The last existential risk to Australia’s sovereign freedom of action ended at the battle of Midway in June 1942.
The 1945 UN charter and its later offshoots such the UN convention on the law of the sea seemed to entrench this situation.
Three generations of Australians subsequently grew up in a world mostly ever safer strategically, economically, medically and, until recently, environmentally.
Cold war risks of nuclear extinction, and regional wars that touched Australians peripherally or not at all, didn’t alter the overall strategic stability cocoon that most felt was just the natural order of Australian life.
Our defence investment and our defence force have largely shrunk for decades, especially in comparison with other spending. We have not had military conscription since 1972. The 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union thickened the cocoon’s walls.
Energies within the People’s Republic of China since the mid 1970s had only benign effects. They were directed to regime stabilisation under a collective, rather than singular, authoritarian leadership.
The focus was on economic development and not challenging an international system based on, however nominally, respecting the UN charter. Australia prospered as mainland China prospered.
But, as Trotsky noted, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” And war needs to be deterred to preserve peace and reason, especially when strategic stability falters.
The Aukus initiative is primarily a reaction to many of the assumptions and realities of our three-generation cocoon being progressively exposed in recent years.
The principal cause is that the PRC’s dismissive and openly coercive diplomatic and military behaviour now risks accidental, as well as potentially intentional, conflict.
No one has sought to limit the peaceful rise of the PRC. Nor is it because capitalism supposedly needs an enemy.
The fundamental issue for Australia, and our regional neighbours, remains one of prudent risk management, not inventing, exaggerating, discounting or denying strategic risks.
The PRC’s current one-man leadership, and the illegitimacy of the regime’s one-party nature, has led to ostensible dissatisfaction with how the international system works.
This boosts the ruler’s ego and distracts criticism. But claiming the world is rigged against China really thrives because the regime lacks the restraints and release valves that real internal and external accountability mechanisms bring.
This change in Australia’s strategic risk, after three generations of mostly peace and ever-improving conditions, is hard to accept by many Australians.
Particularly if their pay, dividends, mercantilist profits or ideological comfort-blanket depend on denying or excusing the PRC’s authoritarian nature and destabilising international behaviour.
The bottom line is that Australian remains an arid and sparsely populated continent, as well as a country. Our politics, lifestyle and standard of living are wholly dependent on seaborne trade in an international system that works freely.
If the PRC were to forcibly dominate our region, or globally, we would risk authoritarian coercion and loss of sovereign freedom of action akin to that forced on Finland by the Soviets.
Current coercive trade pressure by the PRC is a minor taste of what a “Finlandised” Australia would endure.
Much of Australia is still waking up from deep, three-generational complacency. Being jolted awake by events like the Aukus initiative is uncomfortable for many.
But unlike before and during the second world war, Australia can no longer build many defence capabilities quickly or at all. Fighter aircraft cannot be built in a month or warships in half a year. Diverting state railway workshops to build tanks is not analogous to building and sustaining long-range, cruise or hypersonic missiles, or AI-driven drones.
Australia’s limited economic and technological capacities means refocusing civil industry to high-technology defence needs is often not a viable option and rarely a quick one. Politicians buying votes through pork-barrelling defence projects usually deny this.
Applying modern technology to counter strategic risk now takes much more time, greater expense and more reliance on types and levels of technology only available from trusted allies. And the allies must be willing to do it.
So Aukus is about reducing strategic risk by improving access to technology, inter-operability and allied burden-sharing, not just about new submarines.
There has long been broad acknowledgement in Australia that the mid-21st century all-rounder submarines replacing the Collins-class replacement (the now ditched, French-designed, Attack class) will be nuclear-powered – even if supplemented, for more stealthy missions, by a few smaller submarines, and undersea drones, powered by ever-improving battery technology.
There has also long been a view that the easiest way to cross a chasm is a single step, meaning the Collins replacement should have been nuclear-powered.
The chief obstacles to this have traditionally been cost, that we are unable to build them ourselves, that neither the British nor Americans would sell us one, and that both sides of politics were reluctant to reignite debate about nuclear-generated electricity.
Even as the cost differential between nuclear and conventionally-powered boats has dropped from around 4:1 to 1.5:1.
But the development of sealed-reactor technology has now made an even bigger difference. If the life cycle of the reactor and the boat are the same, then there is not the same dependence by the user on having a civil nuclear-electricity industry and its technological depth. Nor the safety concerns – real, exaggerated or mistaken.
Aukus stems from the strategic realisation by our allies that the risks of conflict mean helping Australia with modern defensive technologies helps everyone reduce and deter such risk.