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AUKUS: Hastily concocted, ill-thought, now falling over

By John Queripel | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2024-04-17 16:50

People are silhouetted against the Sydney Opera House at sunset in Australia. [Photo/Agencies]

In September 2021, facing electoral defeat, the then Australian government, led by Scott Morrison, resorted to what is often successful around the world - a national security scare campaign directed against China, its centerpiece being a hastily concocted, ill-thought out AUKUS agreement with the United States and the United Kingdom.

Lambasted at the time as an Anglo, white man’s club, hearkening back to times past, and is now on the verge of falling over. Australia will be its main victim.

Per the agreement Australia is supposed to ultimately acquire eight nuclear propelled Astute class submarines around 2050. These AUKUS submarines will be constructed in partnership with the UK.

The current Australian submarine fleet consists of an ageing class of Collins submarines, due for retirement. To bridge the gap between retirement of these and the proposed Astute class, the US is to provide some Virginia class submarines. US shipbuilding however, is only turning out half the number of the submarines planned. Unable to keep up with their own needs, it is unlikely that the US, at cost to themselves, will make Virginia class submarines available to Australia.

The cost for all this to Australia is a proposed $A368 billion ($242 billion dollars). Not only has that fantastic figure eaten into needed budgetary expenditure for education, health and infrastructure, it has also constrained other military expenditure. Australian security analyst, Allan Behm has shared about the use of the ‘category of three’ when it comes to military expenditure as that is what usually happens between projected and actual cost, so the real cost to Australia may well be over 1 trillion Australian dollars.

This is the latest in a line of farcical decision making for Australia concerning submarines. Knowing the Collins class submarines were coming close even then to their viability, the government led by Tony Abbott a decade ago chose to buy Soryu submarines being developed by Japan. Tipped out of office by Malcolm Turnbull in a party room coup, the new Turnbull government opted for the French Barracuda class submarines, before Scoot Morrison chose to break the agreement with France, without even notifying the French, and announced the AUKUS agreement. French President Macron on being asked whether he thought he had been lied to by the Australian government, tersely replied: ‘I know so.’

The military ramifications for Australia of AUKUS are horrendous. The agreement is likely to leave a period of 20 years when Australia, with a coastline of some 36,000 kilometres, will have no submarine defense. Further, how Australia, with no experience in nuclear powered ships, will operate these submarines with little discussion, and will have few trained submariners to pilot them.

Former Australian senior defense and intelligence official Hugh White has described AUKUS as: “a plan of immense complexity and staggering cost, beset by a host of technological, economic, political, strategic and diplomatic risks.”

There is a fallback position for when AUKUS inevitably fails which involves the US stationing submarines at Fremantle, near Perth. This, along with the US Australia Force Posture Agreement in Australia’s north, will effectively mean Australia is abdicating its sovereignty.

Of course, while the Australian involvement in AUKUS is ostensibly about defense of Australia, the real purpose is to secure Australia as part of the US containment strategy regarding China. These submarines are not meant for the defense of Australia, but rather are meant to join the US navy in sitting off the coast of China.

That the UK will be part of this hearkens back to the fading days of the British Empire. The last time Britain sought to exercise military power ‘east of Suez’ saw the ‘Prince of Wales’ and ‘Repulse’ sent to the bottom during World War II.

Australia has a choice to dump this hastily conceived agreement and return to a past policy of self-defense. Such would entail purchasing a much more appropriate class of submarines in much larger numbers, perhaps as many as 30. These are on offer, ready made by France, Germany and South Korea. Much more suited to the Australian capacity to operate such would also avoid problems sure to bedevil an Australia, inexperienced in deploying complex nuclear power vessels. Most importantly as they are intended for self defense, they would mean Australia would not be linked to a dangerous aggressive US policy directed against China.

John Queripel is a Newcastle, Australia based writer, historian and social commentator.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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