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Strong opposition voiced over submarine program

By KARL WILSON in Sydney | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-05-29 09:53

FILE PHOTO: People sit on a waterfront ledge looking toward the Sydney city centre skyline and Opera House in Sydney, Australia, May 26, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

100 academics call on Australian PM to rethink plan as it may compound nation's strategic risks

Many Australians continue to be puzzled by why their country is embarking on its most expensive military program, forecast to cost $368 billion.

A lot has been said and written about the government's decision to go ahead with developing a nuclear submarine program in a country that has no background in building, maintaining or even crewing nuclear submarines.

Australia has difficulty crewing its small fleet of six aging diesel electric Collins class submarines.

It is all part of the AUKUS strategic partnership comprising Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States and agreed to by former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in 2021.

Under the program Australia will eventually get eight nuclear powered submarines, the details of which are sketchy at best.

Australia's mainstream media, which has largely promoted an alleged China threat, has been quick to accept the line from military and security agencies that Australia faces increasing security risks, and that this makes the program vitally important for Australia's security.

The perceived risk being China is without any evidence, except that it is expanding its military capability and spending more, which should be otherwise deemed normal because of its expanding trade routes.

The US spent $877 billion on defense last year, more than the next 10 countries, including China, combined, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden said. In addition, the Australian media has all but ignored Japan raising its military budget more than 26 percent this year over last year, compared with China's rise of 7.2 percent.

For many Australians facing a rising cost of living and unaffordable rents, this massive outlay for eight submarines makes no sense economically, politically or even geopolitically.

It is against this background that more than 100 Australian academics wrote an open letter to the current Labor Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, calling on the government to rethink the entire nuclear submarine plan. The letter was published in The Guardian on Wednesday.

Apart from the expense, the project has not been adequately explained to the Australian people, and it is likely to "compound Australia's strategic risks, heighten political tensions and undermine efforts at nuclear nonproliferation", they said.

Multiple downsides

The program also puts Australia at odds with its neighbors, distracts the country from tackling climate change and increases the risk of nuclear war in the region, they said.

One of the signatories to the letter is David Goodman, professor and director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

"I added my name to the letter because I don't see what useful purpose this project has for Australia, its security or regional security for that matter," Goodman said. "The whole thing makes no sense whatsoever."

The project was done in secret, he said.

"Nothing was discussed in public. Apart from that I doubt we will ever see this project get off the ground. All you need is a change in government in the United States, and that administration may not want us (despite being a close ally) to have the technology."

The media (in Australia) is pushing "very hard" for the project, he said.

"But why? If you look at the numbers they just don't add up."

China's defense spending (about 1.2 percent of GDP) is nothing compared with what the US spent last year (4 percent), Goodman said.

"The whole thing is a joke."

The open letter, which has now been circulated throughout Australia, says AUKUS will come at a huge financial cost to Australians, and there is no guarantee of its success.

"Australia's defense autonomy will only be further eroded because of AUKUS. All of this will be done to support the primacy of an ally whose position in Asia is more fragile than commonly assumed, and whose domestic politics is increasingly unstable."

The letter quotes Peter Varghese, former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as saying: "AUKUS is too momentous a decision to be left to the 'echo chamber' of classified discussions. It demands a yet to be had 'proper and forensic public discussion about other options and their underlying rationale'."

In an address to the National Press Club in Canberra in March, the former Australian prime minister Paul Keating said: "The Albanese government's complicity in joining with Britain and the United States in a tripartite build of a nuclear submarine for Australia under the AUKUS arrangements represents the worst international decision by an Australian Labor government since the former Labor leader Billy Hughes sought to introduce conscription to augment Australian forces in World War I."

Signing Australia up to "the foreign proclivities of another country — the United States, with the gormless Brits in their desperate search for relevance, lunging along behind — is not a pretty sight", he said.

Jane Golley, professor and economist at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra, and a China specialist, also signed the letter.

"I'm not a security or defense expert," she said. "But I listen to experts such as Hugh White."

White, an emeritus professor at the ANU, is one of Australia's leading experts on defense and security and has been an outspoken critic of AUKUS.

"It is incredibly expensive and unlikely to deliver the defense benefits that its proponents claim," Golley said.

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