Trump, AUKUS and values

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By Kim Beazley*

If you are leader of an Australian political party, prime minister, defence minister, foreign minister or Ambassador to the US, the opening paragraph on a speech on the Alliance will contain a reference to our ‘shared values’. These usually include democracy, the liberal international order, respect for sovereignty and commitment to peace aided by mutual military support. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The Strategist.

Trump has made clear his admiration for authoritarian leaders, and his understanding he was hampered by supporters of these values last time. He has expressed an intention to wreak vengeance on those who have hindered or stood against him. He has a team around him he’s determined to place in positions in departments, the military and intelligence who share his contempt for loyalty to the Constitution. His first attack will be on institutions like the Justice Department and the FBI. But those other institutions will also get his and his team’s attention.

What has happened in the Congress foreshadows this. The Republican leadership in the House had been traduced and the majority have been politically emasculated. If he is elected, a Republican majority in the Senate is all but assured. The Western alliance at its core will be rattled. Those reliant on American support will be in a state of confusion. Trump will believe his support for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been vindicated.

It’s difficult to envisage him defending Taiwan. Those around him however and in Congress are very hostile to China and Xi Jinping. Xi will need to be cautious, despite what will appear to be an opportunity. Trump’s supporters may educate him on the critical importance of Taiwan, particularly as its semiconductors are vital to American industry.

President Biden has been particularly aware that, though powerful, the US does not have unilateral primacy in the Indo-Pacific. He believes American interests are advanced by its alliances and its friendship with powers like India, Vietnam and Indonesia which are essential in his view to balance China.

Trump’s advisors don’t share these views though their default response, no matter how unrealistic, will be to seek to restore that primacy. For them the plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered and conventionally armed submarines (SSNs) under Pillar 1 of the AUKUS agreement with Britain and the US is an anathema if it slows American capacity before it reaches a force of over 60 SSN now slated for achievement in the late 2050s.

They recognise that SSNs and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are at the heart of American military power. They have little ownership of AUKUS though Republicans in majority in Congress support it. They have little ownership of it and Trump would likely see the agreement as Biden writ large.

Most US opinion polls now point to a Trump victory. The only useful thing on the horizon is that the exit polls in the primaries have indicated around 25% of Republicans would not support Trump [if he was convicted] and would either vote against him or not vote. Were that to transpire, Trump would not win.

A majority of Democrats supported Biden strongly in the primaries but consider him too old and are not particularly enamoured of his vice president. As one friend points out to me the ultimate result will be determined by whichever group of voters is the greater—those who think Biden too old, and those who think Trump too unstable. That is, it seems, a choice between which negative sentiment proves to be the greater.

If it turns out that Trump’s negatives are fewer than Biden’s, we will have a lot to think about. Trump has a proven capacity to direct Republicans in Congress. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, resistant to Trump, has taken himself off the chess board.

The problem for Australia is that the US has not been so critical to Australia’s defence since World War II as it is now. Conversely Australia has not been so important to the US as it is now. One of the aims of the 1987 defence white paper was to have a force able to defend Australia in its area of direct military interest without burdening the US. The US would provide critical equipment and intelligence. This was effectively achieved in the 1990s.

Then we drifted. The force provided for the emergencies we confronted when we handled the Timor crisis and provided useful forces for the Middle East commitments, not just in Afghanistan. We arguably peaked in the third phase of the battles arising from the Iraq war, the struggle with ISIS when we provided for a time the second largest foreign contingent.

We played a role with the Pentagon to add to the ‘training’ and ‘assist’ mission, accompanying the Iraqi force in action. Throughout, the Royal Australian Navy played a useful role in patrolling the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

In the contemporary era and issues involving our direct defence, we find ourselves with a force not adequate for the task. We’ve discovered the consequences of years of underfunding.

At the time of the 1987 white paper, spending was 2.5%-3% of GDP. That was a continuation of levels set in the 1970s after being at 4% during the Vietnam War. The figures were not targets, just reporting what had become normal. In 1994, the objective was set at 2%, effectively an unwarranted peace dividend. However, this figure was seldom achieved and not at all in the new century until the last defence budget.

Though now spending at 2% is the level the US (and Trump) requires of its allies, it does not defend us. The new focus for the government in the defence review and decisions taken by the government on the new surface fleet and the SSNs put in place what appears needed. But its timetable stretches to the late 30s and 40s.

