Announced on Sept. 15 2021, AUKUS is a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which involves the US and UK sharing nuclear propulsion technology with Australia. As Michael Safi of The Guardian notes, “When Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and Scott Morrison announced a new deal that would provide Australia with the technology to run silent nuclear submarines as part of its navy, one phrase kept coming up: ‘stability in the Indo-Pacific.’ The word the leaders of the UK, the US and Australia did not use may be more important: China.”
While numerous pundits and high-ranking national officials have tried to downplay AUKUS as just another defense procurement deal, it is clear that this move will sharpen the United States’s new Cold War with China, which the Biden administration is waging with equal if not greater zeal than the Trump administration. How does AUKUS figure into the US’s larger plan for “strategic competition” with China? What does this security pact reveal about the geopolitical realignment between the US, post-Brexit UK, and continental Europe? In this interview, TRNN contributor Radhika Desai delves into these critical questions with scholar and anti-war activist Kate Hudson. Hudson is the general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), media officer of Left Unity in the UK, and she has been an officer of the Stop the War Coalition since 2002. She was also the head of Social and Policy Studies at London South Bank University from 2003-2010 and is now a visiting research fellow.
Pre-Production: Paul Graham
Studio/Post-Production: Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden
Radhika Desai: Why all the ruckus about AUKUS? So what if the United States and the United Kingdom are selling a few nuclear powered submarines to Australia? AUKUS, short for Australia, UK, and US, is the trilateral security pact between the three countries. Under it, Australia will receive nuclear-powered submarines in coming decades. Announced on Sept. 15 2021 hard on the heels of the United States ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan, it involves the United States and the United Kingdom sharing nuclear propulsion technology with Australia. At one level it is, as former Australian prime minister and political analyst, Kevin Rudd, termed it, just a defense procurement deal. Such deals are made every day by dozens of countries in the world, in the world’s $3 trillion defense industry. However, it’s clear that it’s no ordinary defense procurement deal. It marks a major realignment of international power in at least three ways. Most importantly, it sharpens the United States’s new cold war on China, which the Biden administration is waging with equal, if not greater, zeal than the Trump administration.
In an entirely vain effort to conceal the sheer aggressiveness of the deal, President Biden claimed that AUKUS was not directed towards China. How likely was this, given that just the previous month he had justified the withdrawal from Afghanistan as freeing the United States to concentrate on strategic competition with China, the current US euphemism for its new cold war? Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, sought to conceal the U-turn the deal means for Australia, making noises about the increasingly complex international environment necessitating taking traditional Australian cooperation with the US on defense to a new level. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Johnson salivated over the jobs it would create in the United Kingdom.
China’s president, Xi, on the other hand, warned against relapsing into the confrontation and division of the Cold War era and against drawing ideological lines or forming small circles on geopolitical grounds instead of being open and inclusive. An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists criticized AUKUS for making the proliferation of very sensitive nuclear technology easier with literally tons of new nuclear materials under loose or no international safeguards. Even the United States Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned of the negative and serious consequences of AUKUS. It would make Australia the first non-nuclear weapon state to exercise a loophole that allows it to remove nuclear material from the inspection system of the international atomic agency.
Finally, AUKUS is both cause and consequence of the increasing divide between the United States, Brexit Britain, and the allies on the one hand and continental Europe on the other. So in transferring these defense procurement deals from countries like France to countries like the United States and the UK, AUKUS and other moves like it will only drive the wedge deeper. The longstanding trend of continental Europe asserting its own strategic autonomy will intensify, making international tensions more complex.
Clearly then, AUKUS raises troubling questions at many levels. And with me to explore some of the more important ones is Kate Hudson. Kate is general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and an officer of the Stop the War Coalition since 2002. She was head of social and policy studies at London South Bank University from 2003 to 2010 and is now a visiting research fellow there. She has written a number of books, including CND – Now More Than Ever: The Story of a Peace Movement and most recently CND – That is Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – At 60: Britain’s Most Enduring Mass Movement. And Kate, you are, at the moment, leading it. Welcome to The Real News Network.
