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Australian Nuclear Submarine - Perspectives

On 15 September 2021 the US, UK and Australia announced a plan to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet to Australia. The political longevity of this plan remained in doubt. The Age said the decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the United States or Britain, “elevates Scott Morrison from harried, strife-beset leader … to the position of Prime Minister taking charge of his nation’s defence in an emerging regional Cold War”.

Charles de Gaulle, the founding president of France’s Fifth Republic, once said treaties are like roses: They “last as long as they last”. Australia gave France a painful reminder of Le Général’s observation on September 16 – when Canberra ditched a five-year-old deal for French submarines in favour of more advanced US nuclear subs, as part of a new defence pact with Washington and London.

Analysts said that – regardless of France’s outrage – the bottom line was that Sino-Australian relations had deteriorated considerably since the Franco-Australian agreement was made in 2016. The deal Canberra signed in 2016 for France’s mainly state-owned Naval Group to supply 12 submarines for the Royal Australian Navy was a boon for the French defence industry. Worth €31 billion when it was signed, the deal is now estimated at €56 billion ($66 billion).

It no longer looked like such a great deal for Australia. Concerned about China’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy, Canberra feared that France’s conventional electric-diesel submarines were inadequate for its needs.

“What’s driven Australia’s decision is a reassessment of its strategic environment, primarily because of China’s behaviour over the past few years as Beijing has really stepped up its assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region and changed perceptions about the level of potential hazard,” said Brendan Sargeant, Australia’s associate secretary of defence from 2013 to 2017, now head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University. “It’s a different environment from what it was five years ago – and the rate of change has gone faster than any of our assessments; China under President Xi Jinping has surprised us all.”

“It’s not that the French submarines are bad, it’s that looking into the future, the nuclear option makes much more sense, because with them Australia can sustain operations over long distances and long periods of time – and will be capable of responding to the growth in Chinese capabilities,” Sargeant explained.

The range of the US nuclear submarines is an especially important advantage for Australia, Sargeant continued, because they would have to travel far from their bases to patrol the Indo-Pacific: “It’s difficult to base submarines north of Stirling [a naval base on the southern part of Australia’s West Coast] – the water is too shallow and the tidal ranges are enormous – so submarines will have to go a long way to patrol deep into the Indian Ocean or in the north of Asia, and that would have pushed against the edges of conventional submarine technology.”

This Australian paradigm shift from warily engaging with China to preparing for potential confrontation mirrored the same change of thinking in Washington and London. By contrast, France has maintained a more ambiguous China policy – signing on to the official EU line that China is simultaneously a partner, competitor and rival.

Emmanuel Macron endorsed a divergent position from the growing Anglophone consensus. Calls to “join all together against China” create a “scenario of the highest possible conflictuality” and are “counter-productive”, the French president said in February 2021 at a discussion broadcast by the Washington DC think-tank the Atlantic Council.

“France has a more cautious approach towards China, whereas what America wants is for countries to join together collectively and balance against China,” noted Shashank Joshi, defence editor of The Economist. Macron gave concrete form to this stance when he backed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in forming the “Comprehensive Agreement on Trade” with China unveiled in December 2020.

“In Washington, that episode contributed to a scepticism towards Paris,” said Robert Singh, a professor of American politics at Birkbeck, University of London. “France is very much seen as too soft on China – at a time when the US is clearly concerned that too many states on every continent are being suckered by China’s economic statecraft into positions where US security alliances are likely to be endangered.”

“So to see France do what it did with that trade deal was very disappointing to the Biden administration,” Singh continued. “My impression is that the US won’t care very much that it has outraged France with this Australian submarine deal.”

The Saturday Paper opined that "Decades of subtle diplomacy, balancing the interests of China and the US, have been trampled by a man whose eyes have never lifted further than the next election.... Labor, if it had any courage, would campaign to tear up this deal. It would refuse to take the country to war in exchange for a photo opportunity. It would continue a policy of balance, weighing relations between the two powers and governing in the interests of the country."

Paul Keating of the Labor Party was Australia’s 24th Prime Minister, from 20 December 1991 to 11 March 1996. Keating's response to the AUKUS partnership questioned what chance the US would have in "a full blown war against China" if it " could not beat a bunch of Taliban rebels with AK47 rifles in pickup tracks". He claimed “This arrangement would witness a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty, as material dependency on the US robbed Australia of any freedom or choice in any engagement Australia may deem appropriate.... Australia has had great difficulty in - running a bunch of Australian-built conventional submarines - imagine the difficulty of moving to sophisticated nuclear submarines, their maintenance and operational complexity.”

