Risks and horrors of AUKUS
Labor’s ‘left’ faction around Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong has openly and unashamedly embraced the alliance with US imperialism, now it is in government, says Martin Greenfield
Australian-Chinese writer Yang Hengjun has been handed a suspended death sentence by a Chinese court for spying for an unspecified foreign power. The sentence has thrown Australian-Chinese relations into a spin after years of ‘on again, off again’, that has seen finger-pointing over Covid, trade bans and calculated snubs.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner and the Labor government of prime minister Anthony Albanese has sought to repair relations since it was elected in 2022 after a partial freeze during the Covid period. This is despite Albanese throwing his lot in with the Anglosphere powers via the AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) nuclear deal, aimed squarely at containing China and defending US interests in east Asia.
Albanese now has to handle the highly awkward situation where, during a visit to Beijing in November, he invited president Xi Jinping to visit Canberra. The rightwing opposition Liberal Party will no doubt insist that this invitation be revoked.
Dr Yang, who moved to Australia in 1998, was arrested in 2019 after flying into Guangzhou from his home in New York. He was accused of having “endangered national security with particularly serious harm to the country and the people”. Dr Yang is a former member of the Communist Party of China and worked for the Chinese ministry of state security.
Reuters reported in 2020 that he had told a supporter he was previously a Chinese spy. And, since leaving China, he has written a blog at times critical of China, and penned spy novels in which the main protagonist is a double-agent named Yang - a common Chinese family name. Now, after five years languishing in prison, he faces life imprisonment, if he passes a two-year ‘good behaviour’ period, having been found guilty of spying and ‘betraying’ China.
Of course, just what form that betrayal was will likely never be known, as national security cases are held in camera. While the secret nature of these ‘trials’ are a travesty and the Chinese court system is completely undemocratic, the hypocrisy of western commentators and governments knows no bounds on this matter.
In Australia itself, the case against ‘Witness J’1 (or ‘Prisoner 123458’) was held in total secrecy, as was his sentencing to 15 months imprisonment. It has never been revealed for which service this veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan worked, or what secrets he revealed. His entire case was not even known about until after his release. Only partial details have since been made known.
Similarly the ongoing prosecution of former military lawyer David McBride, who assisted in the exposure of war crimes by Australian SAS officers in Afghanistan, show that the country has no leg to stand on in condemning other countries’ lack of democratic justice.
It is impossible to know the facts of the case about Dr Yang, an honorary member of Australia’s journalists’ union, MEAA. To some extent, it is politically immaterial. But Dr Feng Chongyi, Dr Yang’s PhD supervisor in Australia, said the case relates to “something he said to a Taiwanese intelligence officer”, while he worked for the ministry of state security in Hong Kong. But “the real target is to silence his political voice”.
While that is no doubt part of Beijing’s motivation - the CPC brooks no dissent - the main point is that Dr Yang is the latest pawn in big power rivalry between China, the US global hegemon and its loyal lapdog, Australia.
What is known is that the case will be used by ‘China hawks’ in Australia to ramp up the pro-war rhetoric. This has already started. As has the slandering of peaceniks, anti-imperialists and even left nationalists who oppose AUKUS on the basis of Australian sovereignty. The hawks call them appeasers and pro-Beijing dupes.
No doubt devastating for Dr Yang and his family, his case highlights the fact that the governments of Australia and the USA (and the UK through AUKUS) view China through 19th century-style ‘great power’ politics. And they are in danger of taking us to war to protect their global dominance.
For the Australian Labor Party leadership, it means the final transformation of the parliamentary ‘left’ faction around Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong into an openly pro-imperialist grouping (if they were ever anything else!).
For Albanese himself, he is acting like a war-hawk US Democrat: imperialist foreign policy abroad, while pursuing soft social reform at home. But there has been precious little progressive change at all under his government: this month, his ‘tweak’ of tax cuts for the rich was so mild that the opposition will let them sail through.
The prime minister has a simplistic view of the world, almost at the cartoon level of Ronald Reagan-type ‘goodies and baddies’. Albanese has outlined his foreign policy as recognising there is a democratic world and an autocratic world - and Australia is in the democratic one, of course. For him, it is that simple.
When asked about why he is throwing his lot in with the USA through AUKUS, he has replied that “Australia made that decision in 1942”, referring to when wartime Labor prime minister John Curtin refused a request from Winston Churchill to deploy Australian troops to Burma after the fall of Singapore and instead to focus on a Pacific alliance with the USA.