Kate Hudson: Thanks very much, Radhika. It’s great to be with you today but, of course, also to talk about what is a most fundamental and crucially important issue not only for the peace movements and all those concerned about global stability and peace, but for every single person on this planet. It affects absolutely every area of our lives. So it’s very, very timely to be discussing this today.
Radhika Desai: Absolutely. It’s really shaking up international relations across the board. The more I read about it, the more alarmed I get. But let’s begin by at least staking out the ground in the most fundamental ways. So we have seen how AUKUS is officially and quite hypocritically justified by the three parties. How do you see it’s real rationale? What’s in it for each party? And what are the problems that you see?
Kate Hudson: Well, Radhika, I think underlying it is a very, very simple fact, that it’s the latest stage in a US bid to maintain global domination in the context of a China that is rising economically and becoming a major global player. And we’ve seen this trend over at least two or three decades. I remember maybe 20 years ago talking with colleagues in the peace movement about how the Pentagon was already wargaming with China in its spare time. So you can imagine 20 years later all the developments we’ve seen, the militarization moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific and so on. This is just the latest in a very long-running ambition by the United States to remain top dog globally. And of course, with China coming to the fore economically, massive development, pulling people out of poverty, and becoming a real player internationally, how can the United States stop that? And why should it stop that, indeed?
Over history, you see how countries come to the fore in their development and their economic growth and then other countries come up, that’s a natural part of economic development. And, of course, many of us would, rather than seeing one country as top dog, we want to see a multi-polar world. And this is the aspiration that I think we have in the peace movement. Many different countries should develop in a sustainable development fashion and should cooperate and live in respect and peace with each other. So AUKUS is not on that page, Radhika, it doesn’t share that goal. It shares the goal, the intention of ensuring US domination. And, of course, we’ve seen the pivot to Asia and so on from the United States, the buildup of the military in the Pacific across there.
And, of course, I think for us it’s been pretty incomprehensible to understand why Australia would want to do this. Because Australia, as you mentioned, China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, it’s got a history of cooperation and just living and let living, let’s say, in the region. Why would Australia wish to do something which is only going to ratchet up the tension, and is actually met with opposition from a number of countries in the region, not least New Zealand, for example. So we can only assume that it’s been pulled into the US slip stream as a kind of sub-imperial identity in some way. Not so difficult for us to understand why the UK has done this. We’ve seen over decades the United Kingdom jumping on board with US military operations, we’re a small and declining power in the UK since the Suez Crisis in the 1950s, we haven’t been East of Suez. Maybe this is an opportunity for Boris Johnson’s government to try and put global Britain on the map. So it comes as no surprise to us that the UK government jumps into this. But I think for Australia, it’s making a very, very serious mistake.
Radhika Desai: Well, that’s exactly right, Kate. And as you know, former Australian prime minister, Paul Keating, basically said that the Australians have lost their way, that getting eight submarines, 10 to 15 years down the road is when they arrive, they will be like throwing toothpicks at a mountain. So really what we are being told is that the actual acquisition of the military hardware isn’t exactly going to enhance Australia’s security. And meanwhile, in order to acquire this hardware, what Australia is doing is really putting China’s nose out of joint and actually, as you were already alluding to, destroying a very long tradition Australia has had of dealing very carefully and diplomatically with China. So Australia today says, the present government says, Scott Morrison’s government says that this is necessary to secure Australia’s defense. But how can Australia be secure if it makes an enemy of its largest neighbor and trading partner?
Kate Hudson: Absolutely. I would summarize it as saying that Australia has turned from engagement with China to hostility, and it’s a real about-turn. If you think back to when Kevin Rudd pulled Australia out of the quad, the US quad, and that wasn’t even a military alliance, that was a strategic dialogue, so-called. So this is a real about-turn. I think that what it really means, what AUKUS means, is that Australia is sacrificing its sovereignty to the US. Because as you say with those submarines, they’ll take at least 15 years to bring on board. So Australia has been tied into those, to the pact with those military submarines, with those nuclear submarines. And that relationship will last going forward. But of course it’s not just about the subs, it’s about many, many other military aspects as well. So it includes the expansion of US bases in Australia, for example, for forward deployment, so-called. And this comes through in a lot of the documents, this thing about forward deployment.
