My column this week is on a recently-concluded study tour of Australia under the auspices of the Australian embassy. What follows, is a further exploration of themes I touched on in the the column.
Perhaps I’m the last Filipino left who views the Philippine-Australian experience as a shared one because of World War II. Filipinos and Australians shared a common dilemma: having to make enormous sacrifices for the imperial metropolis while putting themselves at great risk to play a role in the unfolding of policies on which they were neither consulted nor had much of a voice. I am old enough to have met members of the wartime generation, now mostly gone, who spoke with warmth and gratitude for the role the Philippines played, in derailing the Japanese timetable of conquest, which many felt saved Australia from invasion; on the other hand there is the personal connection due to the Philippine government finding temporary refuge in Australia as the government became one in exile.
New Australia: The Voice
The cost of the historic marginalization and persecution continues to be catastrophic: alcoholism, disease, lack of education and thus, extreme poverty, remains the daily nightmare of many Australian aboriginals.
When you visit Reconciliation Australia’s Support a Voice to Parliament: A First Nations Voice to Parliament protected by the Constitution is a key element of the Uluru Statement from the Heart
You trigger this notice:
Acknowledgement of Country
Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.
Everywhere you go in Australia today, meetings begin with variations of this preamble. As we Filipinos gingerly explore a multidisciplinary, less monolithic approach to political and cultural institutions and policies, what is going on in Australia is potentially quite instructive. Among our first briefings was one on a forthcoming referendum:
A Voice to Parliament will give Indigenous communities a route to help inform policy and legal decisions that impact their lives. Giving people a say will lead to more effective results.
Embedding a Voice in the Constitution would recognise the special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s history, but importantly would also mean that it can’t be shut down by successive Governments.
From the Australian Government: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Social Conservatism and Migration
At one point early in our visit, as we left the premises of the Australian Federal Parliament, we encountered an ongoing protest on behalf of refugees. Over the course of our visit I was introduced to the ongoing debate on Australian multiculturalism, itself a remarkable trend, and the curious phenomenon of some socially conservative new migrants finding common cause with the older, white, Australian conservatives.
The decision to open up Australia is, to me, a fascinating one, a true turning point in national development. From this transcript, Public Forum, Melbourne Town Hall – 22 May 2002, comes a review:
Seven years after the end of the world Depression and while the Second World War had hardly concluded, Arthur Calwell, in a significant act of statesmanship, persuaded the union movement that it was in Australia’s interests to embark, for the first time, on a major and deliberate migration programme, intended to build and transform Australia. This programme was supported by the opposition political parties of the time.
In one major respect the original programme did not meet its expectation. To allay concerns of a socially conservative population and one whose concerns could so easily have been aroused, both the Government and the Opposition of the time said that it was their hope and intention that a majority of migrants would come from the United Kingdom. Despite best intentions, as a consequence of the turmoil of that War and of the great movements of peoples from within Europe, that particular expectation was never realised.
I suggest that that circumstance has in the event been to Australia’s great advantage. The decision to conduct the major migration campaign was in effect a decision to establish a multicultural and diverse Australia, which is now recognised as one of our great strengths.
The original decision of 1946 has clearly brought great change to Australia. We have been taught to learn the policies of tolerance and, through the refugee programmes, of the need for compassion and concern.
People came here from many places. Australia became a land of many ethnic groups and nationalities. A dream of freedom and opportunity.
A further major step was undertaken after the end of the Vietnam War. The Government believed that there was an ethical obligation to provide a safe haven for many of those whom we had supported in what had become a most misguided conflict. In some years over 20,000 a year came to Australia. Over all, over a million and a quarter Vietnamese and Indo-Chinese resettled in the United States, approaching 250,000 in Canada, well over 200,000 in Australia and a very significant number also in France.
Australians who believed there are too many immigrants ranged from 40% to 60% in the 1950s, fell consistently below 30% in the 1960s, and ranged from 30% to 50% in the 1970s (see Gibson, McAllister, & Swenson, 2002, Figure 2). These decades saw large post –World War II influxes of immigrants from Europe, while a “White Australia” policy excluding Asian and other non-White immigrants was gradually dismantled, ending formally in the 1970s. The early 1980s saw large waves of refugees from the Vietnam war arriving in Australia, while the proportion of Australians who believed there are too many immigrants fluctuated from 30% to over 65% in the 1980s and from 40% to 70% in the 1990s, before falling back to the low 40% range at the start of the 21st century. Since the late 1990s relatively large intakes of skilled immigrants have coincided with the emergence of asylum seekers (refugee claimants) as a subgroup of immigrants targeted with particularly harsh policy measures and public condemnation…
A 2015 transcript, ‘How conservative is contemporary Australia?’ National Press Club of Australia has some interesting statistics and a reflection, from a conservative point of view, of how some immigrant communities were responding to the ongoing debate at the time on legislating same-sex marriage.