The French shipbuilder Naval described Australia's decision to cancel a multi-billion euro contract to build twelve submarines as a "major disappointment". The deal – first agreed in 2016 – has been the subject of debate in Australia for years over potential delays and rising costs. Naval is now in line for tens of millions of euros in compensation from Canberra for breaking the contract.

Former Australian premier Kevin Rudd rejected Prime Minister Scott Morrison's argument that a switch to the AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) alliance would meet Australia’s national security interests, primarily the growing threat from China. Rudd said that when he was in power a decade ago, the threat from China was already a major priority, and the main reason behind the initial submarine deal with France. Rudd said France had "every right to be angry" over the scrapped deal, expressing concern that the diplomatic crisis would have lasting, damaging effects on the bilateral relationship.

Rudd told FRANCE 24 25 September 2021 that the Australian government should have notified the French government, and the French company building the submarines about its intentions to switch from diesel-propelled to nuclear-powered subs. He added that instead of simply choosing the American offer, Canberra should have let France compete in a new open tender. In addition, he claimed that the decision would delay the delivery of submarines and leave his country “naked” during the 2030s. inally, Rudd called for a parliamentary probe into the decision, stressing that Australian taxpayers needed to know precisely how the decision unfolded and how much it will cost them.

Former Australian prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull argued that AUKUS will make Australia too dependent on the US at a time the nation should be becoming more self-reliant, according to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 2023. Keating, the Australian Labor legend, in September 2021 said that the partnership would produce "a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty" and continued his criticism in October, 2022 adding that it would be a "tragedy for Australia" if Labor followed through with the deal.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the decision as a stab in the back. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defence Minister Florence Parly issued a joint statement, describing the trilateral deal between Washington, London, and Canberra as "regrettable". The statement said "The American choice to push aside a European ally and partner like France from a structural partnership with Australia at a time we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region [...] shows a lack of coherence that France can only acknowledge and regret".

By early 2021 concerns about the cost, delivery schedule and strategic value of Australia's future submarine fleet were growing, despite Federal Government assurances the most expensive defence project in the nation's history was on track. Critics of the Attack Class project jumped on the steep rise in the cost of the project from $50 billion to $89 billion. There were early milestone delays and the submarine delivery target date slipped to 2033. The planned commencement date for construction of the lead boat, HMAS Attack, widely publicised as 2022-23, had by 2020 slipped to the 2024 time frame. Defence advised government in February 2019 that Naval Group had proposed to extend the completion date for Future Submarine design work from July 2022 to September 2023.

Concerns had also been raised about the non-AIP, lead-acid battery design, which featured pump-jet propulsion technology never used on a conventional submarine. Both South Korea and Singapore had plans to develop a sovereign submarine industry capability and had done so. Naval Group said Australian industry was not up to the task. Naval Group responded to concerns about lack of local industry participation by saying that it was committed to at least 60 percent local content. Defence’s overall assessment of risk for the Future Submarine Program was ‘high’.

French President Emmanuel Macron accused Australian PM Scott Morrison of undermining mutual respect by lying about Canberra’s plan to scrap an agreement with Paris, in favor of the AUKUS nuclear sub deal with the US and UK. “We will see what he will deliver,” Macron said 01 November 2021 at the G20 Summit in Rome when pressed about whether he could ever trust Morrison again. “Do you think he lied to you?” a reporter asked directly. "I don't think, I know" Macron replied. France’s senior diplomat in Canberra suggested that Australia is an untrustworthy partner that can “weaponize” confidential talks, after Macron’s text on the ill-fated submarine contract was leaked to the media. Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault said leaking his president’s text to Australian media was an “unprecedented new low” in the two nations’ long-running row over Canberra’s cancellation of a submarine deal with Paris in favor of an alliance with the US and Britain. The sharing of President Emmanuel Macron’s correspondence with his Australian counterpart Prime Minister Scott Morrison was done in an apparent bid to discredit the French leader’s recent accusations of Morrison lying to him about the deal. “What you say in confidence to your partners will be eventually used and weaponized against you one day,” Thebault said in Canberra on 03 November 2021 in an address to Australian media representatives. “You don’t behave like this on personal exchanges of leaders,” he added. The leaked message apparently showed Macron’s knowledge of the contract being at risk, as he asked whether to “expect good or bad news for our joint submarines ambitions” ahead of the official announcement of its abolishment by Canberra in September.

