AUKUS assists Washington, not Aussie defense: Australian peace activists
Published: Sep 15, 2022 08:37 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Editor's Note:
A year on since AUKUS' announcement, concerns increasingly grow about nuclear proliferation. Voices both outside and inside Australia have expressed opposition. On the first anniversary of the establishment of AUKUS, Global Times (GT) reporter Xia Wenxin talked to Nick Deane (Deane) and Bevan Ramsden (Ramsden), two peace activists from the Sydney Anti-AUKUS Coalition (SAAC), about their concerns, anti-AUKUS activities, and their plans.

GT: Can you give us a brief introduction of your organization? Who are the people involved?

The Sydney Anti-AUKUS Coalition is one of a number of anti-AUKUS groups around Australia, and the overall organization is the Australian Anti-AUKUS Coalition (AAAC). That is the overall body of which we are members. We're also members of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN), which is one of the leading organizations within that coalition.

Deane: There are mainly young people from one of the socialist groups, and then there are a few old people like myself. Dr. Hannah Middleton, a retired academic, is one of the main members. But we're just ordinary people who are concerned about AUKUS and not happy with the way it seems to be leading Australia.

GT: What anti-AUKUS activities have you been involved over the past year? 

I think to get a picture of what's been happening over the last year, we have to mention that within a week or two of the AUKUS announcement, IPAN and the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition were able to organize a petition which over the last year has got about 26,600 signatures on it, and it will be presented to parliament on the anniversary - September 16. 

That's a fairly big petition for Australia and quite one of the largest ones. But the opposition to AUKUS included trade unions and city councils like Wollongong and Newcastle, both of which opposed having a port developed for nuclear submarines. There's a lot of opposition there, from other trade unions include the Electrical Trades Union in Queensland, the Maritime Union of Australia, the New South Wales Teachers Federation, and so on. There are a very large number of organizations that formed this coalition in opposition to AUKUS's development.

Deane: One of the first things that IPAN did was organizing a Zoom meeting in October last year, and we were amazed because there were more than 100 people who tuned into that Zoom meeting straightaway.

The SAAC organized three AUKUS-specific demonstrations over the year: one on December 11, a student protest on March 16, and we picketed an armaments conference on May 10. We will have a fourth one coming up on the anniversary on Friday, September 16.

The SAAC also took part in the rallies on this year's May Day (May 1) and Hiroshima Day (August 6). It was also involved in an International Zoom Meeting on February 12 and organized a public forum in Sydney on June 15.

There've been articles written as well, quite a lot in the alternative press - not much in the mainstream press - but quite a bit in the alternative media, for example, the Pearls and Irritations. 

GT: What are your concerns about AUKUS?

AUKUS involves the purchase or acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. These don't really have any particular benefit for Australia in terms of Australian defense. They will only assist the US in its stance vis-à-vis China.

So we're very concerned that what it represents is a step - it's dragging Australia along another step toward being engaged in war with China. And that would be absolutely disastrous for Australia if that came about. And we don't understand why it is that Australia is taking this path. It doesn't make any sense.

What would be more sensible? We acknowledge the fact that China is a rising power; that's obvious. And we've got to learn to live with that and learn to live alongside China. Why it develops into a sort of antagonistic stance is very concerning. And we think that's not in Australia's best interests.

Ramsden: We should point out that a poll was recently conducted by the Lowy Institute about war with China. And actually, 51 percent of Australian people are opposed to Australia getting involved in such a war. And that is a strong base from which to agitate further and persuade our government to change its stance. We're not against having self-defense forces or arrangements, because every country that wants to safeguard its independence needs that. But these big nuclear subs, which are meant for long-distance, hunter-killer operations, are not suitable for the specific task of safeguarding our coastal waters. The smaller diesel-electric subs would, we believe, do a better job and would be more appropriate.

Deane: The other thing to mention here is that the AUKUS agreement isn't just about nuclear subs. There are all sorts of other aspects to it. We're seeing greater and greater, closer and closer cooperation between Australian and US defense forces. Recently, there was a military exercise going on in northern territory called "Pitch Black," and it's just indicative of the way that, over time, we seem to be getting drawn closer and closer into the US defense system. 