Now, what does that mean? It means it’s not actually about defense, which previously Australia’s submarines were about, patrolling Australia’s shoreline, so to speak. This is about being able to go out there. The whole point of having nuclear submarines is that they have a longer range because they can stay underwater for much longer and continue further afield. So they can really push that Australian and, essentially, US underwater presence out there up into the South China Sea, for example. So it really gives Australia an enhanced capacity and through that the US. But of course it’s at the price of stoking hostility towards China, between China and Australia. So it’s a big error. So previously there was no hostility between the two countries. If Australia is engaging in those types of military developments you can imagine that if China’s strategic capabilities increase then maybe it will put Australia at greater risk. Currently Chinese capacity doesn’t extend that far. But if China keeps on facing these types of developments then maybe they’ll make some different strategic decisions.
Radhika Desai: Absolutely. And you think, the United States already has dozens of bases surrounding China, so why would it need a few more? And that too, so far away from China, it really boggles the mind. But really what we are doing is we’re looking at a very pervasive change in the international alliances. And at some point it seems also when you are looking at what’s going on with the Europeans, for example, becoming more independent of the United States, and of course Britain having left the European Union and so on, how much do you think phenomena such as Trump and Brexit, the populism, et cetera, that have changed British and American politics so much, how do you think they are factoring into these changes in foreign policy?
Kate Hudson: Well, very much so. And we’ve seen this very clearly this year, in fact, a real strategic shift. If you think back to Britain’s strategic defense review in 2015 the heart of that was talk about cooperation with countries like China and India. Really stressing the importance of the really positive relationship there. And only six years later there’s been an about-turn. We’ve seen this laid out very clearly in a document published by our government in March of this year, it was called the Integrated Review, which rolled together foreign defense development policy and so on into one massive document. It’s very well worth reading because you can really see the trajectory. And in essence it was like a Trumpian document even though it’s post-Trump era, nevertheless.
The rhetoric which we saw from Trump during his period in office about the strategic competition and going on the offensive and all those kinds of things, that was very, very strongly integrated within that document. And commentators here have called it an attack document. It’s no longer about cooperation and so on, it’s about being on the offensive, being ready to attack, being ready to defeat. This is the terminology that’s used there. And it also stresses very much the junior position of the UK to the US. It talks about the importance of Britain as a military leader and playing its military role in NATO, but very much as subordinate to the United States.
Also within that document, it included something that nobody expected from the so-called defense community or any other commentators. It included an increase in the UK’s nuclear arsenal. So an over 40% increase in the UK’s nuclear arsenal. Plus an increased number of scenarios in which Britain would be willing to use nuclear weapons. Again, very much along those Trump lines about nuclear weapons use. More scenarios in which you would be willing to use them. And, of course, it also brought out the so-called Indo-Pacific tilt, this is made up terminology. I was in a meeting on Saturday with an activist from the Australian Peace Movement. So she said, no one calls the region the Indo-Pacific, this is made up by the West in the same way that the term Middle East was made up in the 19th century.
But it strongly included that and also it included the details of sending a massive UK naval flotilla through the Suez Canal, through to the South China Sea. So massive ramping up of UK militarization, supposed global presence. In fact, I don’t think anyone’s particularly impressed by it. But it just shows the UK getting on board with that whole US agenda around hostility to China. Also included hostility to Russia, of course, but the wider strategic refocusing, of course, is on China. And by the way, we saw the same thing at the NATO summit which was held in Britain in June of this year. So very much that shift there, Radhika. And we’re seeing it on many, many levels.
Radhika Desai: Do you think Brexit, the fact that Britain is now no longer in the European Union, that it has become global Britain, whatever Mr. Johnson means by that, do you think that that’s really pushing the United Kingdom closer to the United States? And not only that, but also very destructively breaking links with the European Union with which Britain, after all, is supposed to maintain security cooperation. But now the Europeans are clearly very miffed. And the French, for example, are now selling arms to various Gulf regimes and creating new treaty agreements with Greece given that Turkey is a NATO member, et cetera. So do you think that all of this is going to lead to the irrelevance of NATO?
