Australia has relied on other nations for its protection since it officially became a nation on 1 January 1901. Britain was our Protector until the fall of Singapore in February 1942. The British strategy to hold the far east was flawed from the outset. Promised defence matériel didn’t arrive because Britain needed all its resources to defend itself in Europe. In 1941, one battleship, the HMS Prince of Wales, and one battlecruiser, HMS Repulse were the sole sea defence in the Far East. Japanese aircraft sank them on 10 December 1941.
The fall of Singapore was a turning point in Australia’s history. The United States replaced Britain as Australia’s Protector. Both Protectors – despite their words of friendship, the importance of the alliance and the special relationship between the countries – put their interests ahead of Australia’s. The British did it in 1942. The Americans did it during the Gulf War. At the height of the conflict, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gareth Evans, asked US Secretary of Defence, James Baker, if Australia could be consulted before its equipment was used. “I was left in no doubt, buddy, that it was Washington running this war, not Canberra,” said Evans.
Having a powerful ally doesn’t require enslavement. Canada and New Zealand didn’t send troops to Vietnam which didn’t rupture their relationships with the US . As Gareth Evans wrote recently “When it comes to decisions to go to war, we have too often in the past, most notably in Vietnam and the Iraq war of 2003, joined the US in fighting wars that were justified neither by international law nor morality, but because the Americans wanted us to, or we thought they wanted us to, or because we wanted them to want us to.”
That’s just one reason Australians should be wary of AUKUS. The tripartite agreement between Australia, the United States and Britain will cost Australia $370 billion for which we’ll get eight nuclear-powered submarines. AUKUS proponents cite the threat from China and the need to keep Australia’s sea lanes clear.
Former Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Keating have raised questions about the deal, including the control Australia will have over its submarines. And their launch date is decades away. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously claimed, “A week is a long time in politics.” Decades are an eternity. The world will be a different place then. There might be a Trump-like US president or a Boris Johnson-like British Prime Minister. If a gung-ho US president wants to go to war over Taiwan or anywhere else, history shows we’ll be the first in line to send Australian troops and defence matériel. And history also shows we’re unlikely to control them – be they nuclear-powered submarines or anything else.