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A New Partnership to Counter China in the Pacific
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A New Partnership to Counter China in the Pacific

No story has been more important the last month than our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan ...

No story has been more important the last month than our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power. Thomas Joscelyn has been covering the war on terror since it began, and few people are as knowledgeable about al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other threats that still challenge us. We’re sending you this preview of his weekly newsletter, Vital Interests, to give you an idea of what you’d be receiving if you were a full member of The Dispatch. His newsletter comes out every Thursday and he also touches on the challenges presented by foes China and Russia. Today, in fact, he was able to turn his attention to the new partnership announced by the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. Now is great time to sign up as a paid member. We’re offering 30-day trial free-trial memberships. Join now and you get 13 months for the price of 12. Even better: It’s risk-free and you can cancel anytime. (But we hope you won’t.)

On September 15, President Biden joined a virtual press conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The trio gathered via screens to announce the creation of AUKUS. As Morrison explained, AUKUS is “a new enhanced trilateral security partnership” in which the technological, industrial, and defense sectors of the three nations will work “together to deliver a safer and more secure region that ultimately benefits all.” 

If you read through the transcript of the briefing, you’ll notice something missing: China. There is no mention of Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the People’s Liberation Army or Xi Jinping. 

No, to hear the three allies talk, or read their words, one might think they are worried about some abstract threat to international security. That is not the case. AUKUS is mostly about countering the CCP. 

Australia is, in many ways, on the frontlines in the great power rivalry between the CCP and the U.S.—not just in terms of geography, but also political ideology. And Canberra’s decision to join AUKUS shows just how alarmed Morrison’s government has become in a very short period of time. 

Morrison’s predecessor as PM, Malcolm Turnbull, claimed that Australia didn’t have to choose between Washington and Beijing. “We have a staunch, strong ally in Washington—a good friend in Washington—and we have a very good friend in Beijing,” Turnbull claimed in March 2017. “The idea that Australia has to choose between China and the United States is not correct.”

Initially, Morrison repeated the same formulation. “Australia doesn’t have to choose and we won’t choose,” Morrison said during a press conference in November 2018. “We will continue to work constructively with both partners based on the core of what those relationships are.”

From Canberra’s perspective, Beijing doesn’t look like a “very good friend” or a very stable “partner” today. 

During his opening remarks at the virtual meeting this week, Morrison stressed that three AUKUS partners “have always believed in a world that favors freedom; that respects human dignity, the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states, and the peaceful fellowship of nations.” The CCP’s diplomats often mimic these same concepts, but clearly Australia doesn’t think they are being honest. 

Morrison’s own views were undoubtedly shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and the CCP’s response. Morrison drew rhetorical fire from the CCP’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomats after he called for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. This exacerbated relations between the two countries. The Chinese have increased tariffs on imports of many Australian products with outright bans on others, such as rock lobster. Throughout this trade war, Morrison has trumpeted the high volume of economic activity between the two countries, arguing that robust economic ties show there is still “great value in the relationship.” In a purely monetary sense, that is correct: China remains Australia’s top trading partner. But in terms of the other values stressed by Morrison this week, the gap between Canberra and Beijing is widening.

The first initiative undertaken by AUKUS will be to deliver a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. The U.K. will play a key role in developing and building the fleet. This will not turn Australia into a nuclear-armed country; the submarines won’t carry nuclear weapons. But the technology will increase the stealth capabilities of the Australians’ submarines. 

Naturally, the CCP is outraged. 

A reporter asked Zhao Lijian, a CCP Foreign Ministry spokesperson, about AUKUS during a press briefing on Sept. 16. “The nuclear submarine cooperation between the U.S., the U.K., and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts,” Zhao blistered in response. “The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology to Australia by the U.S. and the U.K. proves once again that they are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical game and adopting double standards.” Zhao also insinuated that Australia was skirting its non-proliferation commitments—a claim the AUKUS leaders flatly reject.  

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.