Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 16 September 2021

 ‘Friends in freedom’ step up to counter China threat


Cartoon: Johannes Leak

Cartoon: Johannes Leak

12:00AM SEPTEMBER 17, 2021






Important as eight nuclear-powered submarines will be to boosting the nation’s defences, the AUKUS trilateral security partnership between Australia, the US and the UK represents far more. It is a huge realignment of global geo-strategic priorities with our greatest ally and our oldest friend. They have recognised, for their own sakes as well as ours, that it is essential to step up to counter the threat China increasingly poses to security in the Indo-Asian-Pacific region and the international balance of power. In a historic virtual press conference alongside Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison said he was pleased to join with “two great friends of freedom”. Through our long shared histories, the three English-speaking nations “have always seen the world through a similar lens”, the Prime Minister said. “We have always believed in a world that favours freedom, that respects human dignity – the rule of law, the independence of sovereign states and the peaceful fellowship of nations.”

Australia’s nuclear submarines will be in the water by the late 2030s or 2040. Five years ago, when the Turnbull government signed on to buy 12 new conventional submarines from France’s Naval Group, it was unthinkable that the US or Britain would share their prized nuclear technology with Australia. We did not have a civil nuclear industry of our own and neither side of politics wanted the debate that development would entail. Two vital elements have changed in the interim.

First, reactor technology has advanced, enabling Australia to operate nuclear-powered boats without having to service their sealed reactors over the submarine’s lifetime. We will become the first nation without a domestic nuclear industry to have nuclear submarines. Second, Chinese aggression has accelerated. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague dismissed Beijing’s claim to much of the South China Sea. The regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, boldly ignored international law, pressing ahead with its militarisation of the region. Further belligerence followed, including the suppression of the last of Hong Kong’s democracy, in defiance of the longstanding “one country, two systems” agreement of the 1980s. China has made its intentions towards Taiwan abundantly clear. Last year, when Australia called for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, we found ourselves on the frontline of a new battleground – strategic competition – in which our economic and security interests increasingly overlap. In standing by our sovereignty and core values we were subjected to economic coercion as China increasingly targeted our agricultural and resources exports. It recently upped the ante again, demanding notification from vessels sailing through what remain international waters in the South China Sea.

In this strategic climate, Australia has done well building its role in important partnerships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Five Eyes intelligence agreement and bilateral security arrangements with South Korea and Indonesia. It is also vital that we should use the best available military hardware. The new generation of nuclear submarines fit the bill. As Cameron Stewart writes, such vessels are perfectly suited to Australia’s geography and would be a far more formidable foe for China or any other adversary. The tyranny of distance always worked against Australia’s conventionally powered submarine fleet, which created heavy costs, technical problems and schedule delays. The new subs will be faster, more powerful and more manoeuvrable. They also will have a virtually unlimited range and greater carrying capacity, and will be able to travel farther without the need to surface to refuel.

Construction of the first nuclear sub is due to begin in Adelaide later this decade, and to be completed late in the 2030s. Australia will be the first country other than Britain to be given access to highly guarded US nuclear technology. But the strategy is not without risks. “That is still a very, very, very long time away,” Greg Sheridan writes. “Our security challenges, in contrast, are very, very, very close.” Australia has already sunk $2.4bn into the $90bn French Attack-class program and will have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars after scrapping that project, a decision that has left the French bitterly disappointed. Until the new submarines arrive, the navy will rely on the refurbished Collins-class subs. Defence Minister Peter Dutton has ordered all six of them be rebuilt to extend their life for another decade after Defence’s initial plan was to refit just three boats. Given the lengthy negotiations that have been under way with the US and Britain, Mr Dutton’s move can be seen in a new light. His plan is to conduct a complete rebuild, known as a life-of-type extension, on each Collins boat across a two-year period once they progressively reach the end of their original 30-year life cycle from 2026. The aim is to keep the submarines operational until the 2040s and minimise the risk of a gap in capability from later this decade. If our defence preparedness is to reach the level needed, the nation will need to increase the percentage of gross domestic product allocated for the purpose well beyond 2 per cent. At a time of post-Covid recovery and heavy debt, that will be a significant economic challenge.

China, predictably, has castigated the development, which was spurred by its own belligerence. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian claimed the three-way agreement was “extremely irresponsible” and “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”. If Mr Xi wanted to make a constructive move to diffuse increasing regional tensions he would accept Mr Morrison’s “open invitation” for talks about the defence pact and other matters. He also would encourage the resumption of conversations at ministerial level.

Anthony Albanese, who was briefed by the government on Wednesday, and Labor’s shadow cabinet wisely have elected to support the new defence arrangements. They have done so on three conditions: that there be no requirement for a domestic civil nuclear industry; no acquisition of nuclear weapons; and no breaches of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Mr Morrison says Australia remains firmly committed to nuclear non-proliferation. Any nuclear submarines bought under the new arrangement would not be available for service for more than a decade.

But the nuclear option is sure to present plenty of internal heartaches for Labor. The ALP long has been split over the mining and export of uranium, and it remains firmly opposed to the development of a nuclear industry in Australia. The AUKUS agreement does not require Australian nuclear power generation. But the future development of nuclear power would complement development of nuclear propulsion for the defence sector. The difficulty the agreement will pose for Labor was evident in Paul Keating’s claim that it represented a further “dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty”. To the contrary, the arrangement is designed to promote an enduring regional peace. It demonstrates that Australia will take its place with the world’s major democracies to push back against China’s hegemonic ambitions.

Australia, Mr Keating said, lacked the technical sophistication to manage the maintenance and operational complexity of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The lack of such experience and skills is a shameful legacy of the lack of political will on both sides of politics. And it is a legacy that continues to limit Australia’s options in areas that extend way beyond nuclear submarines. Andrew Stuchbery, who heads the Australian National University’s department of nuclear physics and accelerator applications, said that while Australia needed to build expertise in reactor technology, it already was a world leader in nuclear safety and non- proliferation issues. That would be critical in constructing and operating nuclear submarines in Australia.

The most hysterical response to the new arrangement was that of Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt, who said a fleet of nuclear submarines would create “floating Chernobyls” in the heart of the country’s major cities. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern welcomed the US and Britain’s ongoing engagement in the region. But the leader of our closest neighbour said there would be no change to New Zealand’s longstanding ban on nuclear-powered vessels.

The emergence of AUKUS on Australia’s doorstep is the culmination of two years of vision and quiet, painstaking work by Mr Morrison. It is one of his most significant leadership contributions, likely to benefit the nation for decades. As reported on Friday, he turned his mind to submarines during his visit to the French coastal hamlet of Biarritz to attend the Group of Seven summit in August 2019. Was there any prospect of nuclear-powered submarines? And if so, how could that happen, he wondered. After almost two years’ work by officials and ministers it was clear that technology had evolved in Australia’s favour, while our strategic situation continued to deteriorate. On the sidelines of the G7 in June this year, AUKUS was sealed during a 45-minute meeting between Mr Biden, Mr Johnson and Mr Morrison at the Carbis Bay Hotel in Cornwall. Amid the greatest dangers in the Indo-Pacific region since World War II, the three-way defence pact is a vital bulwark by three great “friends in freedom” against an angry and authoritarian communist China.

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