A 2016 policy paper, Economic migration and Australia in the 21st century reminds us that accepting immigrants is a strategy for keeping a country competitive.
And again, what is interesting is how old and new communities in the country can find common cause in political issues of a conservative bent.
For example, the political dynamics, in turn, of National Security is examined in this paper, Keep us simple, keep us safe: The post-9/11 comeback of the Average Australian Bloke (2016):
Long before 9/11, the conservative shift in Australian politics that was marked by John Howard’s first election to Prime Minister in 1996, as well as the rise, during the same period, of the extreme-right party One Nation, signalled the triumph of a culture of masculinist and xenophobic whiteness, of anti-intellectualism, of petty-bourgeois gender roles and social conservatism that had been historically ingrained into Australia’s collective psyche. By the time 9/11 happened, half of the post-9/11 political damage had, in fact, already been done. That said, 9/11, along with asylum seeker crises, gave Howard the xenophobic “security” agenda, based on a politics of fear, that he needed in the face of a mounting domestic campaign against unpopular cutbacks to a range of public services, notably health and education His government managed to turn probable defeat into certain victory in November 2001, with one of the largest swings to an incumbent government in Australian history.
Howard remained in power almost 12 years, and in the second half of that period, 9/11 became mobilised in purely local ways, around local conversations, in which asylum and refugee and indigenous rights, and the rights of Muslim minorities, loomed large?the rights of women also. Howard increasingly couched government discourse in the language of “protection” and “our” (Australian-US) shared values. Even though Howard was voted out in 2007.
Yet, Howardism profoundly influenced the Australian psyche: the country has become yet more pro-US and much more timid, about practically everything and rights…
The Canberra Times presents an interesting picture of evolution and change in newspaper management.
See: Digital news report shows strong interest in local news, young people willing to pay for news (12/15/2022 Canberra Times).
The recipe for this paper, it seems, was fairly straightforward but courageous: to focus on subscribers; to resist the temptation to use scarce resources on podcasting, video, and being promiscuously free with content; to focus on the local, and to reengineer the newsroom to empower reporters and bring a more collegial attitude between editors and reporters (and the introduction of the concept of producers to help craft reports).
Some readings related to this.
A government report in its fifth iteration: Digital platform services inquiry 2020-25
From Harvard Business School (7/18/2019): Are Paywalls Saving Newspapers?
These older studies are very interesting, too:
The Impact of Digital Platforms on News and Journalistic Content (Centre for Media Transition, 2018: this was established jointly by the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UTS).
Media and Meta (and Google, Too)
Perhaps the most interesting media-related topic was how the online behemoths, Google and Meta, were forced (with varying levels of success, depending on who’s asked) to cough up a kind of compensation or subsidy to media whose business models were gutted by the rise of these behemoths.
An overview for Australia in the 2022 Digital News Report:
Emerging from one of the worst years in media history, Australia saw signs of recovery in 2021. The advertising market grew, numbers paying for news online increased, and support systems for regional journalism are being developed. At the same time, a new regulatory framework has eased the power imbalance between news publishers and tech giants.
After months of tense negotiation between the government and the major platforms, including Facebook withdrawing from the Australian news market for a few days, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code came into effect in March 2021. This mandatory code of conduct governs commercial relationships between news businesses and designated digital platforms where there is a significant bargaining power imbalance. The threat alone of such designation by government has led the major platforms – Meta and Google – to strike commercial deals with news outlets through three- to five-year voluntary content agreements, with funds flowing into the news sector. The Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has hailed a successful outcome citing ‘over AU$200m per annum going into journalism’ and ‘just about every major media organisation’ having a deal with Meta and Google.1 Many companies, including Nine Entertainment Co., News Corp. Australia, Australian Community Media, the Guardian, and the ABC, have benefited, but others have missed out, including public broadcaster SBS. The Code has been criticised for not including small media companies, and lacking transparency. But there are some promising signs of extra funds being spent on public interest journalism, with the ABC for example recruiting 55 new regional-based journalists.
