Australia’s embrace of nuclear submarine technology strengthens its role as a regional foil against China
It is not called the nuclear option for nothing.
One momentous decision reconfigures Australia’s relationship between its oldest ally, key security partner and biggest customer.
This will piss off some of Australia’s neighbors and require skillful diplomacy.
This will likely force Labor to agree, even reluctantly, due to a shared commitment to the US alliance.
Australia’s adoption of US-UK nuclear submarine technology reinforces its role as a regional foil against Beijing’s assertiveness.
Talk about choosing sides – not that China would have had any doubts about Australia’s security allegiance.
But this is a formal statement as a technological embrace.
In about ten years, the fleet of nuclear-powered submarines of the Royal Australian Navy will be a structural element of the American Indo-Pacific pivot.
Its main task will be to counter the increased militarization of the crowded and highly contested seas in the north, west and east of Australia.
In this regard, the Australia-UK-US Trilateral Security Partnership, or AUKUS, is the embodiment of the ANZUS Pact, 70 years after its signing.
That Australia sees fit to tear up a $ 90 billion contract with the French to build up to 12 conventionally powered submarines shows how much the security environment is considered to have changed in the five years since followed the signing of the agreement.
Allies’ attitude towards the Chinese president over the past decade has shifted from Xi Jinping’s driven curiosity about regional adventurism to aversion to Beijing’s outright militarism, debt diplomacy and cyberbullying. sanctioned.
Plan under construction for months
French President Emmanuel Macron is furious that Naval Group’s lucrative contract is sunk, but he must have known that the submarine deal was taking water when Scott Morrison visited him in mid-June .
The Prime Minister has clearly expressed Australia’s concern about the drift of the project. Morrison demanded a clear September deadline for his design work.
He informed Macron that when it comes to Australia, the strategic environment has changed.
What the Prime Minister did not tell Macron during this long dinner in Paris – and perhaps why the French president could be particularly upset – is that Morrison had, just a day before, already concluded an informal agreement with United States President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for an extension of a nuclear technology sharing agreement.
This revelation brings a new face to the tripartite meeting in Carbis Bay in Cornwall on June 12 between the two PMs and the US president.
Johnson has been, by some observers, described as the awkward peacemaker between Morrison and Biden over alleged differences over climate change.
It turns out that this three-way meeting may be the most important in decades; it ended with the understanding that Australia could indeed be extended to nuclear secrets previously held in Washington and London since 1958.
The CBA understands that the federal government began exploring the option of nuclear-powered submarines about 18 months ago, when Linda Reynolds was still Minister of Defense.
It was tentatively discussed at the “systems level” with the British and the Americans – that is, whether nuclear submarines were feasible in an Australian context.
It has not been raised with the Trump administration at the political level, although there have been extensive discussions at the military level.
No need to raise it between rulers and ministers if there’s no way to make it work, was the thought.
The French agreement still hinged on the answer.
“It wasn’t a change of mind, it was a change of need,” said an Australian government official.
Diplomatic challenges aside, the cost will be enormous
About $ 2.4 billion already swallowed up in French construction are lost. Some say it’s more. The Naval Group will demand significant compensation of several hundred million dollars.
And going nuclear will cost much more, even if Australia is only building eight in the Osborne shipyards in Adelaide, instead of 12 as provided for in the French agreement.
Sources claim that building eight nuclear submarines will cost well over $ 100 billion and that country’s defense spending will be well over 2% of GDP for decades to come, given the AUKUS deal includes long-range strike capability, unmanned underwater drones, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies.
Regionally, Morrison’s urgent task is to reassure New Zealand, a partner of Five Eyes, whose anti-nuclear stance has long tested the ANZUS treaty, and Indonesia.
After the Cabinet National Security Committee approved the nuclear option, Morrison’s first appeal was to his Kiwi counterpart, Jacinda Ardern.
Morrison wants Ardern to be a partner in reassuring Asia-Pacific and ASEAN countries. It is not known if she will play this role.
Defense Minister Peter Dutton briefed Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto on Wednesday evening.
Maintaining good relations with Indonesia has long been considered essential to Australia’s security.
Nationally, Morrison will face significant challenges, many of which will only be alleviated if Labor expands two-party politics.
On manufacturing capability, home maintenance and sustainment, Labor is offering strong support, although some in the ALP ranks will object to Australia becoming beholden to the scope. nuclear power, as argued by former Prime Minister Paul Keating.
“This arrangement would result in a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty, as material dependence on the United States would deprive Australia of any freedom or choice in any engagement that Australia may deem appropriate,” Keating said. .
Morrison’s response to Keating was to refer to Australia’s “forever relationship” with the United States and Britain.
“I’d rather be around John Curtin and Robert Menzies when it comes to this issue,” Morrison told reporters.
But history is still written and Australian political writers come from two tribes.
Anthony Albanese says Labor has three conditions to support nuclear-powered submarines: that there is no requirement for a domestic civilian nuclear industry and no acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Third, Labor wants absolute assurance that the deal is consistent with Australia’s obligations as a non-nuclear weapon state under the non-proliferation treaty.
The government insists that the three conditions will be met. If so, Labor appears as a lock.
Indeed, Biden and Johnson have separately claimed that the submarines will not have nuclear weapons, although this was more to avoid stoking tensions with China.
It will come anyway.
The geostrategic struggle between Washington and Beijing is one for the ages, and Australia must now play an even bigger role – in a stealthier and faster nuclear kit.