Buying a US nuclear submarine is Australia’s “worst decision” in a century?
On March 13, US President Biden, British Prime Minister Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Albanese jointly announced specific plans for the US-UK-Australia Nuclear-Powered Submarine Cooperation (AUKUS) agreement in San Diego, the most important naval base on the west coast of the United States.
This cooperation, which has been launched for a year and a half, has finally been on the “right track” after going through diplomatic disputes between the United States and France and opposition from neighboring countries: the Australian government will obtain US-made nuclear submarines and some production technologies in the 2030s. The cost is: a long cooperation cycle of more than 20 years, an expenditure of US$268 billion to US$368 billion, and the construction of a base for the US nuclear submarine force to be stationed in Australia for a long time. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said bluntly that this was the country’s “worst decision” in a century.
“There are indeed many problems and risks.” Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, told China News Weekly that Australia’s participation in AUKUS is related to the country’s ambition to develop the defense industry, but the specific advancement of the agreement will face many practical difficulties . However, considering the “sunk costs” of terminating the agreement, the governments of the three countries have to continue. This involves the “vote interests” of politicians and political parties.
For the past 30 years, Thayer has been one of the most influential experts on Asia-Pacific affairs in Australia’s defense and foreign policy circles. He has served in various major military academies and scientific research institutions in Australia, including serving as a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy (AFAD), the largest military academy in Australia, and the dean of the School of Political Science. Thayer was also a Distinguished Visiting Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University and a senior research fellow at U.S. Pacific Command. He has participated in the Shangri-La Dialogue as a representative of Australia many times, and provided consulting services to the governments of many ASEAN countries. Currently, Thayer is still active in the Asia-Pacific policy circle as a columnist for The Diplomat magazine.
On March 16, Thayer accepted an exclusive interview with China News Weekly. Thayer believes that from a long-term strategic point of view, Australia will not and cannot follow suit with the United States, let alone agree to develop partnerships such as AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Mechanism (QUAD) between the United States, Japan, India and Australia (QUAD) into an “Indo-Pacific NATO”.
On March 13, US President Biden, British Prime Minister Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Albanese jointly announced the specific plan of the AUKUS agreement at the San Diego Naval Base. (Image source: U.S. Department of Defense)
“The United States is unwilling to sacrifice itself, and Australia actively contributes”
China News Weekly: For the United States and the United Kingdom, which already have nuclear submarines, the main value of the AUKUS agreement lies in strengthening their strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific region. But why does Australia need AUKUS and nuclear submarines?
Thayer: Australia is a maritime country, extremely dependent on sea lines of communication, and economically and tradely dependent on East Asian and Northeast Asian countries. Mainland China is our largest trading partner, followed by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, etc., and then Southeast Asia. Now, Australia believes that these lines of communication are no longer safe because of regional tensions. This is the internal reason why Australia hopes to improve its national defense capabilities.
For Australia, AUKUS is not just a nuclear-powered submarine, but a decades-long cooperation. Australia hopes to carry out intensive cooperation with the United States in the defense industry, develop key technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum technology, and hypersonic flight, and realize modernization in areas such as guided weapons and underwater platforms. Generally speaking, this is for the comprehensive upgrade of national defense technology.
In addition, the AUKUS agreement also has a huge impact on the Australian defense industry, because it can create about 20,000 job opportunities, especially contributing to the development of South Australia and Western Australia. Any political party wants to win elections in these states, so it’s important to be able to provide jobs to local people. Because of this, AUKUS was originally an initiative of Australia’s previous government but is now endorsed by the new Labor government. Today, advancing AUKUS is a bipartisan consensus in Australia.
China News Weekly: According to Australian media reports, Australia has been seeking nuclear-powered submarine technology for a long time, but the U.S. military and military industry have little interest. is that so? Why has the attitude of the US side changed now?
Thayer: Before the AUKUS agreement was launched, there was a common view in the US defense and military industry circles: the US defense industry did not build nuclear submarines at the speed and efficiency that the military hoped. In this context, the United States cannot provide Australia with submarines at the expense of its own nuclear submarine construction cycle.
