The Australian

AUKUS Critics Start Argument from a Faulty Place

Likening American and Chinese Approaches to Spheres of Influence Doesn’t Make Sense

Senior Fellow
03.24.2023 John Lee_0.jpg
Airfield, buildings, and structures on the artificial island built by China in Spratly Islands on October 25, 2022 (Ezra Acayan via Getty Images)

Disagreeing with civility is necessary for healthy discourse and former prime minister Paul Keating was panned last week for not doing that. Attacking an opponent’s argument is fair game but questioning the character of those he disagreed with was a vindictive indulgence.

Even so, there is still the substance of the disagreement about nuclear-propelled submarines, AUKUS and relations with the US and China to contend with.

The harshest critics of recent Australian strategic and defence policy generally run the line that China must be allowed its natural sphere of influence in Asia. They contend Western powers such as the US and Australia ought to adjust to this reality, or spend billions in a futile quest to push back an irresistible tide.

It is not only Keating who believes this. For example, a commentary piece by The Australian’s Washington correspondent, Adam Creighton, on Monday argued that just as the US seeks to dominate the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean seas, Beijing is looking to do the same in the South China Sea. Attempting to hem in China in what ought to be a natural sphere of influence along its periphery is unwise, unfair and unworkable.

According to this line of argument, AUKUS is the Anglosphere overreaching because it is Australia working with distant powers to push back against the resident Chinese great power.

Is AUKUS an expensive and imprudent perversion that ignores the demands of our geo-strategic situation? Only if we begin from a faulty place. Indeed, some of the harshest critics of the Australian submarine plan have built their perspectives on what might be described as false equivalences, flawed contexts and unfounded defeatism.

False Equivalence of AUKUS Critics 

False equivalence is committed when two opposing viewpoints are given equal weight simply because they appear to share similar characteristics when such apparent similarities are exaggerated or misunderstood while significant differences are ignored.

Consider arguments based on false equivalence, namely that China is simply pursuing a sphere of influence around its periphery and that every great power does the same. Those decrying the AUKUS agreement and the supposedly unhealthy Australian reliance on the US tend to make the argument that the US and China are really the same animal, and we are indulging in historical bias and ignoring our geography by choosing Washington over Beijing. To back up this proposition, they advance the argument that the US would be beside itself if there were a potentially hostile naval presence in the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea. What then is the big deal about what China is doing in the East or South China seas? 

The US and China do want pre-eminence in their immediate region. But this is where genuine similarities cease and false comparisons begin. Likening American and Chinese approaches in the Gulf of Mexico and the South China Sea, respectively, doesn’t make sense. Most obviously, China uses several justifications, some of which contradict each other, to claim virtually the entirety of the South China Sea, an expanse of water covering 3.7 million square kilometres. The US does not make any similarly fanciful claims to the Gulf of Mexico.

Chinese justifications include claiming maritime territory as part of Chinese internal waters, territorial seas or exclusive economic zones in ways that have been found to be contradictory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of which China is a signatory.

On the basis of these bogus justifications, China insists on regulating commercial and restricting naval activities by other states.

The assertion that there is nothing to see here and China will allow normal maritime actions to occur misses the crucial proviso that these actions by other states and entities would occur at the pleasure of Beijing and are privileges that can be withdrawn at any time. In contrast, and although the US is not a signatory to UNCLOS, American sovereign claims in seas such as the Gulf of Mexico, an area less than half the size of the South China Sea, are far more modest. Importantly, the US does not deny that other states such as Mexico and even its ideological enemy in Cuba have legitimate rights and have signed treaties agreeing to these with its neighbours.

Now consider another false equivalence frequently relied on by critics of AUKUS to cast doubt on the wisdom of deepening our alliance with the US. It begins with the unremarkable observation that all great powers exert pressure on smaller nations to advance their interests, only to then make the case that the only practical option for Australia is to seek a more independent path rather than suffer the whims and cruelties inflicted on us by the US or China. Indeed, Creighton in his column cautions that it is silly and dangerous for nations to believe in their own innate virtue, or presumably that of our great and powerful American friend.

There are several misrepresentations to unpack. On the issue of being pushed around and bullied by powerful nations, perspective is missing if one equates episodes such as the close call of the US suddenly imposing steel tariffs against Australian exporters in 2018 with China’s cascading economic measures against Australia from 2020 onwards. Any or all perspective is lost if one cannot recognise that the ever more aggressive Chinese military manoeuvres to coerce Taiwan, Japan and Southeast Asian nations is vastly different in nature and scale to any supposed pressure the US might exert on regional states.

There is a world of difference between American naval vessels passing through recognised international waters, on the one hand, and the Chinese militarisation of its illegal artificial islands, on the other.

China Does Not Represent Asia

There is an analytical trick commonly used by the strongest critics of AUKUS. Those arguing that China ought to be afforded its natural sphere of influence in Asia tend to begin with the misleading assumption that the US and China are the only pertinent geo-strategic actors in Asia. Forget the inconvenient reality that almost every Asian nation, with rare exceptions such as North Korea, consider China the major threat even if they disagree as to how the US and its allies ought to respond.

If one took seriously the perspectives of governments in Tokyo, New Delhi, Seoul, Manila, or Hanoi, one could not frame geopolitics in the region as a simple case of a geographically distant US seeking to contain China to preserve its fading pre-eminence.

This suggests the inanity of the exhortation used to condemn AUKUS that we need to seek security in Asia rather than from Asia. That makes sense only if one equates China with Asia, which is precisely what Beijing strives to convince us of. It is a chauvinistic Chinese Communist Party perspective that ill behoves Australian former prime ministers, experts and commentators to promote. As an example of reasoning from flawed context, this is a prime candidate. It further leads to the egregious assessment that the interests and preferences of the almost 50 Asian capitals other than Beijing do not really matter while Taiwan might well have to be the unfortunate sacrifice for the sake of regional peace.

Never mind that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has already revealed that far from being satiated, taking Taiwan is only the first step of a Chinese strategic and military advance beyond its immediate periphery. And as an important aside, there will be no possibility of seeking security in or from Asia if this occurs.

Unfounded Defeatism

Naysayers tend to be interrupted and inconvenienced by others doing what they say cannot be done. Many AUKUS and alliance critics ultimately fall back on assuming the propositions that they initially set out to prove: China’s success is inevitable; Beijing is undeterrable and will pay any price to achieve its unchanging objectives; and the US is a fading and unreliable power. In short, we have no agency and no good options. There are still serious obstacles to overcome before Australia has functioning nuclear-propelled submarines in its fleet. There is much urgent and immediate work to do for the AUKUS nations to develop and deploy the strike and asymmetrical weapons necessary to deter China. And democratic governments may well lose their resolve and nerve.

But none of these challenges means that the above propositions will come to pass. Indeed, the submarine announcement suggests the US is more reliable than caricatures of it suggest. That China is so enraged by AUKUS suggests it can be restrained because Beijing’s calculations can be altered. AUKUS enhances our agency and comes with a big price tag. But it would be much more expensive in the longer term if we choose to do nothing.

Read in The Australian.