AUKUS, USA imperialism, China, and the new Cold War

The following was delivered as a speech at the International Socialist Organisation Aotearoa Public Political Education Day on the 3rd of June 2023. A recorded version of the speech is also available at the following link:

While considering the strands of events in the greater Pacific region, this material will not be engaging in any “whose side are you on” rhetoric when it comes to the governments in this discussion. As international socialists, we stand against capitalism and against imperialism. Australia, the USA, and the UK are all proudly capitalist, and they are all committed to ensuring the continuance of self-interested competition between private individuals and companies. China competes as a state-size entity in the capitalist marketplace in just the same way as private companies do, and also has numerous private companies operating within its borders in national and international markets. All of the aforementioned countries engage in imperialist posturing and action. None of them represent the world we are building towards.

But also it is important that we’re very clear that it is the capitalists and the capitalist governments that we stand against, not the working people of those countries. Addressing this topic is not an opportunity for racism, or xenophobia, or the promotion of imperialism or colonialism of our own. The “International” in our name identifies us an internationalist in our politics. Our vision is of all working people united, empowered, and in control of their lives – and there is absolutely no place for racism in that vision.

Journalist John Pilger reports that as early as 1943 Japan had attempted to discuss with the USA a peaceful conclusion to the Pacific war. By May 5th, 1945, the USA military had intercepted communications confirming the Japanese were desperate for peace, including “capitulation even if the terms were hard.” The then USA Secretary of War later admitted that “no effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb.” Rather, it seems the USA military was eager to test their new weapons on two Japanese cities. The USA estimated a hundred thousand immediate deaths, and later estimates suggest up to that many deaths again from all causes including radiation poisoning. Shortly after the war the USA’s analysis stated: “It is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” It is telling that same Survey also enthusiastically recorded: “The first and crucial question about the atomic bomb thus was answered practically and conclusively; atomic energy had been mastered for military purposes and the overwhelming scale of its possibilities had been demonstrated.” Hearing this, I hope you have a sense of revulsion, as I do, at this willingness to sacrifice human lives for the purpose of testing out a new tool of annihilation. Keep a hold of that feeling, because we’re going to circle back here a few times over the next half an hour, and through the course of this talk hopefully develop some more context to understand the kinds of challenges we’re up against today.

Australia has been toying with the idea of new submarines for about 15 years now. In 2009, the then Labour government proposed the purchase of 12 new submarines to replace an ageing fleet. Successive Australian governments have scrapped previous governments’ plans and then developed ideas of instead purchasing first Japanese and then French submarines. The latest AUKUS plan was commenced under the Liberal/National Coalition led by Scott Morrison. This plan constitutes a three-way military agreement between Australia, the UK, and the USA, and the severance of earlier-formed French military ties.

The AUKUS deal commits these three countries to a range of military activities, including for USA Virginia-class and UK Astute-class nuclear submarines to operate from HMAS Stirling base near Perth. Australian broadcaster ABC notes this combination of location and submarine design can quickly reach waters around Taiwan and can operate there for an extended period. Australia agrees to buy at least three used Virginia-class submarines by the early 2030s, with an option to purchase a further two, and will be constructing within Australia newly UK- and USA-designed SSN-AUKUS-class submarines through the early 2040s right out to the 2060s. The AUKUS deal doesn’t provide Australia with nuclear weapons. Australia’s new acquisitions would nonetheless carry cruise missiles and would be able to “linger off the Chinese coast and directly threaten China with the threat of cruise missile strikes,” as reported by Australia’s state broadcaster ABC.

Most reports about AUKUS focus on submarine purchase and construction, which is understandable given the massive resource drain, nuclear proliferation, and military escalation issues the deal raises. However, another aspect of the AUKUS deal includes the shared development of military technology between the three countries. This includes the development of quantum computing and communications, hypersonic missiles, and artificial intelligence. Standing alongside Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Naval Base San Diego, USA President Joe Biden said: “The United States could not ask for two better friends or partners to stand with as we work to create a safe, more peaceful future for the people everywhere.” Dr. Bec Strating of La Trobe university Melbourne describes the situation as follows: “Politicians and members of the Australian strategic elite have really bought into this idea of US-lead integrated deterrence – this idea that the US along with its allies and partners need to band together collectively to provide a counter-weight to China in the Asian region.”

The bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, and the subsequent entry of the USA into World War II didn’t happen in a vacuum. The USA had imperialist designs in the Pacific throughout the 19th century, which included the appropriation of Hawai’i and the Phillipines. By the end of World War I, the USA viewed Japan as one of its main military rivals (the other being the UK), and multilateral disarmament treaties achieved limited success in achieving naval reductions. From 1940 onward, the USA elected to introduce increasing sanctions against Japan in response to ongoing Japanese invasion of China which was an important market for USA trade. As the Pacific powers jostled for dominance, and apparently convinced that the USA was opposed to any further negotiated solution, the Japanese navy carried out the famous attack that drew the USA into World War II. In our times, there are some different actors, and some of the same actors are playing different roles. But nonetheless these events, eighty plus years ago, feel uncomfortably similar to rising Pacific tensions today.

Australia’s part of the submarine deal will cost it between AU$268 billion and AU$368 billion over the next 30 years. Somewhere in the middle of that range equates to an expenditure of around $11 billion per year, every year, for three decades. Albanese describes this as “The biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability in all of our history.” The Australian Prime Minister seems rather proud of his new submarines. But it might be useful to stop and consider what else this money might have been used for.

Contrast the $11 billion per year spent on submarines against the Australian government’s intent to commit only $2 billion per year over the next decade towards technological development targeting carbon net zero. Perhaps rather than underwater death machines Albanese might have made a greater commitment to staving off climate disaster?

Or consider that in 2023 in Australia almost one million people live with what the World Bank calls “severe food insecurity”, and just over three million people live below the national poverty threshold. According to the Australian Homelessness Monitor, a significant driver of poverty is increasing housing costs, and at any given time around 1 in 200 people in Australia experience homelessness. Perhaps the Australian government might have considered financing or at least subsidising high-quality high-density accessible housing, coupled with improving the economic safety-net for those in poverty?

The cost of the AUKUS deal to the Australian public is in the ballpark of the AU$291 billion spent by their government on an economic response to Covid – a pandemic which globally has killed millions of people and severely disrupted the lives of many more. Covid will continue to exert stresses on health and social organising for some time to come. Is the Australian government so sure the pandemic is sufficiently ‘over’ that it can afford to throw money into imperial wargames?

Australia plans to increase its number of nuclear reactors from the one it has currently which is apparently used primarily for medical and scientific research, to constructing at least eleven more simply to be able to meet the fuel requirements of the new AUKUS submarines. Meanwhile, China has been communicating with the International Atomic Energy Agency to express concerns that, since the submarines are powered by weapons-grade nuclear material, supply of nuclear engine material under the AUKUS agreement constitutes a breach of international treaties and an illegal step towards an Australian nuclear weapons programme. Regardless of legality, Australia will also have to address the issue of disposal of the enriched, weapons-grade, nuclear waste it will be generating. The Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles has given assurances that its nuclear waste will be stored responsibly and safely in a facility on Australian “defence” land – “current or future.” I imagine I’m not alone in my scepticism of the assurance of safety. I suspect also a degree of cynicism on Marles’ in omitting to acknowledge whether Australian First Peoples will be involved in decisions of storage of waste on land which was stolen and never ceded. Waste which will remain radioactive for the next 20,000 years. The ABC notes that Australia has thus far failed to achieve stable storage even of its current low-grade, comparatively less dangerous, nuclear waste. This hardly bodes well for the future.

In these examples I have arbitrarily focussed on Australia simply because it is nearest AUKUS country to Aotearoa. But these examples, with some slightly adjusted figures, might just as easily apply to either of the other AUKUS countries or to China. The citizens of each of those countries and of all countries would have been better served if, rather than throwing money into new nuclear imperialist applications, these governments chose to spend that money addressing social and environmental problems.

Hiroshima, before the 1945 atomic bomb.

Quoting another excerpt from the USA military’s survey shortly after Japan’s surrender: “Hiroshima is built on a broad river delta; it is flat and little above sea level. The total city area is 26 square miles but only 7 square miles at the center were densely built up. The principal industries, which had been greatly expanded during the war, were located on the periphery of the city. The population of the city had been reduced from approximately 340,000 to 245,000 as a result of a civilian defense evacuation program. The explosion caught the city by surprise. An alert had been sounded but in view of the small number of planes the all-clear had been given. Consequently, the population had not taken shelter.” I share this excerpt for two reasons. First, war is waged not just against military infrastructure of metal and concrete, but on human lives and on human homes. It is critically important when considering abstract phrases such as “rising tensions” that we recognise that we’re talking about the risk of enabling bloodthirsty mass murders. The second reason is because I think it’s well beyond coincidence that the G7 convened this year in Hiroshima.