But AUKUS offers a new solution: Australian workers are being sent to US shipyards as part of the agreement. In the first cooperation cycle, the United States will deliver three Virginia-class attack nuclear submarines to Australia around 2030, and the Australian workers participating in the construction will acquire nuclear submarine manufacturing skills during this period. To put it simply, it is the Australian government that has funded the expansion of the future submarine production capacity of the United States and Australia, rather than Australia occupying the production resources of the United States.
Of course, if someone like Trump becomes the president of the United States again, the current military-industrial scientific research cooperation between the United States and Australia may face challenges. There have always been voices in the U.S. Congress that the U.S. should restrict Australia’s access to cutting-edge defense technologies, so the upgrade of cooperation in this area still faces challenges.
“If the economy goes down, it’s political baggage”
China News Weekly: As you said, it will take 20 to 30 years for the current AUKUS plan to be fully implemented, and may require new authorization from the US Congress during this period. At the same time, this is the most expensive military industry transaction in Australian history. Can the consensus in Australia to promote AUKUS last for so long?
Thayer: There’s a saying, “In politics, a week is a long time.” The long-term challenges facing AUKUS are many. First, if Trump is re-elected as President of the United States in 2024, or if the United States re-elects an isolationist, “America First” president in the future, the impact will be self-evident. Trump even feels that he can end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours. He will advocate that the United States should not get involved in various regional issues, and that the United States should not devote resources to this.
For Australia, the more certain risk is that just paying for the nuclear submarine project in the AUKUS agreement costs 0.15% of Australia’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) every year. This means that defense spending will have to increase significantly, in fact beyond the “2% of GDP” level promised by the current government. Australia also needs to build supporting facilities for the future berthing of US nuclear submarines.
At present, the Australian government is considering reducing conventional armaments, such as reducing tanks, but the opposition disagrees. Another possibility is to cut public welfare spending, affecting health care and pension subsidies. None of this is a problem if the global economy does well and Australia continues to prosper. But if the economy goes down, this will become a political liability, also known as the “butt pocket” problem: the back pocket of the pants is where people put their wallets. When voters are forced to take out their wallets, excessive defense construction spending is likely to cause The public objected.
In addition, there is such a worry in Australia: Will strengthening the alliance with the United States involve Australia in the United States’ foreign wars? When the United States invaded Iraq, opinion polls in Australia showed that the people believed that the biggest threat to Australia was the United States, because the United States had plunged Australia into a war as far away as the Middle East. Today, the public opinion in Australia is “reversed”. In political elections, it is not normal to have excessive worries and attacks on China. This will not change in the future.
Although we have analyzed many challenges and risks, I cannot help but say: Once AUKUS starts, it will be persisted to the end, because its sunk costs involve the deep interests of Australia and the United States. We just mentioned that AUKUS can bring 20,000 job opportunities to southern and western Australia. But on the other hand, if the cooperation is terminated, it means that they will lose their jobs. This is also a political risk that political parties cannot afford.
“Australia will not jump out and follow the United States”
China News Weekly: India has introduced nuclear submarines through lease and purchase, and now Australia will also acquire nuclear submarines. Will this lead to a new round of arms race in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region? At the beginning of the last century, there was an arms race among Latin American countries to purchase battleships, but in fact no country in the region had the need to equip them. Will this be repeated in the Asia-Pacific region?
Thayer: Don’t you think the arms race has started? It’s a security dilemma that makes Australia uneasy. We have also seen that Japan’s defense budget has doubled. However, I imagine there will be limits to this arms race.
We have just discussed the economic cost of having a nuclear submarine, which is high for Australia. It can be said that, except for countries that have or plan to have nuclear submarines, no other country in the region can afford the cost of purchasing, leasing and operating nuclear submarines. As for establishing its own military industry, even in Australia, the construction of the military industry faces a key issue: sustainability. You acquire advanced manufacturing technology and build a production line, but can you maintain orders?
Now that there is no arms race, how do we alleviate the security dilemma? The problem now is that countries in the Indo-Pacific region have stopped many regular military dialogues and high-level military dialogues. We need to conduct more bilateral and multilateral security contacts, and try to avoid misjudgment of each other’s military operations and military-industrial plans.
