Peace Movements’ Perspectives on the AUKUS Military Pact

Joseph Gerson

IPB/AEPF/CPDCS Webinar – October 8, 2021

Let me begin by thanking IPB and the Asia-Europe People’s Forum for their inspired leadership in bringing together our incipient coalition and for organizing today’s webinar.

To state the obvious, even as Joe Biden will be meeting virtually with Xi Jinping by year’s end, AUKUS and the QUAD are manifestations of U.S. efforts to retain its Asia-Pacific and global hegemony. As early as the 1850s, members of the U.S. elite advocated that in order for the U.S. to become the world’s economically and militarily dominant power, it must first win control of Asia. Steppingstones to Asia were secured with the coup d’état in Hawaii and the imperial conquests of the Philippines, Guam and Samoa 125 years ago. With the U.S. military victory in the Pacific War, the ocean became an American Lake.

Among the sources of today’s tensions in the South China Sea and over Taiwan are the vague references to sovereignty that Japan formally surrendered with the U .S.-Japan military alliance that was secretly forced on Tokyo in 1952 as a condition for ending the U.S. military occupation. More profoundly, the source of tensions is the rise of a regional economic, military and technological Asian superpower – China – which had little or no input in determining the so-called rules-based order that is now disturbing the hegemonic disorder. Predictably, China is pressing to re-write some of those rules. Might, of course, does not make right, and Southeast Asian nations too often pay the price for China’s expansive ambitions, some of which are also defensive reactions to China’s near encirclement by hundreds of U.S. foreign military bases and the 7 th fleet.

We face a classical Thucydides Trap between rising and declining powers that too many times in history has climaxed in catastrophic wars. But now the stakes are existential. And, while there are differences, the current moment has disturbing similarities to the years preceding World War I: tensions between rising and declining powers, complex alliance structures – now including the QUAD, along with intense nationalism and its attendant hatreds, territorial disputes, as well as economic integration which a century ago people thought was too deep to allow for war. Finally there are arms races with new technologies, autocracies, and wild-card actors.

Although Big Business has growing concerns about its access to the China market, there is a powerful U.S. elite consensus that China must be contained and its rise managed to ensure U.S. supremacy. Peace advocates in Washington describe the political environment there as “radioactive” when it comes to questioning the need to bludgeon Beijing into compliance.

Even as the Pentagon recognizes that China’s defining military doctrine is “strategic defense”, Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, Austin, and Campbell (the author of the Obama pivot to Asia and lead figure in AUKUS negotiations) have been building on Trump’s 2018 National Defense Strategy which shifted the country’s strategic priority from the “war on terrorism” to “great power competition,” preparations for war against China and to a lesser degree with Russia.

In the wake of the Biden administration’s refusal to consult its NATO allies before announcing the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the promulgation of the AUKUS alliance (with India and Japan also blindsided by AUKUS) Biden and company are now being rightly criticized as little different from Trump in pursuing “America First” ambitions and policies. Following Obama era courting of India as a strategic partner, Trump and his mandarins initiated formation of the QUAD bloc. Biden has since followed this with a stealthy, soft sell “non-traditional security” promises for the quasi-alliance, which in fact is designed to augment U.S. military, technological, economic and soft power across the region. Last month’s QUAD summit concluded with a joint statement pledging health, climate, semiconductor, space and supply chain cooperation. Yet, as the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft reports “Under the rubric of the Malabar exercise, the QUAD nations are steadily building deep military interoperability, and conducting more sophisticated war-fighting exercises, most notably anti-submarine warfare.” Even as India may ultimately prove to be the “weak link” in this incipient NATO-like alliance, there are ambitions of integrating South Korea and several ASEAN nations into the QUAD. 1

If anything, AUKUS is worse than the QUAD. It is a deeply destabilizing geopolitical earthquake. As our joint statement of October 1 explained, it dangerously intensifies competition with China, and like the QUAD, increases the dangers that accidents and miscalculation could trigger escalation to catastrophic wars. Consistent with Reiner Braun’s warnings of the past several years, the stealth negotiation and America First announcement of AUKUS has not only fractured NATO (which would not be bad in and of itself) but is adding political fuel to the drive to create an independent European military superpower.

More immediately, AUKUS in addition to QUAD, further undermines the possibility of U.S.-Chinese cooperation which is essential if the existential threats of the climate emergency, nuclear weapons and pandemics are to be stanched. The provision of nuclear-powered submarines and their nuclear weapons-grade highly enriched uranium to Australia further undermines the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And in frightening intimations of what may lie ahead, AUKUS is leading militarists in Japan
and Australia to ask why they can’t have nuclear submarines, HUE, and related technologies.

Finally, while not wanting to understate the dangers of the U.S. campaign to reinforce its hegemony in the South China/West Philippine Sea – the 21 st century’s geopolitical center of the struggle for world power, or Biden’s backing of Tokyo’s claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, let me close with a few words about Taiwan, now the world’s most dangerous military, potentially nuclear, flashpoint. The Biden administration began by putting its thumb in China’s eye when it invited Taiwan’s senior diplomatic representative in Washington to attend the inauguration. It has since repeatedly dispatched warships to transit the Taiwan Strait, announced new arms sales to Taiwan, and declared its “rock solid” commitment to militarily defending Taiwan. In truth, Taiwan cannot be militarily defended. Instead, ignoring the omnicidal danger that nuclear deterrence works only until it doesn’t, as in the 1955 and 1958 Taiwan crises, the U.S. is relying on first strike nuclear threats to preserve the Taiwanese status quo.

The U.S. peace movement is just now, belatedly, beginning to make the transition does-the-quads-perils-outweigh-its-promises/growing dangers of great power war. The movement that emerges will reflect a spectrum of commitments and actions, which we can discuss. At the very least, I believe we must do all that we can to prevent a catastrophic war and to build the albeit limited common security diplomatic collaborations that are essential to reverse the climate, nuclear and pandemic threats that face all of humanity.


1 https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2021/09/27/does-the-quads-perils-outweigh-its-promises/