Google tries to put a brave face on things: How Google supports journalism and the news industry in Australia:
We also pay to license content through Google News Showcase, a new online experience that’s powered by over a $1 billion investment in news organisations. Google News Showcase was launched in Australia in 2021 and now has 56 news publishers and more than 180 publications on board, including national, regional and local publications such as The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Illawarra Mercury. We continue to work with Australian news publishers of all sizes to connect readers to their journalism. Participating publishers receive a monthly fee for curating their articles for News Showcase, and in some cases for providing access to articles behind their paywall so that readers can see the value of becoming subscribers and publishers can build a relationship with readers.
And we’re committed to finding new ways to support the news industry. This includes Subscribe with Google, which we built with news publishers to help them make money from new subscribers, as well the Google News Initiative, through which we provide tools, training and grant funding to help news organisations evolve in the digital age. Globally, the Google News Initiative includes a (AUD) $400 million global funding commitment to the future of the news industry.
In Outlook (1/21/2023) there’s Explained: Why Centre Said Big Tech Should Pay For News, Why Should Google, Facebook Pay For Hosting News?
In Poynter (3/14/2023) there’s Australia’s news media bargaining code pries $140 million from Google and Facebook:
See this thorough article in the Columbia Journalism Review (3/9/2022): Australia pressured Google and Facebook to pay for journalism. Is America next?
New Zealand readies legislation to make Google, Meta pay for news content (12/7/2022 The Drum)
More countries are asking Google and Meta to save the news—by paying for it (12/6/2022 Quartz)
One can only hope and pray something like this is attempted at home. There is little political incentive to do this, however. The big online platforms, having helped maim mass media, are essential to the disinformation and other efforts of many political players. There is no reason on earth to give a funding injection and thus a second lease on life, to broadcast media which is already thoroughly cowed, or to print media which is no longer mass media.
A Tour d’ Horizon
Elbowed aside in many ways during our trip was the question of Australia’s role in our part of the world, and our part of the world’s future in the wake of increasing hostility and competition between the United States and China.
A visit to the Lowry Institute shows what a think tank does and what it can do to foster debate. Among its interesting activities is this one:
The annual Asia Power Index measures resources and influence to assess the relative power of states in Asia. It is an analytical tool that ranks 26 countries and territories in terms of what they have, and what they do with what they have – reaching as far west as Pakistan, as far north as Russia, and as far into the Pacific as Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The 2023 edition — which covers five years of data — is the most comprehensive assessment of the changing distribution of power in Asia so far.
Check out the Lowy Institute Asia Power Index 2023 Edition in which we are penultimate in the Middle Powers rankings (ahead only of North Korea). For more on us, see Philippines: Ranked 16 of 26 for comprehensive power, with an overall score of 12.8 out of 100. Lost 0.4 points (?3% change) in overall score in 2023:
The Philippines is a middle power in Asia.
Its overall score declined by 0.4 points compared to 2021.
The Philippines’ strongest measure is defence networks, where it places ninth, reflecting the extent of its bilateral military cooperation with treaty ally the United States. Its weakest measure is resilience, where it ranks 20th, in part a result of internal conflict legacies.
Over the past year, its military capability has risen by two places to 17th.
The Philippines exerts more influence in the region than expected given its available resources, as indicated by the country’s positive power gap score. Its positive power gap remained roughly the same as in the previous edition.
In 2023, the Philippines had its only gains in diplomatic influence (+2.0). It lost the most points in resilience (?2.7). It also lost points in defence networks (?2.0) and economic capability (?0.8). The scores for future resources, military capability, economic relationships and cultural influence were unchanged this year.
This last item, the gain in diplomatic influence, is explained as the contrast between the more confident (and travel-loving) diplomacy of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in comparison to the relative seclusion preferred by Rodrigo R. Duterte.
Journalists on Journalism
Journalists love nothing more than to talk about themselves and their profession. The question of whether journalism can be practiced by state media is one often discussed here at home with usually dismal conclusions.
Three visits showed us how the face of Australian journalism too, is changing, to become more diverse; while visits to state-funded media was a master class in how editorial independence isn’t necessarily incompatible with state support.
