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‘Australia’s’ Nuclear Subs: US gain, snub for France

  • December 7th, 2021
  • Posted by EU Australia

Lee Duffield

The Australian Defence Minister, Melissa Price, on 9 November told the Submarine Association conference in Adelaide that the country’s nuclear-powered submarines would be built in South Australia.

It was one more ingredient thrown into a brewing of questions and contention since the sudden announcement of the nuclear plan, and immediate cancellation of the French contract for conventional submarines on 16 September.

The combined efforts of a slew of researchers and professional authorities to sort out the meanings of the decision to go nuclear, with all of its ramifications, have proved one thing – that it is all complicated.

A review of several articles, most through the Lowy Institute publication, The Interpreter, which is topped up daily with commentaries, and through think-tanks to the left and right, has produced these main points:

  • that American policy towards China is the main factor in this mix;
  • that Australian sovereignty stands to be diminished, even if its security might be helped,
  • and that the insult to France and its consequences, while not the main game, remains important – especially as it affects the standing of the Australian government.

Sam Roggeveen, Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, and a Visiting Fellow at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, contributed two articles, seeing the China – USA contest as the heart of it, with Australia now brought in, more as a great power client — less as itself:

“The defence deal is a clear escalation and indication that Washington views Beijing as an adversary. It also has thrust Australia into a central role in America’s rivalry with China”, he said in the New York Times.


The deal in question is the full package of the new tripartite defence arrangement, AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States), with Australia obtaining probably eight nuclear submarines at the centre of it. Trumping the abruptly scuttled French – Australian plan for joint construction of diesel powered submarines, which was seen by Roggeveen as already too expensive and far too late, this was a “truly momentous decision.”

“It is impossible to read this as anything other than a response to China’s rise, and a significant escalation of American commitment to that challenge …

“It is wise to assume that the scale of this agreement, and the close strategic and operational links it implies, will create expectations from Washington. Australia cannot have this capability while assuming that it does not come with heightened expectations that Australia will take America’s side in any dispute with China …”

And as for the process, involving a sudden announcement to the Australian public: “It is extraordinary that this momentous decision could be made without parliamentary or public scrutiny.”

To a more detailed rationale:

“This is no ordinary arms agreement, nothing like exporting fighter jets or howitzers. Only a handful of nations have nuclear-powered submarines, and Australia will be just the second country, after Britain, to benefit from the top-secret U.S. technology. Why is Australia worthy of such favourable treatment? It’s not just that it is one of America’s oldest and closest allies. It’s that for many American observers of China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, Australia is also the canary in the coal mine for great power competition with China.”

A case in point was a set of retaliatory moves by China against Australian decisions to constrain Chinese investment, notably on sensitive technology, and, after a visit by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison to the then US President Donald Trump, his statement echoing demands by Trump for an international investigation of the origins of COVID in China. Punitive responses from Beijing have included sectoral trade embargoes and blocking of all communications at Ministerial level.

Alan Behm, Director of International and Security Affairs at the Australia Institute, gave a similar reading, seeing the decision to build long-range nuclear submarines for Australia as an American game, “little to do with the defence of Australia”:

“The aim is to make possible an Australian contribution to US battle plans against China which that country will view as profoundly threatening with implications also for war planning by Russia, North Korea and other nuclear-armed states.

“Even leaving aside the fiscal profligacy and defence opportunity costs for Australia of the literal blank cheque issued by the Morrison government, the nuclear submarine decision takes Australia into the heart of naval warfighting in East Asia and Southeast Asia.”

He foreshadowed “knock-on effects in Japan and the Republic of Korea” provoking them to move their “already highly capable submarine fleets to nuclear power”, and to consider equipping the new ships with nuclear



Some steps to the right of Behm at the Australia Institute, is Rowan Callick writing for the Centre for Independent Studies, a neo-liberal and anti-communist lobby, in the current debate articulating much of the confrontationist thinking on how to deal with Beijing.

He has worked on the main point, that the Chinese government has changed its policy, putting pressure on the West to respond to “a radical remaking of a globally ambitious Peoples Republic of China under Xi Jinping — which is the single factor that has given birth to AUKUS.”

