Oi …wanna buy a cheap nuclear sub… special deal for our mates?

By Malcolm Reid

4 October 2021

Australia’s decision to join with the UK and US to acquire long range nuclear submarines under the so-called AUKUS alliance has been met with little obvious public reaction so far. That’s understandable in some ways as there is no formal contract signed - just an understanding to begin planning a delivery process with nothing likely to be in place until 2040 at the earliest. Most Australians are more concerned with getting over COVID or worrying about housing prices and climate change to take much notice yet. Nevertheless, the deal is coming under increasing higher level scrutiny.

Leaving aside the issue of the blank cheque issued by Prime Minister Morrison, the deal has raised some profound longer term strategic and environmental questions which go to the heart of Australia’s role as an independent country in the Asia-Pacific region.

As Professor Hugh White, ANU Professor of Strategic Studies, former Deputy Secretary of Defence and an eminent figure in strategic policy puts it “The old plan was to build a conventionally powered version of a nuclear-powered French submarine. It was crazy…The new plan—to buy a nuclear-powered submarine instead—is worse”.

Firstly, although the government denies it, there is not much doubt that this is a trojan horse for a domestic nuclear industry and maybe even nuclear weapons. Given that Australia will be completely at the mercy of an increasingly unreliable US and UK nuclear submarine industry supply chain, the pressure for domestic capacity will likely increase. Even the hardly radical Australian Strategic Policy Institute, (ASPI), has pointed out “it is misleading to say we won’t have a nuclear industry”.[1] With an emerging domestic nuclear lobby and slowly growing public interest as well as pressure to shutdown coal by 2050, a nuclear alternative may be very attractive by 2040.

This leads to the next question and one that concerns some…although not all… of our regional neighbours especially Indonesia and Malaysia, and that is the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—although some, such as the Philippines and Japan, have even welcomed the deal. What is surprising so far given the long-cherished goal of a Nuclear Free Pacific is the muted response of New Zealand’s Jacinta Ardern.  She may be just keeping her head down but if she did voice concerns it would most likely encourage Pacific nations and civil society groups to make a stand against AUKUS.

Of course, the Australian Government is saying that it has no intention to break its nuclear non-proliferation obligations and maybe there is no intention at this stage, but the pressure to become a full partner in the US and UK nuclear strategy can only increase. It’s also worth noting that Australia has opposed the UN Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons. This is a complete turnaround from the relatively activist periods of the 1980s and 1990s, when Australia was considered to be a leading advocate to halt and reverse the spread of nuclear weapons—most notably through the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons—and the more recent anti-nuclear weapons diplomacy of the 2007 -13 Labor Government. The progressive Australia Institute is in no doubt that “China will view Australia’s decision as a willful contribution to an existential nuclear threat to China”. This can only increase the likelihood of a new regional nuclear arms race.

In terms of China itself, the deal is obviously an element of the doomed to fail containment of China policy, which increasingly looks like an Anglo post imperialist club. One doesn’t have to be a China apologist to suggest that Beijing will not accept being put back in its 19th century colonial place. The reality is that Australia will always choose the US as its key ally and this deal is about keeping the US engaged in the Asia Pacific given the rise of the ‘America first’ approach over recent years. The challenge is to find a balanced restraint on China’s ambitions from within the Asia Pacific region and Australia would be better placed to be a part of that nuanced approach. However, the nuclear subs and the louder beating of the drums of war brigade pose the real threat to regional security.

The other question is why choose the AUKUS nuclear option causing a rupture with France when the French consortium could have been given the option to re-tender for nuclear subs? While it is hard to feel sorry for the French military complex, France’s less than enthusiastic support for the China containment dogma may have been an influential factor. A hangover no doubt from the George W Bush days of abusing French backsliders over Iraq. Interestingly, former PM Kevin Rudd claimed that when Labor started the sub replacement process in 2009 they were advised by the military that nuclear subs were not the best technical option for Australia. That advice has now conveniently changed.

The last and crucial point is that Morrison is at heart a domestic-centric politician, and this is foreign policy via a domestic prism. It’s an attempt to distract from various domestic problems, including vaccine rollouts, systemic violence against women and climate change denial, via the classic hairy chested response to a supposed imminent threat and thereby wedging Labor. This didn’t work because Labor’s ‘small target’ policy (of saying nothing very radical as an alternative to the status quo so as not to scare the horses) meant they basically fell into line. They have since toughened up a bit and started to ask about costs, transparency, practicality of delivery mechanisms etc. Along with others such as ASPI, Labor Foreign Affairs spokesperson Penny Wong has also been pushing harder on the issue, focusing on the loss of sovereign control of Australia’s military assets and foreign policy to its ‘big brother’ allies - a long tradition in Australian foreign policy.

The Australian Greens have taken up the running on the environmental consequences of a nuclear disaster as well as the prospect of a nuclear armed Australia, but at this stage the polls have barely moved. This may change however when more people realise that we are facing a dangerous nuclear armed region. The choice so succinctly put in the still relevant CND campaign line is Nuclear Free World or Nuclear Free for All?

Malcolm Reid was National Campaigns Officer with UK CND during the 1990s but has lived in Australia since then. He worked in media and campaigns for Amnesty International Australia and Oxfam Australia until the early 2000s, and he is currently active on several local environmental projects and bike riding advocacy in his home state of Tasmania. But has time for lots of swimming, coffee/wine drinking and bike riding.

[1] Marcus Hellyer, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 'Nuclear Subs need watertight case', The Age 30/09/21, p.19.