Ben Wellings and Richard Hayton analyse the AUKUS defence pact from an Australian perspective and the announcement that the UK and the US will provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
To use a nautical metaphor, there is no denying that there is wind in the sails of the Australia-UK relationship. The bilateral relationship is clipping along in a way that has not been seen since the UK joined the EEC. Much of this momentum rests on policy transfer (‘Stop the Boats’ being the most egregious example) and the atmospherics of the relationship, something that is often noted but hard to quantify.
Good vibes don’t necessarily make good policy, though. Quite how the AUKUS deal came about remains obscure, but a question persists: is this in Australia’s interest?
The most obvious immediate effect of AUKUS was the rapid deterioration in Australia’s relations with France. Franco-US relations were also collateral damage in the AUKUS move. Whatever people might think about France’s ongoing colonial presence in the Pacific, from a strategic point of view it is a far more significant power in the Indo-Pacific region than the UK.
China (predictably) denounced AUKUS, but concerns were also expressed by other regional neighbours in south-east Asia and the south-west Pacific. Despite enhanced relations with the UK and the US, and improving relations with France, the overall diplomatic ledger is thus far in the red. Malcom Turnbull, Prime Minister from 2015-18, has described it as a largely symbolic ‘own goal’.
Nonetheless, Australians awoke on Tuesday to the official announcement of what had already been fed to the media: US and British nuclear-powered submarines will rotate through Australian ports from this year; Australia will buy up to five US Virginia class submarines from 2033; domestic production of so-called SSN-AUKUS submarines, based on US and UK technology, will begin in 2042.
In this light, analysts and strategists are asking whether putting important technology development in the hands of other powers (however friendly) effectively means that Australia’s sovereign capabilities are severely diminished, the existing ANZUS treaty notwithstanding. More importantly, AUKUS does not answer a fundamental question about Australia security: where should Australia start the defence of its shores?
As Alan Gyngell has argued, Australian foreign policy and strategy can be understood as motivated by a ‘fear of abandonment’. This has led to the courting of ‘great and powerful friends’, notably the UK and the USA. At times this has led Australians to fight what are sometimes referred to as ‘other people’s wars’ given Australia’s geographic distance from its great power allies – and enemies.
Consequently, over the past 110 years, Australia has been engaged in wars in western Europe, the Middle East, and south-east Asia. But the challenge that AUKUS is supposed to address (China) might emerge closer to home in the south-west Pacific theatre. In this sense, some have asked whether Australia needs nuclear powered submarines that can operate far from its borders, or non-nuclear submarines that might be more effective closer to Australian shores?
When announced in 2021, AUKUS raised eyebrows in diplomatic and policy-making circles. However, the public debate about introducing this sort of nuclear technology into Australia and the region, with all its implications for Australian society, has barely begun.
The idea was announced by the previous Australian government, a centre-right coalition, led by Scott Morrison. The opposition (now in government) was given twenty-four hours’ notice of the announcement, but went along with it, despite the suspicion that domestic politics were at play ahead of a federal election. Although quiet on the topic thus far, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) is divided on the issue of nuclear technology. Any opposition to AUKUS on those grounds could be portrayed as being ‘weak on China’, although this tactic failed to produce results in the 2022 federal election.
Despite being offered AUKUS as a fait accompli, the ALP government has made a good go of it so far. The new Australian government has modified Australia’s language and style of engagement with China so that bilateral meetings are taking place once again. But this isn’t the same as being ‘soft on China’.
Anthony Albanese’s visit to San Diego for the AUKUS announcement was preceded by an official visit to India to cement defence and security cooperation with Asia’s other emerging superpower, as part of a broader security cooperation with Japan and the US via the Quad. Whilst the Quad remains more of a potential than a realised benefit, the visit further situates Australia as one of the region’s major strategic players seeking to contain China.
Beyond party politics, the introduction of nuclear technology will have far-reaching consequences for Australia and its civil society. Like other parts of the developed world, Australia is experiencing a cost-of-living crisis. Whilst major policy announcements on the international stage can make leaders look ‘statesmanlike’, they may have limited traction amongst the majority of the community that doesn’t engage much with international relations.
Accordingly, the Australian government has linked the AUKUS announcement to job creation in order to garner initial domestic support. This is important, but AUKUS is more than just a good news story for employment in Adelaide. The fear is that AUKUS diminishes Australia’s sovereignty whilst Sino-US tensions mount.
Linking Australia’s security so closely with the US is an evolution of existing security relations. Yet there remains what we might call ‘Anglo-scepticism’ towards the idea of ‘Global Britain’ and the post-Brexit ‘East of Suez’ reinvention. Our (as-yet-unpublished) research suggests that collective memory of the ‘betrayal’ at Singapore in 1942 – when the British Empire surrendered the colony and many Australians lost their lives or were taken as Prisoners of War – is never far from the surface within the ALP and its fellow travellers. Linking Australian security so closely with the UK looks like a case of the proverbial ‘déjà vu all over again’.