Australian submarines operating in the South China Sea is a very provocative and very bad idea.

Oct 22, 2020

In responding to my post (19 October) about the Morrison government’s plan to spend at least $90 billion on large submarines, Jon Stanford’s post (21 October ) argues that we should do what the Commander of the US Submarine Force wants with our submarines.

This is a very bad idea. The unnamed Commander says his submarine force operates in an offensive role “up threat” to hold China’s strategic assets at risk, starting with its homeland and its ballistic missile submarines. Stanford supports Australia’s submarines working together with their American counterparts in the congested waters of the South China Sea, the area designated as ‘’up threat”.

Australia’s latest Defence Strategic Update does not describe China as a military threat. As a comment on Stanford’s post points out, the Update says the prospect of a high intensity military conflict is remote. But the US commander’s “offensive role” in the South China Sea certainly contemplates such a conflict.

The “up threat” description is reminiscent of Australia’s previous doctrine of “forward defence”. Australian policy makers saw the British navy at Singapore as providing “forward defence”. It didn’t. Participation in the Vietnam war was supposed deliver forward defence against what the Prime Minister Bob Menzies described in 1965 as the “downward thrust” of communism from China and its “puppet” North Vietnam. Without any help from China, the Communist Party of Vietnam won the war but didn’t turn out to be the enemy after all.

In 1969, the Coalition government ditched the doctrine of forward defence. The Defence Minister Allen Fairhall told Parliament in August 1969 that the prospective communist victory posed no threat to the nation, allowing him to use the “breathing space” to cut the defence budget by 5 percent, even though Australia still had several thousand troops in Vietnam.

The forward defence doctrine is now back in an extremely dangerous form in which Australian submarines work together with America’s in close proximity to the Chinese mainland. They are also close to China’s submarines and surface ships – so close that an accidental clash could easily escalate into a major war, including a nuclear war.

Stanford wants Australia get its own nuclear submarines to better help the US in the South China Sea. He even implies that Australia’s expensive nuclear subs should remain “up threat” if the Americans left. This would leave Australia’s submarines highly vulnerable. It would also be seriously provocative and guarantee that China treated Australia as an enemy.

Australian submarines could have a useful role closer to home by increasing the cost for any country wanting to attack Australia by sea. I suggested in my post getting some relatively low cost, high-quality, German submarines similar to those being acquired by Singapore.

But submarines have their limitations, which is why it’s not a good idea to waste staggering sums on them. Submarines didn’t have a crucial role a key role in any of the wars Australia has been involved in since 1950, starting with the horrors of the Korean war through to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent study by Brown University called “The cost of wars” estimates that those involving America since the September 11, 2001 have displaced 37 million people from their homes, caused terrible suffering and created huge refugee problems in the Middle East and Europe.

But John Howard saw participation in the Afghani and Iraqi wars as simply the price of gaining American help if Australia came under attack. Never mind that the Anzus treaty makes crystal clear it provides no security guarantee – unlike the NATO treaty. Scott Morrison should follow Allen Fairhall’s 1969 example and understand that China need not be a threat any more than Vietnam was.

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