The Australian navy is getting some very expensive new toys. Thanks to a new defence pact with the United States and the United Kingdom, Australia’s next submarine fleet will be nuclear-powered.
The deal marks the start of AUKUS, a new partnership with two of our oldest allies. It also brings plenty of firsts for Australia: we will be the first country without a domestic nuclear program to have a nuclear-powered submarine fleet. And aside from the United Kingdom, we’re the only country that will have access to the United States’ nuclear submarine technology.
But while it will take 18 months to deliver that technology to Australia, this morning’s press conference, teased at with breathless excitement last night, is intended to send a more immediate message — that Australia is deepening its ties with historic allies in the face of a new adversary in China.
“Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region, the Indo-Pacific,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a joint press conference, along with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“This affects us all. The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures.”
Biden said the partnership was designed to “better meet the threats of today and tomorrow”. But just how those “threats” respond to Australia’s strategic shift will give the foreign policy establishment plenty to think about over the coming years.
In many ways, Australia’s decision to pivot away from diesel-electric submarines to nuclear-powered ones makes sense, given the way we use them. UNSW Canberra International and Political Studies Professor Clinton Fernandes said nuclear submarines are an obvious choice for Australia because of their greater endurance and speed, and the way we tend to use submarines — far from home alongside the US.
“We impose demands on our submarines the way no navy does,” he said.
“But Australia has no domestic nuclear power industry — an essential component of a country in possession of nuclear submarines.”
The high cost, as well as taboos about nuclear power, meant Australia stuck with diesel-electric submarines. Cost is an important issue at play with the new submarine plan. It means a deal worth $90 billion with French manufacturer Naval Group — hindered by interminable delays and ballooning costs — will be torn up. That could cost taxpayers $400 million (at least).
And given the costs involved in developing nuclear submarines — around twice as much as diesel-electric ones — there needs to be far greater clarity about what they’re going to be used for, says Richard Tanter, a senior research associate at the Nautilus Institute and honorary professor in political science at the University of Melbourne.
“The argument over what Australia should be doing with the submarines really has to be addressed,” Tanter said.
“It strengthens the likelihood that we’ll be spending a huge amount of money on something that doesn’t meet our defence needs.”
The submarine deal itself is just the pointy end of a broader trilateral security agreement with the US and the UK that strengthens Australia’s existing alliances and creates a greater bulwark against China in the Indo-Pacific.
While this alignment of Australian foreign policy with the United States is hardly new, and the Morrison government’s at-times antagonistic approach toward China well-documented, how Beijing responds to this move will be crucial.
James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney said it was unlikely to draw an immediate comeback because Chinese foreign policy tends to work on a “tit-for-tat” basis.
“I don’t think it’ll invite a specific response from China,” he said. “They’ll see it as a consolidation of Australia’s building alliances against China.”
But what’s more, concerning is the deeper narrative here. Australia has picked a side in what Australian National University Security studies professor Hugh White terms a “new Cold War in Asia”. And we’ve deepened our military and strategic relations with the US on the assumption that America will win.
“When we look 10 or 20 years ahead, I don’t think we can assume that the United States is going to succeed in pushing back effectively against China… In the long run, Australia does have to ask whether or not we can continue to rely on the US,” White told the ABC this morning.
Tanter warns the deal could further Australia’s technological dependence on the United States, locking us into military spending decisions that aren’t always in our own security interests.
And former prime minister Paul Keating was particularly scathing this morning, saying the deal would “witness a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty” and rob Australia of any freedom in its engagement with the US, at a time when American strategic reliability is in question.
Morrison went to great lengths this morning to explain that the submarine deal wasn’t the prelude to building a domestic nuclear industry.
“Let me be clear: Australia is not seeking to establish nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability. And we will continue to meet all of our nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced. Tanter points to Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s vocal support of nuclear power as a reason to be skeptical.
“The nuclear aspect of the submarine deal is a huge change for Australia because this requires a really deep nuclear industrial capacity,” he said.
“It will bolster the case for a nuclear power industry in Australia.”
Fernandes believes there are some cynical politics behind the government’s announcement, an attempt to respond to poor polling and dwindling voter confidence with beating the national security drum.
“It’s part of the government’s re-election strategy to wedge Labor on the nuclear issue while ramping up the national security and China threat,” he said.
“Morrison and Dutton will have clearly thought this through in the pre-election context.”