Look at New Zealand, New Zealand has had a long-standing “nuclear denial” policy since the 1980s. Now they are telling Australia: If Australia equips nuclear-powered submarines, these submarines will not be welcomed in New Zealand and cannot enter New Zealand territorial waters.
China News Weekly: Some analysts pointed out that AUKUS may lead to an upgrade of the US-Australia mutual defense treaty, even exceeding the needs of Australia’s national interests. Some believe that the United States will promote “comprehensive deterrence” to Australia, prompting Australia to take more and broader hostile actions against China, not only in the military, but also in various fields such as economics and politics. How do you feel about these views?
Thayer: This is a very important question. I want to start with “interchangeability”. Now the US and Australian military are committed to promoting interchangeability, which means that our military system and command system can be quickly converted and seamlessly connected. This will facilitate the implementation of the AUKUS agreement. According to the current cooperation agreement, Australian military officers are at a very high level in the decision-making of the US military.
But differences also arose. During the Iraq war, some high-ranking Australian military officers had disagreements with their American colleagues. The US military wanted to bomb a certain target, and Australians thought it was an attack on civilians. In response to some tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, we advocate that we first assess every potential risk event by ourselves, instead of jumping out and following the United States. Australia must have its own way of independence.
So, I think the parts of the US-Australia defense cooperation that may be upgraded are only specific bases, troop rotation agreements, and limited technical cooperation. Fundamentally, I don’t think the common defense between the US and Australia will go towards “Indo-Pacific NATO”, that is, “an attack on one country is an attack on all allies”. I don’t think the United States will do this, and Australia will not agree to it. Australia will not support “preemptive strikes” militarily.
“China-Australia relations can ‘cross the river by feeling the stones'”
China News Weekly: At the ceremony on March 13, Australian Prime Minister Albanese did not directly mention China, showing a slightly different attitude from Biden and Sunak. Previously, he also expressed his position on repairing relations with China. However, in the next few decades, Sino-Australian relations will face the problem of AUKUS. In this context, how will the Australian government reshape its China policy? Will Australia’s “position” between China and the United States be closer to the “British model” or the “German-French model”?
Thayer: China-Australia relations are in the process of difficult recovery. Australia needs Chinese tourists and hopes to maintain closer social exchanges with China. Australian companies hope to return or enter the Chinese market. As you said, we have started some ministerial meetings. Prime Minister Albanese said that if he was invited to visit China, he would accept the invitation. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said “cross the river by feeling for the stones”, and we can also explore now.
I don’t think an alliance with the US will prevent Australia and China from developing a healthy partnership. Australia has always maintained an independent foreign policy. In 1972, the US military tried to force the then North Vietnam into a peace agreement by bombing Hanoi. The Australian government strongly opposed the US action. The same goes for the war in Iraq that we just mentioned. Australia also does not support the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
Now Australia’s overall diplomatic strategy is: We consider ourselves a middle power, and we must have a stronger ability to influence big countries. So sometimes we act tougher than before. Of course, having said that, we were deeply disturbed by the various decisions of the Trump administration, but we cannot but cooperate with the United States. This is also reality.
Another reality is that Australia has its own election cycle, with increased polarization between Conservatives and Liberals. Attacking China for domestic, party political gain is outrageous in an election campaign, and it has seriously hurt the Chinese community in Australia. This is something we ourselves have to change.
But at this point, Australian society still has its bottom line. During the Trump administration, US Secretary of State Pompeo actually launched an ideological campaign against China, which Australians think is excessive. The consensus in Canberra’s policy circles is this: If you try to engage in dialogue by telling your opponents “I’m going to change your regime”, you get nothing.
Generally speaking, I can’t give you a definite answer, but I think the issues of China-Australia relations are all specific issues. Since the normalization of relations in 1972, there has been nothing that cannot be understood between China and Australia. Now we have economic and trade issues and security concerns, which must be resolved. If it cannot be resolved for the time being, we can accept this situation until a more suitable solution is proposed or more strategic mutual trust is accumulated. Australia is still an independent country, and I remain optimistic about China-Australia relations. In the next 5 or 10 years, our relationship should be better than before.
Source: Sina News