Nuclear subs lock in Australia's course in Asia

Australia has chosen a side, tying its future security to deeper integration into the US contest with China and furthering its separation from its own region. It has locked itself into a multi-decade program to develop nuclear-fuelled submarines, using US and UK technology, and future unspecified cooperation in ramping up geopolitical contest with China. No doubt this is a suitable arrangement for the US, but it raises several questions for Australia. How does Australia gain from an upfront role in US strategy towards China? What does Australia lose if the strategy fails?


The launch of a new alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – known as AUKUS – sends a message to the region that Australia sees the world through Anglo-American eyes. Australia is locking itself into a multi-decade program to develop nuclear-fuelled submarines, utilising US and UK technology, and future unspecified cooperation with the two other nations in ramping up the geopolitical contest with China.


It could have been different. Leaders across the decades charted a sovereign course for Australia that balanced a strong alliance with the US at the same time as building stabilising and cooperative relationships with diverse powers in Asia. The consensus for a generation appeared to be that Australia did not have to choose when major powers demanded that it take sides, but those days have gone.


Australia has now chosen a side, tying its future security to deeper integration into the US contest with China and furthering its separation from its own region. The optics of the three leaders emblazoned with red, white and blue said it all. Australia has gone back to the days of “all the way with the USA”, a country with which many Australians certainly feel comfortable and safe. But is it safe to place all Australia’s eggs in one basket?


Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has returned the nation to the kind of decision making that took Australians to war in Vietnam and Iraq. Evoking enemies outside and within is a tried and true formula to win elections, but as international strategy it deserves debate.


The key strategic question for Australia is how to secure its interests in a rapidly changing world, with our region becoming richer but also containing deep strategic tensions and challenges. These are much more complex than just China, with its own internal contradictions and geo-economic reach, but also a more powerful India and uncertainty about the future roles of Japan and Vietnam. That is not to mention a growing Indonesia on Australia’s doorstep, climate change and other challenges in the Pacific. Australia would be well-advised to attend to all of these and not be blindsided by US priorities alone.


The US appears committed to containing China, but its long-term strategy is as uncertain as its four-year election cycle. As ever, future decades will bring unpredictable risks. Nations in the region will understandably seek to strengthen their sovereign defence capabilities to manage such risks. However, rather than investing in greater self-reliance and stronger relationships with its neighbours, Australia has signed up to greater dependence on distant powers. It cries out for a clearer strategy on how Australia positions itself in the region - as insider or outsider, as sovereign or dependent.


To be sure, many are concerned a more assertive China brings serious challenges, just as some fear reckless intervention by the US. But others in the region feel we need to find a way to live with multiple powers in the future, building trust and confidence, rules and institutions. Most try to hedge and balance between the big powers. Australia’s peers make complementary contributions to regional security. Few rely entirely on subordinate contributions to one big power. In a departure from its regional approach, Australia has indicated its strategy is to place itself at the forefront with the US in resisting and containing China.


Looking at the world through Anglo-American eyes, a multipolar future appears to be undesirable compared to the status quo. Australians will need to cross their fingers that US hegemony in the Pacific can be maintained and that this strategy works.


For Indonesia to describe the surprise Australian move to acquire nuclear-powered submarines as an “arms race” represents a failure of Australian diplomacy with Indonesia. Mismanagement of the announcement underlined how the current Australian government’s trust, values and identity lie only with a small number of “traditional partners” from outside the immediate region.


As a procurement decision, nuclear-propelled submarines only make sense if they are to be fully integrated with the US nuclear fleet and operating in heavily contested waters. Australia will not only be operationally “interoperable” with the US, it will also be strategically indistinguishable. These nuclear submarines could take decades to deliver and will divert resources from other, more flexible defence assets that would be more suitable for the wider range of threat scenarios than the US contest with China.


Hugh White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, has pointed out that the cost of the submarines could outweigh their advantages. Nuclear propulsion makes more sense for nuclear armed states and will make Australian capabilities heavily dependent on others.


At the end of the day, what is most disturbing in a robust democracy such as Australia is the lack of any contested, deliberative approach to making such a major strategic decision that could lock Australia into decades of dependence on external powers. No doubt, this is a suitable arrangement for the US, but it raises several questions for Australia. Are there more surprise announcements to come? How does Australia gain from adopting an upfront role in US strategy towards China? What does Australia lose if the strategy fails? Future Australian governments might wish to have a more flexible set of defence assets under sovereign control to deploy in Australia’s interests.


Australia will certainly wish to build more cooperative security with its neighbours over time. But the optics of three nations and their nuclear subs suggests that minds are made up and Australia is committed to an Anglo-American future or bust.


Originally published in the South China Morning Post, September 27, 2021

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