President Biden told Macron that he was under the impression France had been informed in advance – presumably by Australia – that its contract with Canberra for a dozen conventionally powered submarines had been canceled long before he made the announcement of the AUKUS atomic sub program on September 15. Biden, who apologized to Macron, saying he was “under the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal [with Canberra] was not going through.” The US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand was not asked to join the new tripartite security pact involving Australia, the United States and Britain - but she would not expect to have been asked. New Zealand's partners were "very well versed and understand our position on nuclear-powered vessels and also nuclear weapons.... That of course means that they well understood our likely position on the establishment of nuclear-powered submarines and their use in the region." New Zealand was suspended from the ANZUS alliance with Australia and the United States in the mid-1980s in reaction to its ncuelar policy which banned nuclear armed and nuclear powered vessels and warships from its ports.

Canada was left out of the new pact, but it was in the middle of an election campaign and its views were not initially known. Canada had made efforts to acquire American Thresher-class nuclear propelled boats in the early 1960s, and Los Angeles class boats in the mid-1980s, but nothing came of either effort. At a minimum, some Canadians might be miffed that Australia would succeed where Canada had failed.

Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, said Australia's decision to acquire nuclear submarines was a response to China's increasing military might, aggressive bullying of Australia and intimidation of Japan and Taiwan. "We should call the first submarine in this new category the 'Xi Jinping,' because no person is more responsible for Australia going down this track than the current leader of the Chinese Communist Party," Jennings said.

Chinese military experts warned that deal to provide nuclear submarines to Australia will potentially make Australia a target of a nuclear strike if a nuclear war breaks out even when Washington said it won't arm Canberra with nuclear weapons, because it's easy for the US to equip Australia with nuclear weapons and submarine-launched ballistic missiles when Australia has the submarines. In reality, nuclear tipped cruise missiles might be possible under some "dual key" arrangement, but not ballistic missiles, as these submarines would not be designed with such a capability.

Global Times editorialized that "If the US and the UK help Australia acquire the cruising capability of nuclear-powered submarines, this will effectively legalize the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines by all countries. This also means the legalization of international export of related technology. As Washington stirs up great power competition, more regions will be involved in rising tensions. Possessing nuclear-powered submarines will become a universal temptation. The world needs to prepare for the arrival of a "nuclear-powered submarine fever.""

But the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines by all countries is already legal, as is the international export of related technology, subject to national arms export regulations. A "nuclear-powered submarine fever" does seem a real prospect, as countrie such as Argentina, Brazil and South Korea have been edging towards this door in recent years [Iran's murmurings on this front are probably little more than normal Iranian bluster.

While China was not directly mentioned in the AUKUS announcement, Beijing swiftly voiced concerns concerning the new pact, saying that it "seriously undermines regional peace and stability, intensifies the arms race, and harms international non-proliferation efforts". Besides this, China accused the three countries participating in the alliance of having a "Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice".

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a 16 September 2021 press briefing that if Australia, as a non-nuclear arms signatory of the non-proliferation treaty and a signatory of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, imports nuclear submarine technology, which has strategic military value, its neighbors and the international community have reason to question its sincerity in fulfilling the treaties. Zhao said at the press conference "China will pay close attention to the development of the AUKUS deal. Relevant countries should abandon their Cold War and zero-sum game mentality; otherwise, they will lift a rock that drops on their own feet."

On 26 November 2021, the IAEA Board of Governors Meeting for the first time held dedicated discussions on the AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation, a new agenda suggested by China. In Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on November 29, 2021, he stated "The Chinese representative elaborated on China’s position at the meeting, pointing out that drawing ideological lines, the US, the UK and Australia have set up a new military bloc, heightened the risk of military conflicts, and will increase geopolitical tensions. It is a typical illustration of the Cold War mentality. The US and the UK, two nuclear weapon states, are set to transfer tons of nuclear weapons materials to Australia, a non-nuclear-weapon state. The existing IAEA safeguards arrangement cannot effective monitor the transfer. This is in explicit violation of the object and purposes of the NPT. The trilateral cooperation exposes the three countries’ flagrant double standard on the nuclear non-proliferation issue and will spur other non-nuclear-weapon states to follow suit and cause seriously negative impact to the settlement of regional nuclear hotspot issues.

"The Chinese side raised more than 50 questions for deliberations in the political, legal and technical aspects and pointed out the illegality and danger of the trilateral cooperation. We hope that the US, the UK and Australia will give explicit answers to these questions. China also proposes establishing a special committee open to all Member States of the IAEA to properly seek a solution acceptable to all parties. China maintains that, pending a proper formula worked out by all, the US, the UK and Australia should not go ahead with relevant cooperation and the Secretariat of the IAEA should not proceed on its own to negotiate the relevant safeguards arrangement with the three countries.