He cited published statements from the Chinese President, such as:

“We will never allow anyone to bully, oppress or subjugate China. Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Behind it would be consciousness of China’s position as a superpower which is itself lacking allies, resentful at the formation of “exclusionary blocs” and deeply irritated by the involvement of Australia, seen as an example of that country’s “recalcitrance as a leading economic client.”

From the same source, the CIS, Tom Tugenhadt has published a concise statement of the “step up to the bully” rationale for supporting initiatives such as the AUKUS deal. As the argument goes, China is building up enormous strength, its government, communist, wants maximum power at home and abroad, so there is an imperative to resist it both in economics and trade, and in military alignments:

“The sheer scale of its economy and military, combined with an increasingly authoritarian regime under Xi Jinping, means that the Indo-Pacific lies at the heart of the China challenge.

“Growing militarisation and Chinese aggression are destabilising the region, whilst Beijing’s willingness to use economic coercion in an attempt to bend governments to its will has highlighted the need for trade diversification.

“Now is the time to … collaborate on defence, intelligence and security and to tackle grey-zone interference, through both working together and with other like-minded partners.”


Ian Hill, in The Interpreter, puts together the two strands of thinking: The United States wants Australia more tightly tied-in, and more recent, more aggressive Chinese policy will add to the pressure on Australian governments, and the public, to go along with that.

“AUKUS is a prudent, practical and far-sighted response to the existential threat Australia perceives in the evolving and increasingly tense strategic environment emerging in the Indo-Pacific region. Like many, Australia is worried by the more bellicose approach being taken by Xi Jinping’s China. In responding to this challenge, the US remains for Canberra its indispensable partner.

“For the US, AUKUS is a win. It exemplifies the importance Washington attaches to deepening cooperation with key allies, and strengthening their military capabilities to assist in deterring the security challenges posed by China in the region. Australia, a long-time trusted and strategically located Indo-Pacific ally, looms large in Washington’s regional calculations. So does the Quad (US, Australia, Japan and India), whose leaders (were to) meet in Washington on 24 September.”

For a qualification on such views, Jia Deng, a Sydney-based analyst, suggested that a more calculating, less crudely xenophobic or chauvinistic approach may yet be operating in Beijing, where “the diplomatic language amounted to a mild rebuke”. This “mild” response to AUKUS was not accompanied by economic sanctions, and appeared to recognise that in the end there was no Chinese power of veto over AUKUS being formed: “Beijing’s wrath is usually expressed through much stronger phrases, highly charged with paranoia.”

As for why this relative calm; she suggested it was because of the larger game, mending relations with America after the destructive Presidency of Donald Trump. An instance: as the AUKUS trouble was playing out, American demands for the extradition of Meng Wanzhou, the high profile Huawei executive who’d been held in Canada, accused by America of facilitating breaches of intelligence, were put aside and she returned home.


Great difficulty running a nuclear submarine program is foreshadowed for a country with no nuclear industry, where the navy for several years was unable to provide specialist crews for each of its Collins class submarines – rotating them ship-to-ship as vessels took turns in maintenance, (picture – Collins class HMAS Rankin). There is also the long lead-time proposed for getting the nuclear boats into service. The AUKUS announcement left eighteen months for more discussion, for official thinking to get clarified on such questions.

Commentators have opened what is bound to be a growing public debate. Again in The Interpreter, Oriana Skylar and Mastro Zack Cooper have talked about critics already raising “valid concerns”:

“Critics of AUKUS … worry that eighteen months is a long time to wait for clarity on the plan, and eighteen years would be too long to wait for submarines. Nuclear-powered submarines will prove difficult and expensive for Australia to master, and could create non-proliferation concerns. Washington, Canberra, and London will have to mend ties with Paris as well as concerned friends in Southeast Asia, especially Jakarta. Others have argued that the deal ties Australia too closely to the United States or creates unnecessary tensions with China (although we would dispute these last two assertions) … AUKUS is by no means perfect, but it demonstrates the Biden administration’s commitment to rebalancing its efforts towards Asia.”

Albert Palazzo, in Canberra, similarly focused on practical problems with constructing the nuclear submarines, beyond how much of the work can be done in Australia, to build around nuclear reactors, which evidently must be imported. Abandoning the complicated French project, for one that will need technology and assistance from the USA and UK, he said, was like “going from the frying pan into the fire.”

