Marles… At least get the spin on the subs right!

Mar 22, 2023
Honolulu, United States Of America. 01st Oct, 2022. Honolulu, United States of America. 01 October, 2022. Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles, right, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, pose on the deck of the Virginia-class submarine USS Mississippi at Naval Station Pearl Harbor, October 1, 2022 in Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii. Credit: Chad J. McNeeley/DOD/Alamy Live News

As the Government seeks to respond to an increasing number of questions about what it extolls as the game-changing decision to purchase nuclear powered submarines (SSN’s) it has been tweaking the spin about the reasons it has taken for this budget shaking decision.

Our two AUKUS partners – the US (and even the British) – have few qualms about acknowledging their reason for our acquisition of SSN’s being essentially to combat China’s growing assertiveness. It is amply evidenced by the importance both countries attach to the significant increase in rotating their SSN’s visiting Australia in the next ten years or so. Before we even have an Australian flagged SSN in our fleet – and then for another lengthy period before we have more than a couple of SSN’s on station at any one time – especially given the high maintenance demand these vessels have had in their previous service with the US Navy – as highlighted by the US Congress and GAO.

Unlike their AUKUS partners, Prime Minister Albanese and Foreign Minister Wong recently have been making careful and constructive attempts to reopen dialogue with Beijing as a step to “stabilising” our trading relationship with China which was so badly damaged by the previous government starting with the provocative comments about the source of Covid 19. Just how Beijing will respond to the submarine deal beyond its quick public criticism has yet to be revealed. So balancing the submarine deal against efforts at normalising the bilateral relationship with China presents the government with a major challenge. Beyond even “will it be a deterrent or a provocation to China ?”.

In his conversation on Insiders on Sunday, Defence Minister Marles attempted to recast the spin to presenting the reason for the SSN’s being the protection of the sea lanes carrying our vital trade. But in so doing he made some sloppy assertions which need to be corrected. He claimed first that “most” of our trade was routed through the South China Sea (SCS)and later that “all” of our trade with Japan and Korea passed this way. The first claim is certainly open to question but in any event the vast bulk of Australian trade using the South China Sea is with China which, of course, will have a key interest in protecting it!

Further, shipping reports show that cargo (of which coal is the largest volume) from all the east coast Australian ports to Japan travel east of PNG and the Philippines – not going anywhere near the SCS. Coal to Korea and Taiwan travels a broadly similar route or another just west of Irian Jaya and then to the east of the Philippines. As also do shipments to Chinese ports from Shanghai northwards. All in all a quite significant volume of our trade.

Incidentally, one practical way to fortify the supposed Holy Grail of “the rules based international order” would be to point out to our American partners the hypocrisy of their failure to join substantial international organisations or groupings like UNCLOS and the ICJ which they (and we) seek to invoke against Chinese activity in the SCS.

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