AUKUS security pact: a story of recklessness and delusion

Sep 20, 2021
Scott Morrison nuclear submarine announcement uk us AUKUS
Scott Morrison, flanked by Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, announces the AUKUS agreement. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The AUKUS security pact is another provocative alliance that can only end in blood and tears. And for no good reason other than a nostalgic addiction to imperial power. 

How ironic that we should choose to sign up to a new security partnership at this time, scarcely two weeks after America’s ignominious exit from Afghanistan and a costly 20-year war that has left little but destruction and anguish in its trail. The irony will not be lost on China — the villain in the piece that the pact is meant to counter and intimidate.

Understandably perhaps, much commentary has so far focussed on the first step proposed under the new pact, namely the joint plan to equip Australia with a nuclear powered submarine fleet.

The plan is fraught with difficulty and uncertainty. As yet, we know little about the time it will take to bring it completion, the cost involved, and the complex technological and security problems it will create.

Boris Johnson’s words explaining the agreement are less than reassuring: “This will be one of the most complex and technically demanding projects in the world, lasting decades and requiring the most advanced technology.” What he omitted to say is even more troubling.

The French submarine boondoggle is Australia’s biggest defence blunder. Our tame corporate media hardly noticed.

To build nuclear powered submarines, Australia will need to be supplied not just with the technology for the nuclear reactors, but also with the nuclear fuel. All this may in time provide an avenue for the development of a domestic nuclear industry — a possibility that has always met with widespread public opposition.

Even short of acquiring nuclear power plants, Australia will have to deal with several challenges that continue to afflict the nuclear industry worldwide.

First, the fuel for the nuclear powered submarines — probably enriched uranium — will need to be accessed from another country. Transport of such fuels over long distances raises the prospect of diversion to a third party, widely considered a major nuclear proliferation risk.

Secondly, the nuclear reactors used by the submarines will generate a significant amount of nuclear waste, which will have to be returned to the supplying country or stored in Australia. Either way, the country will face the highly contentious problem of nuclear waste disposal.

Thirdly, there is always the possibility of a nuclear reactor being breached, or at least of a leakage of nuclear materials. All these are unanswered questions. If answers are ever offered, they are likely to prove less than reassuring.

Acquiring a submarine fleet has been an obsession of the Australian security establishment for some time, and a costly one at that. The $90 billion project for French designed submarines has been scrapped. But it has been an unhappy saga of delays and budget overruns, which have already cost the Australian taxpayer at least $2.4 billion, all to no avail. Compensation for terminating the project will also bear a heavy cost

And, if one was needed, an added irony. This latest decision to swap France for Britain is a decision to align ourselves even more firmly with Brexit Britain, and distance ourselves a little more from Europe.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused Australia of betraying “the letter and spirit” of cooperation between the two countries. France’s reaction to the Biden administration’s role was ferocious, describing it as “brutal, unilateral and unpredictable”. Reflecting European Union sentiment, Le Drian said: “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.” The Atlantic alliance will be in difficulty for some time to come.

The greatest loser in all of this is Australia. It has saddled itself with a vast military project of unknown cost and duration and dubious effectiveness. It will contribute to an ever-increasing defence budget that will divert scarce resources from urgent social and economic priorities.

Importantly, it will fan the flames of resentment in China not just amongst the Chinese Communist leadership, as Australian ministers and unthinking commentators would have us believe, but amongst a wide cross-section of Chinese society. China is simply mystified by the vitriol that has become the mantra of Australian officialdom and ill-informed media reporting.

What will this latest foray into the politics of confrontation achieve? Precious little. Will China feel intimidated by AUKUS? Not likely.

Will Xi Jinping or any future Chinese leader abandon the commitment to reunification with Taiwan? Will China refrain from using force should Taiwan declare its independence? Will it be any less assertive in strengthening its presence in the South China Sea? Will it retreat from developing its Belt and Road Initiative into a vast economic and geopolitical Eurasian sphere of influence? Not likely.

AUKUS will not achieve its purpose, and will in the process give rise to new risks. In all likelihood China will feel emboldened by an emerging Cold War to redouble the growth of its conventional and nuclear forces and widen the reach of its navy.

In the meantime, Australia’s diplomatic relations with China will remain frozen, people to people relationships will be severely restricted, and our large Chinese community will feel increasingly marginalised and the subject of suspicion.

Our trade with China, which presently accounts for some 39 per cent of our exports, will continue to experience the threat of disruption, which could easily materialise and gravely affect several of our industries, not least the tourist industry and our educational institutions.

This is not all. Our frantic attempts to develop closer military links with the United States and acquire greater military projection capabilities are bound to unsettle many of our Asian neighbours. They may be encouraged to follow Australia’s example, not so much to contain China as to contain Australia’s military and diplomatic assertiveness.

While they recognise that dealing with a rising China is a challenging task, they are not convinced of the wisdom of Australia’s approach. Indonesia, Malaysia and even South Korea and Vietnam have a strong preference for a much more nuanced set of policies. Attempts by Australian ministers to get their Asian counterparts to engage in China bashing have fallen on deaf ears.

Australia’s security policy is in a mess of its own making. Who or what is to blame? Many critics rightly point the finger at the Morrison government. But what do they mean by this? Do they mean the prime minister, other senior ministers, and their immediate advisers? .

They no doubt play a part. But there is so much more to it than this. When it comes to security issues, current government policies are supported — some would say strongly advocated — by powerful elements in the civil bureaucracy, the armed forces, the intelligence and security agencies, influential media players, thinktanks and an array of other pressure groups, not least the defence industry.

The reach of this assorted coalition of interests cannot be underestimated. It is partly an appreciation of this political reality which helps explain the timidity of the major opposition party. The Labor leadership is simply not prepared to take on the security establishment.

There is no surprise therefore that Labor should have given its fulsome support for the AUKUS partnership. The only significant qualification is that it wants to be at the table of the planning for the nuclear submarine program. In other words, it is intent in opposition and in future government to implement current plans with token changes at the edges.

Those interested in a change of direction need to look elsewhere. Little headway is likely in the absence of an alternative national narrative. To have traction such a narrative must be intellectually coherent and emotionally compelling.

We need a narrative that brings together the domestic and external strands of human security. Above all we need a narrative that resonates with the anxieties and uncertainties of a diverse society that has yet to reconcile its history and geography.

For this we must engage in a wide-ranging, sustained and respectful national conversation, which has already begun. But we have a long way to go.

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