Kate Hudson: Well, that’s a very interesting point. Because the tectonic plates are shifting, let’s say. In terms of Britain and the US, Britain was generally seen as Britain and the EU, Britain was seen as the United States Trojan horse into Europe. So even though Britain was part of Europe – Fortunately, for a period of time, at least – Nevertheless, it always retained the so-called special relationship with the United States. We describe it here as a special relationship. Of course that’s what took us, for example, into war with Iraq, Blair beside George Bush. And at a time when Germany and France wouldn’t go to war against Iraq. So you couldn’t have a NATO war in Iraq because other European powers wouldn’t do that. So therefore you had the so-called coalition of the willing led by the US and the UK and so on going into that war.
So Britain has for a very long time played that kind of what we call poodle relationship where the US is poodle and it continues to play that. And yes, it may well escalate now. So AUKUS is an example of how that has escalated. And you are absolutely right. Because of this Hawkish US foreign policy, increasingly hawkish US foreign policy, some Europeans are beginning to talk about more strategic military autonomy for Europe, not surprisingly. Why would they want to get drawn into these issues? We’re seeing an issue around relations between Germany and Russia, the US trying to stop the German-Russian oil pipeline, for example, or is it gas? But trying to stamp out that and trying to interfere in those relations.
And as I mentioned before, NATO has adopted an Indo-Pacific tilt, but it hasn’t turned itself into a global alliance against China. So there’s a nuance here, it’s got that rhetoric, but it’s not embracing some of those countries as part of NATO to form a global military alliance. So it’s a step in that direction, it’s what the US wants to do. But I think most European elements of NATO are not playing ball in the scale of the escalation that the US would like to see.
Radhika Desai: Absolutely. And, in fact, as you were talking I’m reminded of the fact that what the British are pleased to call the special relationship between Britain and the United States, in fact, if you think about it, what was it originally? It was essentially the United States’s way of indebting Britain in the name of helping it to fight the war against Hitler, and at the same time using that debt in the end to get access to Britain’s vast [literal] of military bases around the world. That’s what it was about. So on the one hand it weakened Britain and on the other hand it, of course, massively increased American capabilities. So it’s a really sad thing.
So if we are really looking at a world in which more and more the Europeans who seem to be, if not exactly progressive, at least a bit more sensible about Russia and China, increasingly forming a separate pole of power, maybe that making NATO irrelevant as a transatlantic alliance, and then the creation of what some people have called, in practically racist terms, an Anglo-Saxon alliance – Or racial terms, I should say – An Anglo-Saxon alliance. It represents a very unstable situation, it seems to me. Because the so-called Anglo-Saxon alliance is built on, as I say, this illusion about the special relationship. And, of course, Australia as well. So if you might want to comment on that a bit.
Kate Hudson: Well, there was always a bit of a joke here, well, at least certainly over the last 10 years or so, about the so-called special relationship between the US and the UK. We thought a lot about it, the United States wasn’t aware of it, so it was a kind of… But absolutely the US doesn’t hold back from giving Britain a kick where necessary. It gave it a massive kick during the Suez Crisis and essentially kicked the UK out of any role and prominence that it had in the Middle East whether it was with Iraq or Iran and so on. That was just we were kicked to the curb by the United States. So this great bond of friendship is not considered when it comes to US realpolitik, that’s the reality of it.
And in fact when Tony Blair was facing massive opposition to the Iraq war here at home nearly 20 years ago, whatever, apparently Bush said to him, oh, no, don’t worry, Tony. If it’s giving you a problem we can manage without you. Of course because Britain did negligible stuff. But Tony Blair, oh no, we want to stand shoulder to shoulder. So the special relationship is more in the heads of the British establishment wanting to find a way of clinging onto this so-called global role. And it is not really fooling anybody, it’s just a vanity project really.
Radhika Desai: Absolutely. And there’s so much to talk about and I’m sure that we will have you back again. I’m sure this is not going to end here. But let me end our present discussion with a final question about which, of course, you will know an enormous amount as general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Because it’s very clear that already before AUKUS was announced and all the tectonic shifts, as you call them, began to be seen and heard really. Already before then, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had already raised the alarm about how dangerous the nuclear situation was getting. We live in a world in which, essentially, practically every major nuclear deal that has been made between the two major nuclear powers is basically at an end, or if not, nearly so, hanging by a thread.
