Against the background of divergences of opinion on the value to Australia of the Australia-UK-US defence partnership – AUKUS – our intern debate on Tuesday 4 April discussed the proposition “that the AUKUS partnership is in Australia’s national interest”.
The affirmative team – Isobel Logan, Nadia Maunsell and Ryan Lung – argued that Australia’s national interest lies in a stable status quo, internationally and regionally. In addition to familiar strategic threats, the landscape is now marked by new problems such as major internet hackings. The US interest in AUKUS was focused on meeting Australia’s need for a stable environment, and in no way sought to undercut our national sovereignty or interests. In many ways, AUKUS was simply an update of ANZUS. It enhanced Australian security by offering wide sharing not only of defence technology but also of innovation in such areas as artificial intelligence.
The risks of damaging our relations with China should not be exaggerated. China is well accustomed to our security links with the US. India and Pakistan have long shown that countries can have a conflictual security relationship with China but still continue to have substantial trade. China needs our trade; it is not readily able to find alternative sources for such imports such as iron ore, which is fundamental to its continued growth. Whatever our security links, it relies our commodities. At the same time, AUKUS would bring increased US investment and technological inputs to the Australian economy, as well as offering an enhanced trading partnership with the US.
AUKUS should not be seen as putting us on a war footing. It was not purely a response to perceived threats from China. It involved more than submarines and other military supplies and links. The costs of AUKUS, however substantial they proved to be, would be outweighed by its benefits.
The negative team – Roisin Browne, Ella Wakehurst and Bakar Mohamad – acknowledged the military and security benefits possible under AUKUS but considered them to be outweighed by the costs, not only financial but in their damage to wider interests including relations with the countries of our region. The structure of AUKUS risked drawing us into clashes such as US defence of Taiwan against China, which would not serve our fundamental interests. The risk of Chinese trade retaliation should not be underestimated: this had been demonstrated in the recent years of strained relations between Australia and China deriving from Australian criticisms of China. AUKUS entrenched the reputation of Australia as being part of a world order led by the United States and dominated by Anglo-European powers. The prospect of our acquiring nuclear-powered submarines made us vulnerable to charges of adding to nuclear proliferation, at a time of growing concern about the risks of nuclear warfare.
The stated cost of new submarines – $386 billion, certain to rise – would be at the expense of important Australian government activities in such fields as health and education, as well as damaging our trade interests. The US seemed likely to get the benefits of our substantial expenditure through reduced pressure on the US defence budget. Our money would be better spent on less expensive submarines in less divisive security partnerships.
The similarities of AUKUS to NATO risked promoting a sharp reaction not only from China but from our regional partners, who were of considerable importance to us. Australia should be seeking security leverage not through huge defence expenditures but through diplomacy, including strengthening our regional partnerships and alliances. Instead, Australian integration with our region – a long-standing target of successive Australian governments – was being undermined by AUKUS. There was no need for such a risky and inflexible security linkage, compromising our sovereignty by tying us to the United States and its interests.
The adjudication was delivered by Alex McManis, AIIA NSW councillor and former intern with substantial background in debating, including judging debates in Europe, Asia and Australia. He complimented both teams on the quality of their content and presentation, welcoming the originality of points from both teams. The affirmative side had made a strong case for the importance to Australia of preserving a stable security status quo in the Indo-Pacific region. The negative team had addressed the economic dimension, including the diversion of government funding to defence at the expense of areas such as health care and trade promotion, plus the risk of Chinese economic retaliation over a perceived alliance against them. On balance, he had found the arguments of the negative team more convincing.