Argument

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AUKUS Is a Short-Term Mess but a Long-Term Win for Australia

The controversial deal puts Canberra on the right side of history.

By , a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.
Scott Morrison and Lloyd Austin attend a meeting.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (right) attend a meeting at the Defense Department in Arlington, Virginia, on Sept. 22. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The best strategy for most investors, conventional wisdom says, is to spread one’s money widely. But when Australia joined the United States and the United Kingdom in the trilateral defense pact known as AUKUS, it threw all its eggs in one basket. If AUKUS is a signal, then one of its key messages is rather than hedge between Beijing and Washington as most other countries are doing, Australia has chosen the United States—and at a sharp price. AUKUS has immediately damaged Australia’s relations with several important partners in Southeast Asia and Europe. France, Germany, Indonesia, and Malaysia have all registered their unhappiness with the new alliance.

Yet there are strong reasons to think AUKUS is the right choice for Australia in the long run.

To diversify one’s investments requires the “baskets” are relatively equal—equal because they are equally uncertain and equal in terms of the dividends they can bring and the risks they can pose. But Australia’s “strategic baskets” are far from being equal.

The best strategy for most investors, conventional wisdom says, is to spread one’s money widely. But when Australia joined the United States and the United Kingdom in the trilateral defense pact known as AUKUS, it threw all its eggs in one basket. If AUKUS is a signal, then one of its key messages is rather than hedge between Beijing and Washington as most other countries are doing, Australia has chosen the United States—and at a sharp price. AUKUS has immediately damaged Australia’s relations with several important partners in Southeast Asia and Europe. France, Germany, Indonesia, and Malaysia have all registered their unhappiness with the new alliance.

Yet there are strong reasons to think AUKUS is the right choice for Australia in the long run.

To diversify one’s investments requires the “baskets” are relatively equal—equal because they are equally uncertain and equal in terms of the dividends they can bring and the risks they can pose. But Australia’s “strategic baskets” are far from being equal.

The great-power rivalry between the United States and China is the more fundamental struggle between a rules-based and a hierarchy-based international order. Australia, the United States, and many other countries—from Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam in the east to France, Britain, and Germany in the west—are endeavoring to uphold an order based on neutral rules, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Meanwhile, China is inculcating a hierarchical order and conditioning others to accept its supreme position in bilateral as well as multilateral settings.

Although hierarchies exist in a rules-based order, a hierarchical order also has its rules. But the rules of a rules-based order treat nations equally regarding their size and power—at least, in theory, if not always in practice—whereas the rules of a hierarchical order reflect, ritualize, and reinforce asymmetries in power and size.

That’s visible in China’s constant rhetoric about “big” and “small” countries. Staring at the Singaporean foreign minister at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in July 2010, China’s then-foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, reminded his regional audience that “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” In another instance, Chen Hai, a senior official at the Department of Asian Affairs in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told his South Korean counterpart in 2017 that “a small country was refusing to listen to a big country,” in regards to Seoul’s decision to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. The same hierarchical mindset guided the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, when it commented on Lithuania’s withdrawal from a grouping of China and 16 other Central and Eastern European countries: “Lithuania is not qualified to attack China and this is not the way a small country should act.” Pay deference to China, and you’ll be rewarded with access to the Chinese market, investment, tourists, vaccines, and more. But if you insist on equality and neutral rules when China seeks exceptions for itself, you will be punished. The Philippines experienced this when it brought its disputes with China in the South China Sea to the international court of arbitration and won the case—only to have Beijing disregard the result and step up its encroachment in the Philippines’ waters.

Australia, more than any other country, became a victim of China’s economic coercion when it asked the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Immediately after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent assessment of the coronavirus outbreak in April 2020, Chinese officials and media warned of consumer boycotts against Australian goods and its market. The following months saw an unprecedented number and amount of Australian products—from beef, coal, timber, and wine to barley, copper, sugar, and wool—barred from entering China due to non-transparent Chinese restrictions. But also more than many other country, Canberra didn’t bow to Chinese coercion and rejected Beijing’ demands to change its policy to restart bilateral talks. Australia has realized its freedom, autonomy, sovereignty, and dignity won’t be respected in a Chinese-led world order.

Bigger countries—the United States, Britain, and India included—at times leverage their superior size and power at the expense of neutral rules in relations with smaller countries, but no country is as incessant and systematic in building hierarchical rules as China. It does so by constantly reminding smaller countries of their inferior status with its “big country, small countries” rhetoric, with intimidation, and even with petty humiliation as former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan revealed.

The choice is thus clear for Australia. It is in its national interest to protect the liberal rules-based order and reject China’s hierarchical order. The sage advice for Australia in this regard is to seek alliances with those that are committed to a rules-based order rather than hedge its bets with China’s international hierarchy.

Fortunately for Australia, geography is on its side. The most productive areas on Earth are clustered in the southern, western, and eastern seaboards of the Eurasian continent. These areas, collectively known as the Rimland thanks to Dutch-born American political scientist Nicholas Spykman, repeatedly gave rise to most of the great powers in world history—Assyria, Persia, Rome, India, and China, to name a few. However, these great powers remained regional hegemons—not global ones.

This is because to dominate all of the Rimland, one must first gain access to each of its most productive areas, and in this respect, a great power based on a productive offshore region has a decisive advantage over any power based on the Eurasian landmass. As history—or better, geography—has it, the only global hegemons the world has ever known are the United Kingdom and the United States. The former was based on a large island generously provisioned with natural ports off the coast of Europe, whereas the latter spans from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. If the Rimland is privileged by its productivity, offshore (where Britain and the United States are located) is privileged by its connectivity and protection, both provided by the world’s oceans.

As a Rimland power, China has to face not just a global rivalry with the United States but also regional rivalries with Japan and India. With or without Australia, an anti-hegemonic coalition among the United States, Japan, and India is a logical response to this situation. But with its location, productivity, and size, Australia can leave a large mark on the contest’s outcome.

If it sides with China, it can help China become a partial hegemon in Asia and the Pacific, but the U.S.-Japan-India coalition can still block China’s bid for global hegemony. If Australia joins the U.S.-Japan-India coalition, it is more likely on the winning side. Aided by AUKUS—a strategic alliance of three major offshore powers in the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, and the hinge between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans—the combined coalition represents the winning geography’s core and arithmetic of our time’s great-power competition. Perhaps not coincidentally, all these powers are among the most committed to a rules-based international order.

And although AUKUS has costs, the alliance is not fundamentally alienating Europe and Asia. While France, Germany, Indonesia, and Malaysia have complained about some aspects of it, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines have expressed their support for the new trilateral alliance. In the European Union, Denmark has implicitly given its approval while in the Association of Southeast Nations, Singapore is publicly and Vietnam is subtly and cautiously nurturing their hopes about the partnership. India is also hiding its real thoughts, but it cannot hide the reality that AUKUS helps sink the prospects of Chinese dominance.

Australia is fortunate not to have a dilemma between the best choice based on the values it holds dear and the best choice based on geopolitical calculations. Its membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS will solidify its place on the winning side of the century’s global contest.

Alexander L. Vuving is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government or any U.S. government agencies.

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