And at the same time now there is this possibility or this prospect of further proliferation. And this is especially interesting, this sharing of nuclear technology and potentially leading to further proliferation is particularly significant given that up until now Australia has been a non-nuclear nation. It doesn’t even have nuclear power. So now the United States and the UK are going to share nuclear technology on roughly the same basis as the US and the UK’s nuclear cooperation going back really to the beginnings of the bomb. So can you say something about what AUKUS means? First of all, can you say something about what sort of nuclear situation we’re living in and then what is the new element, the new dangerous element that AUKUS is bringing into it?
Kate Hudson: Well, Radhika, you mentioned the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. And, of course, every year they make their announcement of the hands on the doomsday clock. In other words, how close are we to manmade annihilation, extinction of the human race or everything as we know it today, so to speak. This year they had the hands at 100 seconds to midnight, they were the same as the previous year. And those are the closest they’ve ever been. Even during the Cold War they were never that close. The scientists who go into the most phenomenal detail about this… Again, I recommend to viewers to look at the analysis of why the scientists reached this conclusion. They said essentially there are two great existential threats. The first is climate and the climate emergency, of course, which we are familiar with. But also the second is the threat of nuclear war. And in many ways, of course, the two are interrelated.
But it’s not just people like atomic scientists. Great experts, but maybe they have a dog in the game or whatever. It’s also former senior military personnel, diplomats, and so on, very, very strongly saying we are very close, as close as we’ve ever been or more to nuclear conflagration, perhaps even by mistake or whatever. But we’re seeing the situation between Russia and Ukraine and other escalatory situations. So yes, we are in very close risks and very, very great dangers. And, of course, this was exacerbated during the Trump years, as we know, and massive increases. All nuclear weapon states are either modernizing or expanding or both, their nuclear arsenals. So very, very risky.
And, of course, Trump went down the road of saying, well, we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them? So this whole debate about why not use nuclear weapons. And, of course, in his last nuclear posture review, which I think has not yet been replaced by a Biden nuclear posture review, he introduced so-called low yield, more usable nuclear weapons. I should say that some low yield nuclear weapons are actually bigger than the size of the Hiroshima bomb. They were produced and they have been out on patrol on US nuclear weapon submarines. So that is a further escalation. And that’s an ongoing problem and. Of course, add in the UK nuclear arsenal increase this year.
So there are always concerns about nuclear proliferation. And in fact we’ve got the review conference of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty coming up in January in New York. So that’s going to be one to watch. But I think the particular problem with the nuclear submarines agreement with Australia is, yes, it’s dangerous in terms of what it means for the submarines and their scope and the scale of threat that they present to the region and so on. But they do open the door to what you were referring to, Radhika, which is the potential for that to spill over into other areas of Australian production and industry, whether it’s military or whether it’s in energy terms. Because I was reading a piece the other day which talked about Rolls-Royce, this is the company in Britain which builds the nuclear reactors for Britain’s submarines. And, of course, they’re small propulsion units powered by nuclear fuel. And those reactors use weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium so that in itself is a danger.
But Rolls-Royce, who obviously hope to sell those units to Australia, they are also developing what they call small modular nuclear reactors because this is for civil nuclear energy. Because big nuclear power stations have got a very bad press, no one wants to invest in them, huge problems and delays and so on. So they’re trying to develop these things called small modular reactors. And the article was saying well, if we’re going to sell them nuclear propulsion units for the subs, why not sell them small modular reactors for their energy? So there’s obviously going to be a serious attempt to wear down Australia and break it out of its non-nuclear approach, which has been its approach for decades.
Radhika Desai: I think that just reminds me again of the fact that sometimes when you contemplate just how strategically dumb the United States has been in many ways you begin to wonder whether all this new cold war escalation et cetera is in fact driven by precisely companies like Rolls-Royce and Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman and all these that stand to benefit from keeping international tensions high. But that’s a subject for another huge discussion that we might have perhaps. But for the moment, Kate, I just want to say thank you so much. This has been extremely interesting. And your wide knowledge and I think your wide perspective, keeping in one view so many different developments, has been very helpful to us. So thank you very much. And thanks for being on The Real News Network.
Kate Hudson: Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s been a pleasure.