In September 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced AUKUS – a new security partnership designed to promote “a free and open Indo-Pacific”. The first major AUKUS initiative involves the UK and US supporting Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, but without nuclear weapons. AUKUS also promises to deepen cooperation across a wide range of science and technology areas.
This initial announcement was intriguing as it was an agreement in principle to forge an agreement in reality. Thus the three countries entered an 18-month “consultation period” during which they gamed out the best way to produce these Australian submarines.
This consultation period has been spiced up by political changes in all three countries. Australia has seen a change of government, while the UK government has changed leaders, and in the US the Democrats have lost control of the House of Representatives, though not the Senate. Nevertheless, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and US President Joe Biden insist on their governments’ enduring and bipartisan commitment to AUKUS – even though there will be a multitude of political changes in all three countries over the life of AUKUS, including the spectre of a possible return of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2025.
Moving from words to action
The initial AUKUS agreement provoked much scepticism and debate in Australia regarding the many risks and challenges involved. If new submarines only appear in the late 2030s or 2040s, Australia could face a “capability gap”, as its existing, ageing “Collins-class” submarines are nearing retirement. Australia also faces other capability issues like the need to train personnel to build and operate submarines. For their part, both the UK and the US are under growing pressure to build more submarines for themselves to deal with the difficult global security environment, and China’s rapid military buildup.
On 13 March, the three countries announced a pathway to achieve this critical capability for Australia. Quite sensibly they have agreed to a “phased approach”. First, a number of steps will be undertaken with the US and UK to accelerate the development of the Australian naval personnel, workforce, infrastructure and regulatory system. Second, from as early as the 2030s, Australia will receive delivery of at least three US Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines, which should ensure that there is no capability gap.
Third, Australia and the UK will deliver SSN-AUKUS, a new conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarine, based on a UK design, incorporating cutting edge Australian, UK and US technologies. The UK will deliver its own first SSN-AUKUS in the late 2030s, with the first SSN-AUKUS built in Australia delivered in the early 2040s. This delayed timing should enable Australia to develop the necessary capabilities to undertake the building.
AUKUS is all about China
In attempting to explain AUKUS, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said, “We are bound above all by our belief in a world where the sovereignty of every nation is respected and the inherent dignity of every individual is upheld…And where all countries are able to act in their sovereign interests free from coercion.” In other words, AUKUS is basically all about China, whose assertive international behaviour and rapid military buildup over the past decade have provoked this new partnership.
How has China reacted to the AUKUS submarine plans? China has announced that the AUKUS partners are traveling “further down the wrong and dangerous path for their own geopolitical self-interest”. China repeated its claims that AUKUS poses a “serious risk of nuclear proliferation and violating the object and purpose of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”
The AUKUS announcement comes at a delicate time in Australia’s relations with China, as the current Australian government tries to stabilise and repair relations, following almost three years of severe trade sanctions. These sanctions were implemented following the previous Australian government’s call for an independent, international enquiry into the origins of COVID-19. But notwithstanding the economic cost of these sanctions, the Australian government has made clear that it will not compromise its values or sovereignty in order to see these sanctions lifted. In other words, China’s economic sanctions have not deterred Australia from pushing ahead with AUKUS.
AUKUS receives mixed reaction in Australia
According to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, “The AUKUS agreement … represents the biggest single investment in Australia’s defence capability in all of our history, strengthening Australia’s national security and stability in our region, building a future made in Australia with record investments in skills, jobs and infrastructure, and delivering a superior defence capability into the future”.
But some members of Australia’s vociferous commentariat, notably some former prime ministers, have been taking issue with the recent AUKUS agreement. Former Labour prime minister Paul Keating has lashed out at the government over the AUKUS submarine agreement, arguing that it is “the worst deal in all history”, which mainly supports US and UK industry. Keating believes that China is not a military threat to Australia, which has “manufactured a China threat problem” because the military/defence establishment has hijacked Australia’s foreign policy.
For Keating, AUKUS is all about maintenance of US strategic hegemony in Asia, rather than Australia’s national defence. It is not clear how nuclear submarines will make the country safer. Australia is being sucked into the US strategic command system, and the nation’s sovereignty is being peeled away – “We don’t run the place ourselves anymore”. He argues that Australia should find its security in Asia, not with the US and UK. It is indeed ironic that a 79-year-old former prime minister should be able to dissect the manifold issues concerning AUKUS, and provoke a national debate on the issue, in a way that neither the government nor the political opposition seem willing or able to do.
Another former (Liberal) prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has also weighed in the AUKUS debate. While more measured than Keating, he said “The reality is, this will take a lot more time, cost a great deal more money, have a lot more risk than if we had proceeded with the submarine project we had with France that (former prime minister) Morrison recklessly cancelled.” He also said that acquiring nuclear powered US submarines would undermine Australia’s sovereignty, as the submarines “will not be able to be operated or maintained without the supervision of the US Navy”. He also questioned whether Britain would be a stable partner in AUKUS, given its enormous economic problems which could limit future investment in its military and navy.
In sharp contrast, former deputy prime minister and defence minister, Kim Beazley, who oversaw the “Collins-class” submarine project when he was defence minister, said “I think AUKUS is a good decision.” He said, however, that China’s opposition towards the AUKUS deal was hypocritical. It is not fair that China is attempting to block other nations in the region from building nuclear submarines when it has that capability itself.
The wide variety of comments and issues concerning AUKUS reflect Australia’s unenviable geopolitical predicament, and also the immense technical complexity of renewing Australia’s fleet of submarines.
For many years now, China has been Australia’s leading economic partner and the US as its main strategic partner. Once upon a time, Australia imagined that it could avoid choosing between them. This was incredibly naive because Australia was under growing pressure from both to take sides. In reality, for historical and cultural reasons, Australia could only opt for the US, its long-time alliance partner.
However, irrespective of the choice, there will always be risks. Australia shares virtually no political values with China, which is a revisionist power that seeks to subjugate its partners, and employ economic and political coercion to achieve its goals. In the Indo-Pacific, the US is widely regarded as a declining power, whose staying power in the region is questionable. In other words, Australia finds itself between the devil and the deep blue sea!
Over the past decade, the Australian government has tried to face up to the need to strengthen its military assets and in particular replace its ageing “Collins-class submarines”. But it has suffered from “analysis paralysis” as it swung from a proposal to buy Japanese, then French and now UK/US submarines. Moreover, the government has been torn between prioritising Australia’s national defence and strengthening its military alliance with the US. And now where it has landed, is a plan for the highest quality, highest cost and highest risk submarines, which may be as much in the US’s national interests as Australia’s.
If history is a guide, the AUKUS submarines will be delivered late, well exceed the current cost estimate of up to AUD368 billion, and have many technical problems, as all new complex projects do. But then again, both the US and the UK have lots of experience in building submarines, so success cannot be totally ruled out.
For the moment, as Australia dives deep into the AUKUS submarine plan, the country has entered a world of many unknowns, which will require brilliance, perseverance and a host of other qualities.
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).