Albanese’s trajectory to pro-USA cheerleader might be surprising to many - his mentor was the late giant of the ALP left, Tom Uren - an anti-Vietnam war veteran and MP, who would no doubt be turning in his grave - but it is the logical destination for people unable to see outside the framework of nationalism.
The point for socialists, communists and consistent democrats is that neither Beijing nor Washington offer a way forward for humanity. We must fight for the end of the system of nation-states and a world without war. Those unable to imagine a world beyond the current system of a nuclear-armed and dangerous hierarchy of nations are doomed to be trapped by it and to reinforce it.
Nonetheless, there are stirrings in the ALP against the rampant Anglosphere war drums. Former prime minister Paul Keating and ex-foreign minister Bob Carr, both from the party’s right, have been openly caustic about the support of Albanese and Wong for the AUKUS pact, which will cost Australia at least $A368 billion over 30 years. Keating and Carr are no internationalists, but their voice shows how subservient the current government is to America.
As a rising Young Labor left hack in the 1980s, Albanese cut his teeth against the ‘rightwing’ New South Wales ALP machine of Paul Keating and Laurie Brereton. In his anti-AUKUS speech to the National Press Club in 2023, Keating said the following:
[Albanese’s support for AUKUS] says something about the left in Australia. You know politically in the Labor Party I fought the left most of my life, mostly on behalf of the United States. But the two principal people on the left in Australia are now Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong and what they’ve done, they have essentially accommodated the strategic wishes of the United States uncritically ... But if you look at me or Laurie Brereton, we look like Bolsheviks compared to them, Bolsheviks, so where does that leave us?
The abandonment of any pretence to be leftwing by Albanese’s faction has created something of a vacuum in the ALP. Other left parliamentary factional fragments with historic animosity to the Albanese faction have rallied to some extent and are openly speaking out in solidarity with Palestine and against AUKUS. But they are small, inadequately organised and still hidebound by the Laborite poison of wanting to manage capitalism - a political stance that took Albanese to where he is now.
Rank-and-file members have formed Labor Against War, with an explicit call against conflict with China, no nuclear subs for Australia and a rejection of the AUKUS pact. From a standing start last year, it forced a debate onto the floor of ALP national conference and won a good slice of the vote, albeit a minority. A member of the federal ALP caucus, Josh Wilson from Western Australia, broke ranks and spoke against AUKUS.
Despite passing anti-AUKUS motions through dozens of branches nationwide - including in the prime minister’s own electorate - the opposition group remains marginal (but spirited). Many of the unions, however, are facing both ways, talking against AUKUS, but positioning so as to not lose access to related jobs, should they eventuate. Meanwhile, the anti-AUKUS forces outside the ALP are largely veterans of the 1980s anti-nuke and 1990s/2000s anti-Iraq war campaigns.
Without a definitive political centre based on principled, consistent and independent working class politics, the fight to link the struggle against imperialism in the ALP with broader non-ALP socialist forces will prove an uphill battle. But it is a battle that must be fought.
While the liberal-‘left’ Green Party will absorb some of the anti-imperialist sentiment, it will package it into a nationalist verbiage. With a few exceptions, the Greens have been remarkably mute on the politics of AUKUS - beyond economistic observations that the billions spend on nuclear submarines could be used for socialised dentistry or education. That is because the Greens have a significant base that is anti-Chinese over issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, etc.
There are more than a million Australians with Chinese heritage, so their electoral weight matters. The little polling that has occurred shows many are not happy with the AUKUS stance of the ALP. It is important to remember that the ALP won government in 2022 in part because some Chinese-Australian voters dropped previous support for the Liberal Party government of Scott Morrison.
The ALP won a handful of seats off the Liberals in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia with significant Chinese-Australian communities. And Albanese has a slim majority in parliament. That is why AUKUS and relations with China will remain one of the main strategic political questions in Australian politics for many years.
While China is no doubt flexing its muscles and might be prepared to use force to secure unity with Taiwan, the main threat to the region is a bellicose US empire, willing to throw Australia into the front line to maintain its power in east Asia. In other words, the drive to war comes from a global power facing off a local threat.
And, with the real possibility of a second Trump presidency, who knows what horrors the AUKUS alliance might deliver?