Aukus is the agreement by the United States and Britain to supply Australia with the technology to build eight nuclear submarines.
Its significance is not the tantrum thrown by French president Emmanuel Macron. He has recalled his ambassadors to Washington and Canberra because Australia is cancelling a £47 billion contract to buy 12 French-built diesel submarines.
The real significance is summed up by a headline in the Financial Times, “For Biden—and America—it’s basically China from now on.” Aukus is a major step towards a real Cold War between the US and China.
The nuclear submarines would allow the Australian navy to operate undetected and at long range close to the shores of Asia. China has been building up its naval capabilities fast—Aukus is intended to counter this.
The much-hyped first operational voyage of Britain’s new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth II is part of the same process. Carrying US Marine as well as Royal Navy aircraft, it will pass through the hotly disputed South China Sea. And it will carry out exercises in the Pacific with the US, Japanese, Australian, New Zealand, and Singaporean navies.
Zhu Feng of Tsinghua University in China’s capital Beijing said the Aukus agreement “is directly aimed at containing China’s rise. The Biden administration’s China policy is ‘Trumpism without Trump’.” Feng added it was “essentially a continuation” of Trump’s “strategic suppression of China.”
Macron’s anger and the bemusement of the rest of the European Union reflects the fact they weren’t consulted before the announcement of Aukus.
The analyst Ben Judah tweeted that he was “struck by the humiliation inflicted on Macron” at the G7 summit in Cornwall in June. “As he dressed down Boris Johnson over Northern Ireland and boasted of ties to Australia in the Indo-Pacific, the Anglo three literally made a move on the sidelines.”
The EU was frozen out probably because Germany and France have been resisting Joe Biden’s efforts to brigade them against China. But it’s also, as “a senior EU member state official” told the Financial Times, “Another example of how Europe might be rich but isn’t powerful”.
Aukus is good news for Boris Johnson, since it shows that Brexit doesn’t necessarily mean isolation.
But it’s also an interesting example of the US’s increasingly close cooperation with what used to be called the “White Dominions”—the old settler colonies of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. They all belong, together with the US and Britain, to the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing pact.
Australia and New Zealand have aligned with the US ever since Britain suffered severe defeats in Asia at the hands of Japan during the Second World War. Right wing prime minister John Howard said in 1999 Australia would act as the US’s “deputy sheriff” in the Pacific region.
Australia subsequently veered towards China, as its economy reoriented as a supplier of raw materials during China’s boom. But it is now firmly back in the US camp.
The US and Australia also belong to the “Quad”—a new anti-China bloc in the Indo-Pacific promoted by both Trump and Biden. The other members are India, yet another ex-British colony, and Japan.
It looks as if Biden has embraced the “league of democracies” advocated by John McCain, the unsuccessful Republican candidate in the 2008 presidential election.
Barack Obama, who defeated him, rejected this idea. It was thought up by the neoconservative intellectual Robert Kagan. He was a founder of the Project for a New American Century that lobbied for George W Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
Biden may have tilted left in domestic policy, but the continuities with the Republicans in foreign policy are striking. And he is choosing as his most trusted allies what was once the core of the British Empire.
The growing inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and China is becoming increasingly ideological.
Aukus is a stark reminder that US imperialism is far from finished. Compared to the escalating arms race in the Indo-Pacific—make no mistake, China will react—Kabul’s fall was a sideshow.