According to The Australian’s defence editor Brendan Nicholson, an Australian submarine twice penetrated the Cam Ranh Bay naval base in Vietnam in 1985. Nicholson’s claim appeared in an article in the newspaper on 27 April 2016 analysing Canberra’s decision to build French Barracuda submarines in Adelaide. HMAS Orion’s first intrusion resulted in ‘brilliantly clear’ footage of sonar and other hull fittings on a Soviet Charlie-class nuclear submarine. On the second, it shadowed a Soviet Kirov-class nuclear-powered cruiser and monitored its communications.
In 1985 I was Australia’s Ambassador to Vietnam, resident in Hanoi. I knew nothing of Orion’s activities. Foreign Minister Bill Hayden had instructed me to repair relations with the country, damaged by the war and by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s over-reaction to Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia in December 1978. I was to encourage bilateral trade, re-start an aid program halted by Fraser, formally hand back to the Vietnamese our extensive embassy properties in Saigon, initiate a missing-in-action mission for Australian soldiers, facilitate a Royal Commission into Agent Orange, and generally re-build trust with Hanoi. I was to engage the Vietnamese in a dialogue on Cambodia and find out specifically if and when they intended to leave.
At the time, the Cold War was at its height and Vietnam was commonly and quite mistakenly regarded in the West as a Soviet colony. Mr Hayden’s initiatives were strongly criticised by China, and five of the then six members of ASEAN (Indonesia, distrustful of China, and wanting a strong Vietnam to stand up to China to its north, was the exception). The Thais were particularly incensed, certain that the Vietnamese army would soon invade across the Cambodian border. Still smarting from their pull-out from Vietnam in June 1975, the Americans thought Hayden naive and foolish. Trenchant critics of Hayden’s initiative towards Hanoi also existed in Canberra, particularly in the Office of National Assessments and parts of Foreign Affairs.
Despite the static, I was getting on with my job. We began an aid program and hosted a trade mission from Australia. I handed back our embassy properties in Saigon. With Vietnamese cooperation, we conducted the first MIA mission by any participating country in the Vietnam War and gathered evidence for the Royal Commission into Agent Orange.
And I was also getting somewhere with Vietnamese officials on Cambodia. During meetings over several months, Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach became increasingly frank with me. Since reunifying the country in 1975, Hanoi had been doggedly trying to pull the place together. By 1978, China, which had been unhappy with unification, was making threatening noises from the north. And that ‘madman’ Pol Pot persisted in attacking Vietnamese villages across the border from the south west. Vietnam had insufficient military strength to challenge China, but could certainly put a spoke in Pol Pot’s wheel. So on Christmas Day 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and drove Pol Pot out of Phnom Penh. Vietnamese forces would leave when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had been neutralised. Thach ridiculed the suggestion that Vietnam would stay in Cambodia or had territorial designs on Thailand.
I reported our conversations to Canberra, along with my view that Thach and his colleagues were telling the truth.
Meanwhile, if Nicholson and The Australian are to be believed, Orion was busy in Cam Ranh Bay. At the least, its activities were contrary to customary international law and the newly promulgated 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention. If detected in Vietnam’s internal waters, the consequences would have been horrific. Orion could have been depth-charged or captured, its complement of 63 crew interned, its armaments including its Mark 48 US torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles stripped. Bilateral relations could have come to a grinding halt. I could have been recalled or expelled from Hanoi. The increasing goodwill and understanding created through Hayden’s initiative and my activities would have been lost, and our sceptical western and ASEAN allies would have glowed with schadenfreude.
In spite of its appalling baggage, this spying hubris appears not to have given either the Australian government or opposition cause to reflect. Indeed, it resonates in at least two respects with Australia’s recent decision to build at enormous expense a dozen French Barracuda submarines. First is range. The government says it wants long-range subs, a capacity the German and Japanese boats lack. This is presumably to enable us to spy on Chinese assets in the South China Sea. But 1960 British-designed Oberon-class boats costing a mere $10 million a copy (triple that in 2016 terms) had the capacity to reach the same neighbourhood in Vietnam. What is so special about the range of the vastly more expensive French Barracudas?
Second, why is the Australian government so fixated on submarine espionage outside our immediate maritime neighbourhood? The consequences of discovery by China are more appalling than by Vietnam or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It’s one thing to sail on the surface through waters claimed by China in the interests of reinforcing ‘rules-based’ freedom of navigation, but quite another to penetrate coastal waters by submarine and conduct maritime espionage. If that’s not the purpose, why spend such colossal amounts on new submarines? To sustain the South Australian economy, keep Christopher Pyne in parliament, catch up with our neighbours? All of the above? I will explore motives and consequences in a following article.
Richard Broinowski is a former diplomat and Ambassador to Vietnam, Korea and Mexico.He is currently President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in NSW.