


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