The Real Risks of Australia's Submarine Deal
The new AUKUS agreement does not mean, as some Australian commentators have asserted, that the country has now finally “taken sides” against China. Australia's primary security relationship is with the US, and its primary economic relationship is with China – and there is no reason to change that now.
MELBOURNE – Some world-class hyperbole has been generated by Australia’s new AUKUS technology-sharing agreement with the United States and the United Kingdom. Our proposed acquisition, in particular, of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, voiding in the process a massive deal with France to build 12 conventionally propelled diesel submarines, has fueled an uproar at home and abroad.
For some in the anti-nuclear movement, the AUKUS agreement poses the biggest threat to nuclear non-proliferation since North Korea’s breakout. For Australia’s Greens, “floating Chernobyls” are about to blow up our port cities. For anti-China hawks, it’s champagne time: AUKUS represents a “vital bulwark against an angry and authoritarian communist China.” For China’s foreign ministry, it “seriously damages regional peace and stability, intensifies the arms race, and undermines the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” and, for China’s media wolf warriors, it makes Australia “a potential nuclear war target.” For France, which withdrew its ambassadors from the US and Australia, it’s another brutal “stab in the back” from perfidious Albion and the Anglosphere. And for Australia – in the words of two former prime ministers, no less, which should certainly concentrate our minds – it may mean a “further dramatic loss of sovereignty” to the US and “a slippery slope” that ends in “a pre-commitment to becoming an active belligerent against China in a future war.”
It is time to take a breath and focus on what is perfectly defensible about the AUKUS agreement, what is problematic, and what demands further clarification before it can be accepted. There are both technical and political risk issues involved, and it is important to keep them disentangled.