“By the time Canberra’s subs roll off the dock, their capabilities will be obsolete …It will be at least a decade before a single boat is in service, even if everything goes to plan.”

Add to that, the projection of defence analysts that the Chinese navy, as presumptive adversary, will have overcome present weaknesses in Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW), so that, possibly, “even attempting to penetrate these waters (in the South China Sea) would require suicidal courage.”

Opting towards a defence pessimism, Palazzo wanted to know:

“Can a relatively weak nation such as Australia realistically aspire to a three-ocean defence force? The best answer we have is the need to maintain the rules-based order, but certainly there are other ways to achieve this end instead of embracing the most technologically challenging warship ever created.”


An American game it may be, but within Australia the arguments have not subsided about relations with France, the scrapped ship-building deal at $90-billion having been important to both partners and a centre-piece of trust and co-operation in their joint security role in the South Pacific region.

Features and events in this debate:

Awkward body language for the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, at the Rome G20 meeting, then COP26 on climate change, at Glasgow, apparently getting shunned by the other leaders.

Bringing an Australian government video operator into the mingle, he did not exactly force the French President, Emmanuel Macron, to shake hands, ‘bushfires’ style, but clearly the bloke did not approve. Door-stopped later by Australian media Macron took the unusual step, for such gatherings, of stopping for a chat, to say that Morrison had lied to him about the submarines deal.

It went from bad to worse, with the undiplomatic leaking of messages by the Australians, to underscore the obvious, that everybody knew the French submarines project had run into grave troubles. Point missed on the Australian side: what remained was how friends might deal with it.

Australian Ministers fumbled around, seeking to apply some spin: the French would be “disappointed” but would get over it and still be friends. The message from Paris was actually that the French, after all a major power, had no sense they might be so patronised, were in fact livid, had reacted with contempt, and might engage in some retaliation, like gumming up Australia’s free trade talks with the European Union.

In the vanguard of concerns about the French connection, Richard Ogier saw some risk to Australia’s options as a sovereign state, and considered that, “in Europe, and not only in France, the image of Australia has suffered a direct hit.”

The line proposed by government, that the French will “get over it and move on”, “continues to underestimate the extent and depth of the collateral damage to Australia’s reputation and image in western Europe and beyond wrought by this messy episode …  Australia may be a staunch US ally, but under certain circumstances, was prepared to go beyond the old ANZUS alliance… Australians may be warm and welcoming, is the message sent, but watch for the kick when your back is turned.”

Impacts have been registered in South-east Asia also, occasioning the Australian government to send Ministers to offer reassurances that they had no designs on a general nuclear expansion. A commentary by Cathy Maloney identified inquietude in capital cities, such as Jakarta. What about Australian promises, and leadership, in a rules based order on proliferation?

“The grand bargain, established in the late 1970s in the wake of the Ranger Uranium Inquiry, and enunciated by then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, determined that Australia while abjuring the development of a full civil nuclear industry, would meet its obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state …”


Further points in what may become a Great Debate for Australians of the early 2020s, with concerns about enormous costs, Australia’s technological capability, especially in the nuclear field, and the state of international cooperation:

Yatharth Kachiar and Priya Vljaykumar Poojary have argued that the agreements on defence and technology, AUKUS, the Quad, or the newly-launched Indo-Pacific strategy of the European Union, are weakened because not assembled as a unified system: “These efforts suffer two major limitations: they are fragmented and lack a substantive economic dimension.”

Ben Scott, director of a Lowy project, “Australia’s Security and the Rules-based Order”, considered costs of the new submarines to be a “key unanswered question” and chief obstacle, because of other, competing needs:

“How are we going to meet the $100-billion-plus price tag? According to former Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson it’s necessary to ‘grow the defence budget to 3 per cent of GDP to ensure the submarines do not cannibalise other defence capabilities’. But what of non-Defence capabilities? So a broader question needs to be asked: how should we allocate finite resources against a widening array of national security risks?”

It seems like a call for maybe less time to be spent on arguments out loud, more time on hard thinking.