In nearly every conversation involving journalists, the topic sooner or later becomes how everyone, it seems, today claims to be a journalist.
In the old parliament building in Canberra, now a museum, one of the exhibits is on press freedom, featuring an audiovisual display featuring some of the leading names in Australian journalism, talking about different hallmarks of the profession. We would, as it turned out, interact with one of them.
His name is Peter Greste. in my column, I briefly summarized some of the points he made in my column, but what he briefly introduced us to, we should all read and reflect on at length.
So here is one of Prof. Peter Greste’s pieces, The cardinal role of press freedom and how to protect it (August, 2022) worth reading in full.
In this portion, he suggests that contrary to the usual belief, held both by journalists and officialdom, that national security and a free press are incompatible, they are actually mutually reinforcing:
While there is no suggestion that Australia is about to become Egypt, the political imperatives that allowed Cairo to pass loosely framed national security legislation that was used to silence uncomfortable journalism are the same as the ones that allowed Australia to introduce – yes – loosely framed national security legislation that was then used to go after uncomfortable journalism. And with at least 92 new national security laws since 9/11 (and counting), Australia is far closer to Egypt than almost any other Western democracy.
I am not being so naïve to suggest that the press should have complete freedom. But in classic liberal democratic theory, the media is the ‘fourth estate’, reporting on public officials, keeping the powerful accountable, and oiling public debate with quality information.
A few academics have gone beyond that fourth estate idea. James Carey, an American communications theorist and media critic at the University of Illinois, argued that journalism is the sine qua non of democracy.
In an essay published in 1999, he said “Journalism and politics cannot be thought of as two separate independent domains. Rather, they are symbiotically connected; they can only be known via their mutual and active adaptations which are cooperative and antagonistic by turns; one can only be known in the light of the other”.
The implication of Carey’s observation is that even though they look like separate institutions, the two are so deeply connected that if structural change happens to one, it must inevitably affect the other. So, any security legislation that undermines press freedom, that unnecessarily limits the ability of journalists to investigate government, and that exposes journalists’ data and their sources to prosecution, also damages the political system the law is trying to protect.
There are innumerable examples of good journalism that have exposed corruption and mismanagement within government, uncovered bad policy, triggered Royal Commissions and Parliamentary inquiries, and generally helped keep the system honest, efficient and effective. But that is despite rather than because of the ever-increasing weight of security legislation that makes it harder and more dangerous for journalists to do their jobs and protect their sources.
Another interesting exploration is his trying to answer the question journalists and the public have increasingly come to ask:
Whenever we have these conversations with lawmakers, we are constantly asked who should any laws protecting press freedom apply to? Who is a journalist? It is a vexed problem, and one that academics and the industry have been wrestling with for years. How do we make a meaningful distinction between a reporter live tweeting from a violent demonstration, and an agitator also using Twitter to call in reinforcements? Should the police stop one and not the other?
The solution is to forget about the impossible who, and instead focus on the far more practical how – the journalistic process.
The whole point of press freedom is not to protect a particular group of individuals. It is to protect the democratic role that journalists play. We need a group of people who reliably collect and report accurate, credible, authoritative information that is in the public interest, and who can investigate and hold the government to account.
If you ignore the job title, under the hood you’ll find commonly understood ways of gathering, organising and presenting information. Underpinning the whole journalistic enterprise is a set of professional practices, standards, obligations, and ethics that could form the core of a legal definition.
This approach already exists in our statutes. Section 126K of the Victorian Evidence Act gives journalists the right to protect their sources in court. In setting out its definitions, the act starts in the traditional way, describing a “journalist” as, “a person engaged in the profession or occupation of journalism.” But it then goes on to say, “the person or the publisher of the information, comment, opinion or analysis is accountable to comply (through a complaints process) with recognised journalistic or media professional standards or codes of practice.”
The first part of the definition is redundant, but the second contains a piece of legislative gold.
It is reasonable to assume that if someone declares a commitment to a set of standards and ethics and then gives the public a way of complaining if they deviate from it, then they are almost certainly working to a much higher standard than someone posting rumours on social media. It is hard to see satirists or bloggers making themselves accountable to the code of practice published by the MEAA – the journalists’ union. And if they do, well, they’re probably producing works of journalism.
That way, we avoid singling out any group for special treatment. Instead, we protect the role that journalism plays by defining the underlying process that sets it apart from other forms of speech.