The Group of Seven, or ‘G7’, is a conference of the heads of state of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the USA, and also including an EU representative. Following their conference, the G7 releases a public statement summarising their position on shared political goals which range from climate to digital technology to economic. The G7 statement provides an insight into the mindset of these governments. Unsurprisingly, the 2023 statement makes sweeping positive statements about free market capitalism, and proposes free trade and the leveraging of private finance as solutions for much of the world’s woes.

Only around 3% of the statement by word count addresses China explicitly, and a number of other countries, regions, and political groups are also discussed elsewhere in the document. Where China is concerned, the statement starts out with a rather positive tone: an expression of preparedness to develop constructive and stable relations. The statement quickly proceeds, however, to rather hypocritical calls for China to engage in discussions of climate and biodiversity crises, debt stability, and global health. To quote the G7 directly: “Our policy approaches are not designed to harm China nor do we seek to thwart China’s economic progress and development. A growing China that plays by international rules would be of global interest. We are not decoupling or turning inwards. At the same time, we recognize that economic resilience requires de-risking and diversifying. We will take steps, individually and collectively, to invest in our own economic vibrancy. We will reduce excessive dependencies in our critical supply chains.” In other words, either China complies with the G7, or trade with China will be cut. The underlying assumption is that China is currently not playing by the rules as set by everyone else, with the G7 being the unquestionably legitimate representatives and spokespeople of those rules.

At the same time, many news media appear to be relatively uncritically supporting Western imperialism, to the point of actively feeding justifications to the politicians rather than examining their motivations. The Sydney Morning Herald takes stoking tension to a whole new level with the following: “While the official Canberra guidance on timing is that Australia will have less than 10 years’ warning of war, the five experts [discussed in The Sydney Morning Herald’s series of articles] think that this timeline is misleading. We need to be ready to fight in just three years, they found. Their review is titled accordingly: Red Alert.”

The UK state broadcaster BBC gives considerable space for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as he says of AUKUS: “We represent three allies who have stood shoulder to shoulder for more than a century. Three peoples who have shared blood together in defence of our shared values. And three democracies that are coming together again to fulfil that higher purpose of maintaining freedom, peace, and security now and for generations to come.” The same BBC report follows on with commentary from journalist Chris Mason to support a cherry-picked quotation: “Compare and contrast what you’ve just heard and seen with this: China’s leader Xi Jinping also promising to modernise its military… to turn it, he said, into a great wall of steel.” The reporter goes on to ask Sunak “Is China dangerous?” and receives the slam-dunk response: “China is a country with fundamentally different values to ours and it represents a challenge to the world order.” The set-up and delivery of this fear-mongering is obvious. Sunak has openly referenced bloodshed, yet the report is structured to lead the viewer to sense that the Western powers are merely seeking peace while China is seeking to disrupt that peace.

More balanced reporting, for example from Al Jazeera, gives slightly more context to Jinping’s words: “We should strengthen the national defence and army modernisation, building the People’s Army into a Great Wall of Steel that effectively safeguards national security and development interests.” Jingping also says: “We should actively promote the peaceful development of the relationship across the Taiwan Straight, resolutely oppose external interference and ‘Taiwan Independence’ separatist activities.” Rest assured I’m not unconditionally leaping to Jingping’s defence here – he is still describing military build-up, it’s unclear what ‘national security and development interests’ could include, and he’s punching down to Taiwanese independence. Nonetheless, even with this slight additional context the BBC’s bias is crystal clear. ‘Great Wall of Steel’ is not a clearly offensive terminology, and appears highly likely to be a reference to the Great Wall as defensive infrastructure. And Jinping’s words when refering to Taiwan are ‘the peaceful development of a relationship’. We can maintain a healthy distrust of the veracity of a politician’s words while also acknowledging that even those words are being blatantly misrepresented in media many rely upon.

Self-defence is a reasonable justification for maintaining some degree of military capability. Certainly, history is littered with examples of invasion, subjugation, and genocide. The ISO does not subscribe to pacifism. We stand against imperialism and colonialism, and we also stand for the right of people to defend themselves against attack. There is clearly a complex question to consider of exactly what is required to ensure legitimate defence is possible. There is also a critical question for us to consider of whether any of the political alliances, state posturing, and military escalation discussed here is truly for self-defence at all.

