May 14, 2023

The Tale of Two Protest Marches against AUKUS

B Arjun

In mid-March, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak jointly announced Australia's acquisition of nuclear submarines, costing US$245 billion by mid-2050. In addition, Australia will acquire three US-made Virginia-class subs. As soon as the trilateral announcement was made, protests by political organisations of various hues picked up momentum.

IN mid-March, after Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak jointly announced Australia's acquisition of nuclear submarines, costing US$245 billion by mid-2050, protests by political organisations of various ideologies gained momentum.

A few hundred people demonstrated in Melbourne under the banner of "Truth Not War" to protest against the Australian-British-American (AUKUS) military alliance. The protesters demanded that Labour leader Anthony Albanese abandon the $386 billion commitment to purchase US nuclear-powered submarines. Interestingly, they wanted the saved money to be spent on "defending Australia" through other military capabilities, such as medium-range or greater missile systems.

The protests were organised by the No AUKUS Coalition Victoria and the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN). These organisations are not supporters of people's welfare nor genuinely anti-war; rather, their agenda is to promote "independent" Australian imperialism.

These elite groups fear that Australia is losing its strategic autonomy by aligning too closely with America. One of the speakers at the rally complained that the Australian military was currently "barely an autonomous force" due to its close association with the Pentagon. Questions were also raised about whether the submarines were truly meant to defend Australia and how they would impact the country's policy independence. In response to these concerns, the Australian prime minister emphasised that the new submarines would be "Australian sovereign," built and commanded by Australians.

Interestingly, the protesters agreed with their government's position on the arrest of the Russian president by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. They also shared the Biden administration's view that Tibet and Xinjiang were the result of Chinese "settler colonialism.”

This brings us to the point that there is very little distinction between the foreign policies of the Labour Party, the Liberal Party of Australia, and the Nationals. All three parties support an anti-China and anti-Russia stance and intend to promote Australian imperialism in collaboration with the United States. The Labour government in Canberra is creating a war hype and preparing the people through propaganda for a potential war with China in 2026. The Melbourne protests against the AUKUS deal were merely a nationalist attempt to gain some political mileage. The rally displayed sham anti-Americanism as there was no mention of mobilising people against war. The political orientation of the Melbourne event organisers prevented them from arguing that the billions of dollars being spent on the AUKUS deal should be diverted to healthcare, education, and job creation.

In sharp contrast, Australian peace activists held an anti-AUKUS rally at the Sydney Town Hall. Instead of demanding a more effective war, they denounced the money being spent on eight nuclear submarines and called for it to be used for people's concerns, such as creating homes, schools, and jobs. The Sydney protests were held under banners such as "No Nuclear Subs," "AUKUS Steals From Us," and "Peace for the Pacific.”

The peace activists strongly oppose wasting money on weapons of mass destruction, as it diverts funds away from welfare programmes and further involves Australia in a war, distancing it from a regional approach in collaboration with other Asian and Pacific countries. They see committing Canberra to a risky Washington policy on Beijing as a surefire way of plunging the nation into a war aimed primarily at preserving American primacy. Additionally, concerns are raised about the adverse impact of high-level radioactive waste that would be generated due to the AUKUS deal.

Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, a critic of the AUKUS pact, believes that this is the worst international decision by an Australian Labor government since the former Labor leader, Billy Hughes, sought to introduce conscription to augment Australian forces in First World War.

In a fresh wave of protests this month, the red-shirts within joined a coalition of unions – the Electrical Trades Union, Maritime Union of Australia, Australian Services Union, and Unions NSW – to protest against Port Kembla, a major container port south of Sydney, becoming a nuclear submarine base.

According to the Australian Services Union's NSW branch, "The presence of nuclear attack-class submarines in our ports would make us a nuclear target and pose an unacceptable risk to the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of people, given potential exposure to hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium.”

The residents of Wollongong have rejected the prospect of Port Kembla becoming the East Coast base for Australia's nuclear submarines, as it is likely to displace offshore wind and container terminal jobs. People also feel that the government, which is finding it hard to spend the $24 billion required to increase Centrelink payments above poverty levels, has no qualms about splurging $10 billion on constructing an East Coast submarine base. Many Australians are also worried that the acquisition of nuclear boats would make them vulnerable to a nuclear attack in the event of a war with a nuclear adversary.

Asia has witnessed an unexpected rise in the militarisation of the continent since the announcement of the United States' policy of the "pivot to Asia" and Trump's military-first approach to Asia. The maritime domain has become the focus area as America and its western allies shift their naval focus from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indo-Pacific waters.

The perception that Xi Jinping has raised the stakes and is willing to risk Third World War, rather than showing any interest in distant markets or a desire to integrate the Third World into the world economic system, has brought Australia closer to America. Australia has been drawn into serving American strategic aims. Australian political leadership has failed to keep the country out of the great power conflict looming between the United States and China. Australia's evident anti-China stance has hindered the possibilities of enhanced economic interactions between the two major Asian economies