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AUKUS: What's All the Fuss About?

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

By Allan Gyngell

Remarks for panel discussion, Diplosphere, Wellington, 1 November, 2021

On the morning of 15 September I switched on the radio in Canberra to hear, to my surprise, the Australian Prime Minister, British Prime Minister and the American president announcing a new security agreement called AUKUS. The echo with ANZUS was obvious.

The new agreement, Scott Morrison said, would enable Australia to purchase and build eight new nuclear-powered submarines, of either British or American design.

The early commentary on the agreement was effusive, suggesting that this was a new alliance, a ‘forever partnership’, or as one excited observer declared, a ‘major shifting of the tectonic plates’.

Each of the three countries had reason to support the deal. Boris Johnson saw it as a way of demonstrating continuing international relevance for global Britain in the aftermath of Brexit; for the Biden administration it was a chance to show after the chaos of the withdrawal from Afghanistan that it was serious about refocusing on the Indo Pacific and for Scott Morrison it was, in part, a means of dumping a problematic multibillion-dollar, multi-decade agreement to build French diesel-powered submarines in Adelaide.

The political leaders carefully avoided using the word China, but it was clear that the major geopolitical objective of the agreement was to strengthen the regional balance of power against any effort by Beijing to change it.

With the passage of time, however, the situation has taken on new complexity and uncertainty.

In the first place, it became clear that AUKUS isn’t any sort of alliance or mutual defence pact. Australia still has only two formal allies – the United States and New Zealand.

The agreement’s origin seems to lie in discussions between Australian and British officials last year, although it is not clear which side initiated them. The United States had to be brought in later because it controls the nuclear technology that drives the British Astute class submarines as well as the larger American Virginia class.

So the core of AUKUS lies in a tripartite information and technology sharing agreement between Australia, the UK and the US. That agreement in turn is the foundation for a highly detailed 18 month-long study to enable Australia to decide whether it can purchase and operate the boats.

The difficulties and impediments that must be cleared away before the project can proceed are also coming into clearer focus. These include compliance with international and domestic law and regulations; the impact on nuclear non-proliferation norms; the many problems of construction and workforce planning for a country that has no nuclear industry; and how Australian defence planning can cover the long period until the first is built, no earlier than 2040.

Once this study is done, Australia would have to negotiate the largest purchase in the history of the Federation – $100 billion.

That in turn leads to another set of questions:

  • How relevant will nuclear submarines be to Australia’s defence over time? For that money you want your defence platforms still to be delivering in 50 years. But that’s the time between the end of the First World War and the Vietnam war, and we know what fundamental shifts there were in Australia’s strategic challenges over that period.

  • What other technologies are there which might be worth investing in more?

  • What constraints will the purchase of nuclear submarines impose on Australian sovereignty? American defence officials and journalists are already talking quite openly about this decision augmenting American capabilities. It will, in the words of one commentator from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute at the weekend “bind Australia, the US and the UK decisively for generations”.

It is also becoming clear that the Australian government misjudged and mishandled the diplomacy around the purchase.

We simultaneously appear to have angered and upset the French, the Americans, the Chinese, our Southeast Asian neighbours, and our New Zealand friends.

The French response was probably inevitable, but I can’t recall anything in Australia’s recent diplomatic history quite as blunt as the response from Emmanuel Macron to the question of whether he thought Mr Morrison had lied to him about Australian intentions. “I don’t think, I know”.

This is a real political and strategic loss for Australia. Of all the European powers, including the UK, France offered Australia the most useful potential for expanding outside links with the Indo Pacific. One good example was the now-cancelled ministerial talks between Australia, France and India.

Australia’s Southeast Asian neighbours were also kept in the dark. It has been suggested that over time they will see benefits in Australia having nuclear submarines. But there is no doubt that the introduction of this capability into the region will cause uncertainty and unease. And, after all the efforts Australia has made over the years to build solidarity with the countries of Southeast Asia, the message AUKUS sent was that Australia’s heart lies in the Anglosphere.

If you gave an Australian policymaker a blank sheet of paper and asked them to design an international system perfectly suited to Australia’s interests, they would come up with something that looks very much like the world we knew between the end of the Cold War and the global financial crisis. One in which Australia had a close alliance with the world’s most powerful country, the United States, and a deep, mutually advantageous, economic relationship with the fastest growing economy.

Those times are over. Australia’s job has got much harder. I don’t see AUKUS providing much of an answer.

Allan Gyngell is the National President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and former Founding Executive Director of the Lowy Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance.

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