The “Western” alliance claims China represents a threat that we must be ready to defend against. That claim of treat is multifactorial. In addition to the military threat suggested earlier, the G7 references threats to the economic and legal status quo, assuming we will all agree the current approach is the pinnacle of all human existence and is worth fighting to uphold. According to the G7: “With a view to enabling sustainable economic relations with China, and strengthening the international trading system, we will push for a level playing field for our workers and companies. We will seek to address the challenges posed by China’s non-market policies and practices, which distort the global economy.  We will counter malign practices, such as illegitimate technology transfer or data disclosure. We will foster resilience to economic coercion. We also recognize the necessity of protecting certain advanced technologies that could be used to threaten our national security without unduly limiting trade and investment.” In counterpoint, China claims the “Western” countries are the ones carrying out provocation, and any escalation is only necessary to defend itself. What we see from our perspective is both sides claiming to be under threat while engaging in an arms race reminiscent of the Cold War of last century.

Both China and the G7 claim to want a peaceful resolution to issues of ownership of Taiwan. Meanwhile both China and the USA construct Pacific military bases and proliferate naval combat systems. Both China and the USA move their existing combat craft right to the edge of borders. Is we observed children provoking a rival sibling by standing right at the edge of another’s space or brandishing a stick claimed to be only for defence, we wouldn’t hesitate to label these kinds of action as immaturity. Sadly, distressingly, nauseatingly, these are however the actions of numerous fully-grown adults who are in control of technology capable of ending our existence, or of immiserating it, to appease their own whims.

Furthermore, we should consider the track record of these countries in making decisions that further the wellbeing of people within their own borders and internationally. The Chinese government recently brutally put down a struggle for democracy in Hong Kong, has retained a tight grip on Tibet for over half a century, has an oppressive and brutal approach to the Uyghur people, and can in no way be trusted to act in a fair or peaceful way towards the people of Taiwan. The USA has a history of supporting terrorism abroad such as in Indonesia, Chile, and Haiti, of outright invasion such as happened to Iraq and Afghanistan, and of putting its own citizens at extreme risk such as with the recent repeal of the right to abortion, censoring and reviling the LGBTQI+ community, and enabling ongoing violence against people of colour. The USA’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recently put out a statement about one part of the USA, which I would argue is only flawed in its cautiously limited scope: “Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. Before traveling to Florida, please understand that the state of Florida devalues and marginalizes the contributions of, and the challenges faced by African Americans and other communities of color.” This is a part of the same country that supposedly upholds peace and international law, and brings the world freedom through firepower.

I examined publicly available World Bank data of military size and spending to consider the relative threats from these military forces. Of course this analysis comes with some caveats. First of all, we most certainly do not hold the World Bank up as a paragon of truth and unbiased action. Nonetheless, we have limited resources to obtain this data elsewhere, and utilisation of this available data gives us at least some insight. Second, the data might be some inconsistencies which I’m not currently able to account for. For example, what is considered ‘military personnel’ might vary from country. On that confounder, even the World Bank states that although it tries to apply a standardised NATO definition to ‘military personnel’, it is unable to entirely account for variation of definition. Once again, though, I am sharing this analysis with you to give an overview of relative military might with a greater degree of objectivity than we might see in G7 statements and much of the news media reporting.

In terms of military size, China has the greatest number of military personnel at 2.5 million. This is just less than twice the number of personnel of the USA. These numbers need to be examined a little more closely, however. China is a large country with a large population, and when each country’s military personnel is examined by population, we see a different picture. Considering proportion of population gives us some insight into the relative importance each country places on military service compared with other activities. By this measure, the USA far outweighs the other countries we’re discussing today, with around 0.4% of the whole population or 0.8% of the labour force engaged in the military. China on the other hand is comparable to Aotearoa, with just under 0.2% of each country’s population or 0.3% of each country’s labour force.

Looking at change over time, we see most of these countries have maintained roughly the same number of personnel at least since the turn of the century. Since the year 2000, the number of military personnel in the UK and China have fallen by 30% and 35% respectively. These are significant decreases in military staff – in China’s case, this represents the demilitarisation of well over a million people. In the same period, the USA and New Zealand have decreased their military personnel by 5% and 2% respectively, whereas Australia has increased by 14%. Even acknowledging the likely confounding factor of personnel being replaced by technology, a comparison of changes (or lack of change) over time suggests China is actually de-emphasising its military size compared with most of the AUKUS countries. This is in contradiction to any claims of China increasing its military size.

Change in military size over time.