But the media industry also has work to do. Apart from a relatively brief trust-bump when people turned to mainstream media during the COVID crisis, we’ve seen a steady decline in public confidence in conventional news. Some of it is self-inflicted – in the scramble to grab eyeballs online, news organisations have become beholden to a digital world that rewards the sensational over the sober – but it does nothing to shore up public confidence in journalism’s output.
The next part of his talk is a concrete proposal —for accreditation:
What if the industry followed the lead of other professional groups like the Institute of Chartered Accountants? What if it used that legally defined process of journalism as the basis for a system of voluntary certification?
A professional industry association could set up a certification board that could examine the work of anyone claiming to be producing journalism, and if they are applying those processes appropriately, they could get a little kite mark to go next to their by-line – a bit like Twitter’s blue tick. That way, readers and audiences would have a way of recognising journalism created to a professional standard. Social media companies could use that mark as a way of identifying and boosting good journalism. And if the producers of that journalism deviated from the standards, the board would have the power of sanction.
To be abundantly clear, certification would have to be voluntary. Nobody would be forced to get it, and a Media Freedom Act would have to explicitly say governments could not use certification as a way of filtering access. It would be wrong to set up a system of de-facto accreditation that could stop people from producing journalism.
Crucially, under the law anyone who has been certified could get what is known as a rebuttable presumption – courts would start by assuming they are working to professional standards, and it would be up to the prosecution to show why they had failed to meet their obligations. It would stick a thumb on the scales in favour of media freedom, rather than against it as is the case now.
Anyone who is not certified could still benefit from the law, but uncertified journalists would have to show the court that they are meeting the required standards before getting any legal cover.
In short, the AJF is proposing a comprehensive system of reform: the government should introduce a Media Freedom Act. In exchange, the media should set up a system of voluntary certification that would encourage the industry to adopt standards of professional practice. And the two would be linked by a legal definition of journalism as a process.
The organization he belongs to is lobbying for the above. But it is also trying to stimulate a wider conversation on the future of journalism. Click on the image to view an interesting playlist they put up:
Future of Journalism: Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom
The ‘Future of Journalism’ series is designed to canvas opinions from all sides about where journalism is heading, or where it should be heading. There is currently so much pressure on journalism that much of the debate is locked in the present; however, to plan the best outcomes for journalists the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom believes we need to have a clear vision on what the future looks like
As our visit unfolded, a three part special series in the Sydney Morning Herald became the morning’s preoccupation for journalists. You can check it out here:
I myself have been interested in the question of Australia and China ever since I encountered the writings of Hugh White. You can get a flavor of his work from this piece: Friday essay: if growing US-China rivalry leads to ‘the worst war ever’, what should Australia do?
Should Australia join the United States in a war against China to prevent China taking the US’s place as the dominant power in East Asia? Until a few years ago the question would have seemed merely hypothetical, but not anymore.
Senior figures in the Morrison government quite explicitly acknowledged that the escalating strategic rivalry between the US and China could lead to war, and their Labor successors do not seem to disagree. That is surely correct. Neither Washington nor Beijing want war but both seem willing to accept it rather than abandon their primary objectives.
There can be no doubt that if war comes, Washington would expect Australia to fight alongside it. Many in Canberra take it for granted that we would do so, and defence policy has shifted accordingly. Our armed forces are now being designed primarily to contribute to US-led operations in a major maritime war with China in the Western Pacific, with the aim of helping the United States to deter China from challenging the US, or helping to defeat it if deterrence fails.
In fact, the risk of war is probably higher than the government realises, because China is harder to deter than they understand.
Two relevant excerpts from articles I mentioned him in:
The Long View: Tough from a distance from 2020:
Three years ago, an Australian defense analyst, Hugh White, wrote a fascinating article (“Without America: Australia in the New Asia”) on the inevitability of China’s dominance in the region. Repeated attempts to war-game a confrontation between the US Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy, he wrote, showed American leaders were unprepared to call China’s bluff if it deliberately invited, or accidentally triggered, an armed confrontation in our region. There was simply no political math to justify risking a world war or American lives for Asia. He suggested that Japan and South Korea would have to go nuclear to create a regional deterrent to China, but that neither country could be expected to have the appropriate appetite for risk; perhaps India, with its own history of uneasy relations with China, would take up the mantle of regional leadership and push back (it has begun to do so, focusing on regional bases to counter China’s).