In the meantime, we depend on the US. No one should kid themselves about this. The US will be needed for a long time—and no one has a better idea that does not require unsustainable expenditures.

At the same time the US has discovered the value of Australia to its own defence needs. Pine Gap has developed massively as the capacity of the technologies it serves have increased exponentially. The two more recent joint facilities in Exmouth are important for American space activities. More significantly the northern bases developed from the 1980s and the naval facility in Western Australia are now vital for the US posture in the Western Pacific. They provide another angle on activities involving China. Deft use of them across our vast North gives them a higher survivability than many US bases elsewhere in the zone. As the US has become more important to us, we have something of a character of a Western Pacific last bastion.

Will all this be clear to Trump? Critical for us will be his response to the SSN project. This raises genuinely hard questions for the Americans. Not the deployment of SSN from Stirling but the timetable and perhaps the principle of our acquisition of US SSNs.

While Congress is favourably disposed to AUKUS and the programme there is much unease there. For Australia to acquire the boats and not deplete US numbers requires a production rate of 2.3 Virginia class boats per year. The new bloc V version of the Virginia class (which is too big for us) is required to replace the capability of four SSBNs converted for conventional missiles now being retired from service. Tonnage of submarines produced is not diminished it is increasing substantially, but the numbers to be produced are challenging.

When these 10,000 ton block V vessels end production they’ll be replaced by the SSNX which is more like the weight of the Bloc 4 variant we are acquiring. The SSNX would make a good AUKUS submarine but that is very unlikely to happen. However, when the US reaches that stage, producing  2.3 submarines per year would be easily achievable. The number of workers at construction locations in Connecticut and Newport News needs to keep increasing but some in Congress are asking for a slower pace to ease production pressure.

That would be damaging. The most knowledgeable Congressman on submarines in the US is Joe Courtney and he campaigns against anything that is not full speed. He says ‘AUKUS is in a good place right now but I don’t think we should assume it will last forever. Time and inertia are the enemy’.

The SSNs might be the least of our worries with a Trump administration. The relevant agencies may be caught up in the Trump revenge. The knock-on impact on capability and policy could be considerable. With our new plans, small finances and dependence on the US, we will be challenged. Trump will be a chaos president and we could pass from view. Plan B would be difficult to evolve, and it would be very expensive.

*Kim Beazley is a distinguished senior fellow at ASPI. He served as Australia’s defence minister from 1984 to 1990, and as ambassador to the US from 2010 to 2016

2 COMMENTS

  1. You make assumptions and generalizations about someone and his supporters based on what? The grossly left-leaning media? Biden has repeatedly circumvented the Constitution, the Supreme Court in particular. I wish people would worry more about what happens in their house before judging what happens in another’s. As far as the 2.0% of a country’s GDP going to its military. Funding NATO. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_67655.htm.
    Someone once said, “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” That was Desmond Tutu.
    It is easy to comment or opinionate from a distance on what goes on in the United States. I highly suggest that visit our southern border, crime-plagued cities, homeless Veterans, etc. I am a current and proud member of the ANI, however, I will gladly leave or accept being tossed out.

    Cheers.

  2. Ed, I would ask you not to leave the ANI as it appears our Institute may be the only source for an alternative point of view that you may actually read. The key point Kim Beazley is making is that Trump’s character is deficient and that is what makes him both unsuitable for high office, and unreliable towards America’s allies. The AUKUS submarine programme is an important long term commitment for Australia, yet Trump has proven his inability to uphold the US government’s commitments.
    Of note your deflection into ‘whataboutism’ by making some unsupported claim about President Biden and the Supreme Court is irrelevant. Biden’s character is not in question – defendant Trump is the one facing a series of criminal and civil indictments. And most importantly, Trump’s attempt on January 6 to overthrow the will of the voters is his supreme crime against your own country.
    And we in the rest of the world can comment on events in the USA – I like many others (and most Americans) watched Trump’s ‘coup attempt’ live on TV. The importance of your nation to your allies and to most other countries in the world is such that we have to watch what happens in the USA and we do have to judge the quality of your leaders. (Of note my most recent visit to some of your cities was in October 2023.)
    Kim Beazley is of course well qualified to comment on the USA. And he, like so many of us down under, is appalled that your system has elevated an adjudicated con man and sexual abuser to be, first your actual President, and now, a serious presidential contender again!

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