This week’s nuclear submarine deal between the United States and Australia threatens to become divisive in Australia, where some critics already are saying it risks Australian security rather than enhances it in the face of China’s militarization of the South China Sea.
Under the deal, the U.S. will help Australia build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines during the next 20 years to replace its current fleet of six diesel-powered subs.
This is the first time since 1958 that the United States has shared its nuclear submarine technology, having only ever previously shared it with the United Kingdom. The deal is the highlight of a surprise trilateral security partnership, called AUKUS, announced among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States by the three countries’ leaders Thursday.
Dubbed a “forever partnership” by Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the pact comes amid high tensions between Australia and China, and on the heels of Washington’s exit from what has been dubbed its “forever war” in Afghanistan.
The irony has been impossible to ignore for critics of Canberra’s increasingly hawkish posture toward China.
One of those critics is former Labor Party prime minister Paul Keating, a strident critic of confrontation with China who has long advocated Australian engagement with Asia ahead of its traditional Anglo-Saxon Western allies and who scorns Canberra’s reliance on the United States for support.
“Australia has had great difficulty in running a bunch of locally built conventional submarines. Imagine the difficulty in moving to sophisticated nuclear submarines, their maintenance and operational complexity. And all this at a time when U.S. reliability and resolution around its strategic commitments and military engagements are under question,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Sydney Morning Herald after the deal was announced.
Some security analysts advocate less, not more, reliance on U.S. military support, and caution against interpreting the U.S. pivot away from its Afghan campaign as part of a long-awaited pivot toward the Indo-Pacific, first promised by former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2011.
“What Australia, and other U.S. friends and allies in Asia, need to consider is whether it is possible that the U.S. will make a similar judgment about their presence in this region over the long term as well,” Sam Roggeveen, who heads the international security program at the Lowy Institute, told VOA in an interview.
“This deal signals that Australia is gambling that, over the decades-long lifespan of these submarines, the United States will remain committed to its defense and to maintaining a regional presence in the face of the largest economic and strategic challenge in American history,” Roggeveen wrote separately in the think tank’s Interpreter magazine Friday.
Calling the deal “momentous,” he warned that its scale “will create expectations from Washington.”
“Australia cannot have this capability while assuming that it does not come with heightened expectations that Australia will take America’s side in any dispute with China,” he wrote.
China has imposed several trade sanctions on Australia in recent years, furious at Canberra’s moves to curb foreign direct investment, its rejection of telecommunications giant Huawei, its charges of domestic political interference by Chinese agents, and its support for an inquiry into COVID-19’s origins in Wuhan.
Strategy experts caution that increased defense dependency on the United States could cost Australia more than the price of eight long-distance stealth submarines.
“It cuts both ways,” East Asia expert Richard McGregor, a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview.
“As a U.S. ally, if the U.S. is confronting China, we’re on one side of that. The South China Sea is where that’s going to be played out. We’ll be caught out, and we’ll always be on the wrong side, according to China,” McGregor, also a senior associate the Lowy Institute, told VOA.
“If under [U.S. President Joe] Biden, as is pretty clear, America now values alliances, that means they also expect us to do more. So if the U.S. is focused on China, they might want more troops here. They might want to put missiles on our soil. More might be demanded of us. That comes at the cost of relations with China.”
“We’ve crossed the Rubicon now. The U.S.-China deep confrontation is a permanent condition of regional global politics. That’s not going to be unwound for many years,” he added.
On the other side of the ledger, the nuclear sub deal may temper anxieties in Australia over weaknesses in the ANZUS treaty, a 1951 security pact among the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The wording of Article IV -- "Each Party ... declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes" -- is considered weak in terms of a security commitment as it does not guarantee military support in response to an attack.
Former leader Tony Abbott, prime minister from 2013 to 2015, extolled the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines as sending a necessary signal “that we are a serious country and a force to be reckoned with.”
“Given that China is well into what’s probably the biggest military build-up in history, time is not on our side,” he wrote in The Australian newspaper.
The deal, he wrote, “will give Australia vastly more strength to resist aggression and vastly more sovereign capacity to stare down even a superpower if needs be.”
Michael Shoebridge, director of defense, strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has said he believes the deal makes Australia safer.
The nuclear-powered submarines will give Australia "a powerful deterrent and strike weapon, adding offensive military power that any potential adversary must factor in to any decision to engage in conflict," he told VOA.
"The primary advantage [of the deal] is as an increase in ally and partner capability to deter [President] Xi[ Jinping]'s China from using force against others in the region, and continuing on the path he is taking China of the growing use of intimidation and coercion to dictate the choices that other nations make," Shoebridge said.
"Being able to raise the costs to [Xi] of conflict is a way of preserving peace in the Indo-Pacific. Australia has always sought to be an active contributor to regional security, working closely with partners and allies who share interests, and the AUKUS alliance empowers us to do so more effectively. It will accelerate other partnerships and groupings like the Quad and the Aus-Japan-U.S. trilateral and reassure other regional nations that do not want to have their choices dictated by Beijing."
The nuclear submarines won’t be ready until the end of next decade, with some projections putting their delivery as late as 2040. China already has six of its own nuclear-powered subs, according to a U.S. Defense Department report last year.
In the meantime, under the trilateral pact Australia will also acquire a suite of long-range missiles including U.S. Tomahawk missiles, and unmanned underwater vehicles.
“It is impossible to read this as anything other than a response to China’s rise, and a significant escalation of American commitment to that challenge,” Roggeveen said.