The only unforeseen thing, White wrote, was that America’s expected retreat from Southeast Asia should have taken a generation but accelerated under Donald Trump. In contrast to Kausikan, White portrayed Trump as sending the message to China that America would be cavalier about its allies, plus be as unwilling to pursue real brinkmanship in the region. Today, White’s views might be challenged by Asians like Kausikan and many Filipino Americans who voted for Trump. What in fact was going on was that there were two camps within the Trump administration — those who wanted a more collegial approach so as not to disrupt business, and the hawks who viewed America and China in the grip of a life-and-death struggle for mastery of the world. This view strongly held that America would soon lack the money and muscle to resist being supplanted by China unless it acted decisively, now, to confront China.
When it comes to national stereotypes, China’s is fearsome in that like the Catholic Church, its leaders supposedly think in centuries. Thus the famous remark of the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai. Supposedly asked his opinion about the impact of the French Revolution (circa 1789), Zhou replied, “it’s too soon to tell.” More concretely, this ability to think long-term explains China’s military vision for itself and how it came about.
The story goes something like this. In the 1990s, tensions arose in the Taiwan Strait as Beijing angrily reacted to a visit to the U.S.A. by the President of Taiwan. From August 1995 to March 1996, China conducted live-fire exercises, ballistic missile tests, and war games. In response, America dispatched an aircraft carrier group and China found itself impotent in the face of the American fleet. So Beijing vowed it would never face such a humiliation again. The result of this “Third Taiwan Straits Crisis” was a crash course, with unlimited funding, to build up China’s missile, submarine, and aircraft capabilities, followed by a crash course involving buying a mothballed Russian aircraft carrier to study it and duplicate, then surpass it.
The idea being that any American technological superiority could be swarmed to death with a barrage of land, sea, and air-launched missiles, and eventually with a carrier battlegroup (or two, or three) of its own by Beijing. In the two decades since, we’ve seen this come to pass, including Chinese construction on sandbars and atolls to create the Chinese version of what the Americans once did in Manila Bay: turning islands into, essentially, concrete battleships—or today, concrete aircraft carriers or missile launcher bases—in the South China Sea to swarm any hostile American fleet.
In a sense, this would echo the idea of the British military historian Richard Overy who said the Allies won World War II not because they produced the best weapons, but rather, the most weapons. The Germans, for example (he argued) had a history of craftsmanship and so they took time and pride to fuss over infinite varities of amazing tanks while the Americans just produced a pretty primitive tank, the Sherman, but in quantities that swamped the infinitely-better but much fewer German panzers. And the Russians did the same in terms of machine guns and their own tanks. America may still have the finest equipment money can buy, but China now has the industrial might to produce dozens of rivals for every American plane, ship, or missile.
In the years since, to briefly summarize, Chinese-Australian relations have cooled; and Australia has embarked on a posture of military deterrence, most recently involving the announcement of the procurement of both American and British nuclear submarines by Australia.
Most recenrtly, Hugh White has weighed in on the AUKUS deal —the tripartite agreement— with a great deal of skepticism. See The AUKUS submarines will never happen:
You might call it the First Law of Engineering: the more moving parts there are in any system, the more likely it is to fail. It is a sobering thought as we evaluate the AUKUS announcement that was made on Tuesday morning. We have learned that Australia is going to try to buy and operate not one but two classes of nuclear-powered submarines over the next two decades – first the Virginia class in the 2030s, and then the Anglo–Australian AUKUS class in the 2040s. That means there are twice as many moving parts in this system as we expected, which doubles the chance that the whole thing will fall over.
There were already very powerful arguments against the decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) to replace our Collins-class boats. It has never been clear – despite colourful talk from the admirals about SSNs being ‘apex predators’ – that expensive and complex SSNs would be more cost-effective in achieving our operational objectives than conventionally powered submarines. And it has always been clear that the risks involved in delivering, operating and crewing SSNs were going to be much higher.
Why, then, are we buying two different boats? The reason is simply bad timing. It is an awkward fact that neither of our AUKUS partners – the United States and the United Kingdom – have an up-to-date SSN on the shelf for us to buy. This problem apparently was not recognised when the AUKUS plan was first unveiled back in 2021. At the time, the admirals promised that we’d be buying an established design that was already in production with one or other of our partners. But both countries’ current models – the American Virginia class and the British Astute class – are old designs, and they are both now developing new designs to replace them.
