Home More News Op-Ed: Is the AUKUS treaty a repeat of the 20th-century arms race?

Op-Ed: Is the AUKUS treaty a repeat of the 20th-century arms race?

Op-Ed: Is the AUKUS treaty a repeat of the 20th-century arms race?
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US President Joe Biden, and more attend the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall on June 12, 2021.

When I was a young child, our next-door neighbor built a fallout shelter the size of a small garage in the confines of his backyard. He did this at the height of the Cold War and one year after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

My parents thought he was nuts, and at first, I didn’t know what to think about it. But I was told by his son—one of my childhood friends—that when the bombs fell, his family would be safe and mine would perish in flames and radiation.

At school, we went through “duck and cover drills” or “disaster drills” where, when a loud horn blasted through our elementary school, we would walk into the hall, line up single-file against a wall, sit, cross our legs, put our heads down between our knees (presumably to kiss our backsides goodbye) and wait for an “all clear” to signal, which meant we could then get up and return to class.

We were told this would protect us in case of a nuclear bomb, so I was highly suspicious of the “fallout shelter” our neighbor built. If sitting quietly in the hall next to a wall would protect me, I suspected the “fallout shelter” served another purpose. After awhile, I concluded it was just where my friend’s dad hid his liquor from his Baptist wife who preached against the stuff.

Those were crazy times marked by the Vietnam War, the space race, racial unrest, a GOP hellbent on destroying the Constitution, war mongers, peaceniks, hippies, yippies, protests, and some great rock n’ roll.

Today, the music isn’t as good, and we’ve traded the Soviet Union—according to some—for China, but some say President Joe Biden is sparking another arms race like that of the 60s. His newly announced defense pact with Britain and Australia will allow the Australians to build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time.

The “AUKUS” treaty was announced Sept. 15 by Biden, along with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

“But let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,” said Morrison. “And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

The BBC reported it this way: “The AUKUS pact, which will also cover AI and other technologies, is one of the countries’ biggest defense partnerships in decades, analysts say. China has condemned the agreement as ‘extremely irresponsible.’”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race,” while China’s embassy in Washington accused the three countries of a “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice.”

Speaking to the BBC, UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said China was embarking on one of the biggest military expenditures in history.

“It is growing its navy [and] air force at a huge rate. Obviously it is engaged in some disputed areas,” he said. “Our partners in those regions want to be able to stand their own ground.”

David Ignatius, writing in a Washington Post opinion piece, said: “French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced the AUKUS plan as a bilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision,” and he accused Australia of a ‘knife in the back’ in canceling the $66 billion contract. Behind this indignation were some deeper themes: France’s historic rivalry with the ‘Anglo-Saxons,’ a desire for greater weight as a global power, post-Brexit antipathy toward Johnson, and chagrin over losing a lucrative commercial deal.”

Facing pandemics, climate change, economic disaster and the rise of fascism, what’s left of the civilized world fears we now are plunging headlong into what amounts to global suicide.

Biden is a man of his word, and anyone who doubted this simply didn’t listen to his inaugural address or the first speech he made Feb. 4 at the State Department:

“American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China,” Biden said.

True, the indication was we had to stand up to the economic problems posed by Chinese aggression, and many analysts say that military might is being replaced by economic prowess, and that China’s main threat is its large workforce which is capable of economic hegemony. According to some, the best way to combat China is to attack their many attempts to undermine capitalism with renewed economic sanctions.

But in recent years, Beijing has also been accused of raising tensions in disputed territories like the South China Sea, and Biden has no problem flexing the US military muscle when needed. He told us as he pulled us out of Afghanistan that there were other, more acute, military problems around the world. He just identified one and moved on it.

“We’ll confront China’s economic abuses,” Biden told us in February. “But we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so. We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.”

There has been little fanfare and not much clarity from the Biden administration about other actions taken against China, at least nothing as dramatic as the new, strange-sounding alliance announced earlier this week that angered our allies and our enemies.

But give Biden time.

Not for one second do I believe he is plunging us into a new arms race. I do not foresee a sudden rise in the building of fallout shelters or “duck and cover” drills. Biden is merely reacting to events put into motion by China.

In a schoolyard brawl, it is often the reaction to the initial blow that is noticed and commented on the same in global politics as well.

In withdrawing from Afghanistan, Biden is merely the one to deal decisively with a problem that began several administrations ago. But building nuclear submarines isn’t going to fix the Chinese problem. It will, however, help a lot of military contractors—perhaps the same contractors who lost money when we left Afghanistan. But the bigger problem remains: How do you deal with the Chinese economic juggernaut?

“Building back better” is Biden’s theme, but the strategy to get there is far more difficult with the pandemic raging. And making our economy more competitive can’t include selling fallout shelters.

Where is the innovation to compete with authoritarianism? That’s the ultimate question when it comes to China.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.