"The Chinese side’s statement was warmly received by members of the IAEA Board of Governors. A dozen countries, including Russia, Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran and Cuba spoke up in support of China’s position and propositions. Many countries also expressed concerns over the AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation.

"At the joint press conference after the meeting, the Chinese and Russian representatives reiterated that the trilateral nuclear submarine cooperation under AUKUS endangers the integrity of the NPT, the global strategic equilibrium and post-war international security order. The Russian side noted that if Australia obtains a large amount of weapon-grade nuclear materials, that will seriously impact the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. AUKUS cooperation not only violates the relevant norms of comprehensive safeguards agreements, but will also have a serious negative impact on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. The three countries concealed the progress of nuclear submarine cooperation from the international community, which is extremely non-transparent. They must report the relevant situation in a timely manner.

"I need to stress that the IAEA Board of Governors Meeting’s setting up of the new agenda item of the AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation reflects the serious concerns of the agency’s members over this matter, which marks a right step forward towards the proper settlement of the issue. China urges the three countries to heed the call of the international community, rescind their wrong decision, set store by their non-proliferation obligations and do more that is conducive to regional peace and stability."

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace on 16 September 2021 fired back at Beijing's assertions that the new AUKUS partnership was a display of a "Cold War mentality". Wallace retorted "It's probably a Cold War view to describe it as a Cold War", arguing that Beijing was "embarking on one of the biggest military spends in history". He continued: "Obviously it is engaged in some disputed areas. Our partners in those regions want to be able to stand their own ground".

In March 2023 Chinese observers urged Canberra not to blindly follow Washington's strategy in containing Beijing, and risk its own national interests on economy and security only to serve Washington's interests. Reuters reported on 08 March 2023 that Australia is expected to buy up to five US Virginia class nuclear powered submarines in the 2030s. Mao Ning, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a press conference on 09 March 2023 that China believes that the trilateral cooperation (AUKUS) poses serious nuclear proliferation risks, impacts the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, stimulates arms race and undermines peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, which is widely questioned and opposed by countries in the region and the international community. The Chinese spokesperson urged the US, the UK and Australia to abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game, faithfully fulfill their international obligations and do more to contribute to regional peace and stability. A webinar organised as part of the International Peace Bureau (IPB) World Peace Conference on October 8 drew more than 100 people from across the world who condemned the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) alliance. Hannah Middleton, from the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign Coalition, criticised AUKUS for “tying Australia into nuclear submarines and the nuclear industry”. She said it meant that Australia would become host to more US bases and US military. The primary purpose of AUKUS is to reassert US military control over the Indo-Pacific region. It is both a nuclear and a military pact. The peace movement is finding new energy in response to this aggressive pact. We will be building our anti-war coalition stronger in the future. We are asking for solidarity from around the world, including boycotting Australian goods. We will fight to remain nuclear-free and against all aspects of the AUKUS military alliance.”

Peter Ong, Queensland secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, said ETU members are angry hearing the PM’s AUKUS decision. “[The union] opposes mining uranium and the establishment of a nuclear industry.” He said workers also feel betrayed because most of the construction of nuclear submarines will be done overseas. “Proponents of a nuclear industry have been emboldened,” Ong said, even though “the subs are likely to be made obsolete before they are even built”. We must “work hard together” to make this becomes a major issue, he said.

Walden Bello, chairperson of the Philippines Laban ng Masa (People’s Struggle) said the AUKUS military alliance represented “a significant escalation of the arms race in the Asia-Pacific region... AUKUS means the US is pressuring its allies to become more active as military forces in the region. Australia has been pushed to adopt nuclear-powered, instead of diesel submarines, as a step toward obtaining nuclear weapons. AUKUS accentuates the naval superiority of the US over China. The US has never renounced its nuclear First Strike capacity. The pact re-emphasises Australia’s role as a gendarme for the US in the region. The US military will also increase its use of Australia for military training and exercises."

“AUKUS is a white, Anglo-Saxon alliance: this adds a racial dimension to this conflict", Bello said, arguing that the struggle has to be both on “the racial and anti-war fronts”.

Members of the Sydney Anti-AUKUS Coalition (SAAC) participated in a protest in Sydney, Australia, on December 11, 2021 against the nuclear submarines deal among AUKUS members.

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Page last modified: 13-03-2023 17:34:33 ZULU