The USA has by far largest expenditure on military activities: an eye-watering US$734 billion each year. China has just one third of that military budget (US$240 billion), although this nonetheless dwarfs the spending of the UK, Australia, and Aotearoa. Examining snapshots of military spending compared with other financial activities, we see a much greater prioritisation of military spending in the USA compared with the other countries we’re discussing. The USA spends 3.5% of its GDP on its military, compared with lower proportions of GDP spending in the UK (2.2%) and China (2.0%). The USA spends 8.3% of its total government budget on its military, compared with lower proportions of total government spending in China (5.0%) and the UK (4.7%). We can also examine these countries’ change in spending over time. Military expenditure in absolute US dollars is increasing for both countries. Accounting for inflation, China’s military budget is consistently increasing whereas the change in the USA’s budget is variable but has generally increased over time. Importantly, the rate of the USA’s military budget increase is actually 20% greater than China’s. Therefore, reports of China’s increasing military budget are correct, but the USA’s military budget is growing faster.

Military expenditure over time, adjusted for inflation.

Until this point I have been providing an overview of the current situation, and have been placing this in a historical context. It’s time now to move towards considering why things are the way they are. We’ll also very briefly touch on where to from here – spoilers, it’s creating a coherent and strong left wing. But let’s start by returning to the G7 and seeing what they can tell us about their own motivations behind increasing military budgets and escalating military tension. From the part of the G7’s recent statement on what it calls ‘fair trade and coercion’: “We reaffirm our shared concerns with non-market policies and practices, including their problematic evolution, that distort global competition, trade and investment. We will further step up our efforts to secure a level playing field through the more effective use of existing tools, as well as development of appropriate new tools and stronger international rules and norms. We will seek to ensure that our responses to unfair trading practices will not create unnecessary barriers to our partners’ industries and are consistent with our WTO [World Trade Organisation] commitments.”

This attempted justification for future action is just a small snapshot of the capitalist mindset. Consider those words in light of the statement quoted earlier wherein the G7 countries were justifying diminishing trade with China, action which would certainly harm the Chinese economy. This talk about level playing fields and acting against economic coercion is unashamedly hypocritical. The G7 justifies economic sanctions for its own purposes, while simultaneously claiming unfairness when ‘free trade’ for itself is ‘threatened’ by its rivals. The Western powers reaffirm their commitment to capitalist markets, and take steps which provoke war to ensure the operation of such markets. This is where it really becomes crystal clear that all of this ‘tension’, escalation, interference, and military rivalry is just about economic national self-interest and an eagerness to promote the accumulation of capital regardless of human cost.

Capitalism is a system of economic and social organisation which has not existed forever, and it will not persist forever. We’re in an age of capitalist realism where many people believe capitalism to be the only functional way our human existence might be organised, and one of our most pressing tasks as socialists is to educate the broad public on capitalism’s inherently unstable and necessarily temporary nature. This is not a task we can take lightly or allow significant delay in undertaking: it is a realistic possibility that, left unchecked, the combination of concentrated power, competition, and systemic instability might end human existence.

Capitalism is a system reliant on accumulation, achieved through primitive means such as warfare and through more complex means such as the interplay of production and wages in the employer-employee relationship. Successful capitalists achieve continual accumulation in a world of limited resources by acquiring the resources of their competitors. The result is the concentration of resources – power – capital – in fewer and fewer hands. As the natural limits of accumulation within a region are approached, the capitalist must look at neighbouring regions for the next target of their greed. And the state, the bureaucratic mechanism by which a ruling class achieves its goals, serves capitalists exactly as intended when it advances colonial and imperialist goals in neighbouring regions. Economic exploitation, aggressive tensions, and warfare are all inevitable because infinite expansion on a limited planet is assumed possible and unavoidable.

So the growing Pacific tensions are entirely to be expected, a predictable outcome of both free market and state capitalism. And both economic pressures designed to subdue rivals and open militarism and warfare are inevitable so long as we fail to progress beyond capitalism. Because of this situation we find ourselves in, the question of “what do we do now” must be broken into two parts. First, there is the necessary band-aid or fire-fighting actions that we must take, to ensure our immediate survival and to minimise the suffering of millions or billions of people. Building a movement against imperialism is thankless work, as many activists around the world will know, but that work cannot be ignored. Decisions on our very survival cannot be left to those who are driven only by greed, and so greedy war-mongers and their goons must be opposed by the masses. But also, we won’t successfully build that mass movement without political education which ensures the threats are widely understood. By being here today, you are participating in that educational project, a necessary step in building widespread resistance to both nationalism and to competitive approaches of social organisation. We must also move beyond simply reacting to individual threats and crises. A successful peace movement which deescalates US-China tensions will help in the here and now, but there will be other simultaneous and future threats. Without build ourselves towards a point where something more sustainable can be achieved, we will be forever running on a treadmill to resist existential threats which are the inevitable consequence of our underlying social system. We must build something new, equitable, and stable for all of humankind. That something is socialism.


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