That's very concerning as well. It indicates a loss of independence. There's someone saying that should it come to some sort of a conflict between the US and China sometime in the future, there's really no way that Australia could avoid it. And the previous defense minister said it would be inevitable that Australia would be involved. We want to take that inevitability out of the question.

Ramsden: Both Nick and I and the organization we work within - equally the IPAN - stand for an independent Australia, an independent foreign policy, in which Australia makes decisions in the best interests of its people and doesn't act subserviently to any big power, but plays its part as a responsible international citizen, helping to resolve conflicts peacefully and making its decisions in the best interests of its people.

Now, the problem with alliances is you get caught up in these sorts of conflicts. And IPAN wants to see Australia make a choice about taking an independent position in the world, standing on its own feet, and being a self-reliant country, but seeking peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with all countries. We should be friends of all and enemies of none.

Nick Deane (left) and Bevan Ramsden. Photo: Courtesy of Deane

Nick Deane (left) and Bevan Ramsden. Photo: Courtesy of Deane

GT: Compared to the Morrison administration, is there any difference in the current government's attitude and approach to promoting AUKUS?

I can't see any real difference between the two, quite honestly. Our current Minister of Defense, Richard Males, was the opposition spokesman for defense. He was very keen for Australia to join America in their freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. And I think if anything, he'd be encouraging Australia to join those operations.

Ramsden: More recently in the US, Males was lecturing over there at some institutes. And he argued not for interoperability of Australian forces with the US but interchangeability with the US military. That means that you lose control of your own defense forces and get dragged into their wars. So we are very unhappy about that position. It's been obvious that the new prime minister and the new foreign affairs minister have gone around the Pacific and to other countries, trying to heal the divisions that were created by the previous government, and they're using more moderate language. But there's been no backing away from AUKUS at all. The defense minister has shown an interest in being even more closely associated with the US and its foreign policy. So that's not very encouraging for us at the moment.

Unfortunately, both major parties have been somewhat in lockstep with each other and with US foreign policy for several decades. That's something which we, as individuals and as part of our organization, are very much concerned about. I'm campaigning for an independent Australia, which is back to breaking that lockstep agreement with the US, and also seeking for one of the parties, the Labor Party hopefully, to change its stance. A lot of its members don't agree with their own leadership on this matter. But nevertheless, they are the dominant force, and unfortunately, they are in lockstep with the US and its foreign policy.

Deane: The AUKUS announcement came only a few months before the election, and I think Labor was sort of scared into supporting it for fear of appearing weak in connection with Australia's relationship with China. That's one of the fears, because there is, I think, within the Australian community, a sort of residual fear of China. Some people actually believe that China is a threat, but that's not a view that Bevan and I share. 

Ramsden: That's something which was not so prevalent three or four decades ago, but the media has worked hard in echoing the more reactionary politicians and that influences the way people feel, of course. 

GT: Some people think AUKUS has set a dangerous precedent. Do you agree with this?

AUKUS does set a precedent: If Australia can acquire nuclear-powered submarines, why shouldn't other countries? So it does raise questions about nuclear proliferation. And one of the groups that has been speaking out against AUKUS is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons because they can see what it means. So there's quite a dangerous precedent in there.

And one of the things that we are seeing is a sort of resurgence of the people who would like to see Australia become a nuclear power - in terms of nuclear energy first, but then you're only a step away from talking about nuclear weapons. So the whole aspect of the nuclear question is very disturbing.

GT: What are your plans to oppose AUKUS in the next stage?

One of the activities that is currently going on and that has been organized by the AAAC is to place newspaper advertisements called "Public Calls for Peace," and this has involved some 600 organizations and individuals. We have raised the money for the advertisements. This advertisement is directed at the Australian government, and it's a very strong statement that these organizations and individuals are making to the new Australian government. It will be printed in The Australian newspaper and there will be a full-page advertisement in The Saturday Paper on September 17.

There are some plans for a big convergence against the Quad when they meet next February. There are definitely plans in hand for increasing the demonstrations, but we have to get deeper into the community. We have to have public meetings in town halls. We have to engage a wider section of the community. For people from that section that doesn't want war with China, we want them out on the streets with us. So the next activity is really to go deeper into the community, engage more people and involve them in the movement.