However, these new designs are still decades away from being built and delivered, and we can’t afford to wait because our Collins-class boats are running out of time. So, we faced a choice between committing to an old design that would be obsolete before it entered service or waiting for a new design that would not be delivered until long after the Collins were withdrawn.
I guess it seemed easiest to escape this dilemma by doubling down and doing both. Now we are planning to buy between three and five of the old Virginia-class boats in the 2030s, and then replace them with at least eight of a new class – the AUKUS class – designed jointly by the three partners for Australia and Britain in the 2040s.
Now from the point of view of a Filipino observer, there comes this passage which is the clincher for another point I’d like to bring up: what I can only call the dillemma of American inconstancy.
First, the passage by Hugh White:
What could possibly go wrong? Let me count the ways. First, America might well change its mind about selling us three or more of its subs. The US Navy already has fewer subs than it needs. The more tensions rise with China and Russia, the more reluctant Washington will be to reduce their fleet to help us out. It is all too easy to imagine a future president – especially one like Donald Trump – nixing the deal, or Congress pulling the plug…
Above all, we must recognise the possibility that the rising costs and risks of confronting China in Asia could outweigh the imperatives for America to remain a key regional player. Then America might simply tire of the contest and pull back from Asia, and from its alliance with Australia.
The question of countries making committments, when the United States’ own commitment is questionable, is one that has bothered people in our part of the world for decades. Back in 1997 I was part of a State Department and Pentagon-sponsored trip, which I described in this piece (see Rogue Magazine: The Twilight Zone), and among ourselves those along on the trip actively wondered how reliable American promises of commitment might be.
As I mentioned in the closing of my column this week, Australia is also only the second country with which the Philippines has a Visiting Forces Agreement (though there are already trial balloons to ink a third, with Japan). It would do us well, then, to understand how Australia views its role in our region and that includes its relationship with us.
From Lowy Institute: Australia’s chance to dream with Southeast Asia:
Blueprints abound for engagement with Southeast Asia. The region is at the heart of South Korea’s ambitious scheme to deepen strategic relationships under the New Southern Policy Plus. India has fresh impetus to boost its image, national reputation, and international standing via its Act East Policy. Taiwan’s hopes for economic collaboration, talent exchange, resource sharing and regional connectivity through its New Southbound Policy. Japan, meanwhile, via its Indo-Pacific strategy, has a subtle plan to counter China.
Australia, a long-established middle power, has targeted Southeast Asia before. In the words of former foreign minister Gareth Evans, one of Canberra’s priorities in the post-Cold War era was the “maintenance of a positive security environment in the region”, and Southeast Asia figured prominently in Australia’s “primary strategic interest”. For years, this meant Australia maintained a consistent outlook, believing in the benefits and advantages of relationships despite differences in ideologies and regimes.
This perspective has shifted in recent times. As China’s hegemonic ambitions grow, it is Beijing’s export of authoritarianism, rather than economic interests, that haunts Australia in its view of the region. This cloud was evident in Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, with the reference to countries whose “grey-zone” activities “have ranged from militarisation of the South China Sea to active interference, disinformation campaigns and economic coercion”. It is further underscored by the 63 percent of Australians see China as a security threat as indicated by the Lowy Institute’s Poll for 2021.
Australia prides itself on a foreign policy consensus between the major parties; so a 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Working with Southeast Asia, can be read as representing a view shared by the major political players. (See: Australia’s Main Parties Are More Alike Than Different on China Policy in the Diplomat).
In East Asia Forum: Improving Australia–ASEAN defence engagement
In an SBS radio show aimed at Filipinos in Australia, I pointed out the face of Filipinos in Australia has literally changed over the years. In the first significant migration after World War II, the Filipino-Australian face was mestizo, as Filipinos of Spanish heritage made it through the then whites-only policies of the government. That face changed again with the influx of Filipino professionals, including journalists and intellectuals, who found a safe haven in Australia which had embarked on the start of its multicultural policy. That face contines to evolve. Yet it is a particular kind of face, as the results of the 2022 elections showed:
Note how Filipinos voted in Australia. It is a face that still reflects that of what I like to call the Old Middle Class, still steeped in the civic assumptions fostered by Church, clubs, and schools among its members.