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What the US, UK and Australia’s Nuclear Submarine Deal Really Means

An iffy agreement with the US over a sure-shot one with France can be explained by Australia kowtowing to US regional interests.
What the US, UK and Australia’s Nuclear Submarine Deal Really Means

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Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating has called his country’s recent $368-billion nuclear submarine deal—the Trilateral Australia-United Kingdom-United States Partnership on Nuclear-Powered Submarines—the worst deal in history. The agreement commits Australia to buy conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarines from the United States, but they will be delivered, at the earliest, in the 2040s. And they will use new nuclear reactor designs that the United Kingdom is yet to develop.

According to this agreement, starting from the 2030s and “pending approval” from Congress, the United States intends to sell Australia three Virginia-class submarines, and potentially two more, if needed. It commits Australia to buy eight new nuclear submarines from the United States, which it will deliver from the late 2040s to the end of the 2050s. If nuclear submarines were so crucial for Australia’s security that it broke its existing diesel-powered submarine deal with France, this agreement provides no credible answers why.

For those following nuclear proliferation issues, the deal raises a new red flag. Sharing submarine nuclear reactor technology and weapons-grade (highly enriched uranium) with Australia breaches the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT, to which Australia is a signatory as a non-nuclear power. Even supplying nuclear reactors by the United States and the United Kingdom would constitute a breach of the NPT. This restriction applies even if the submarines do not carry nuclear but conventional weapons, as stated in the trilateral agreement.

So why did Australia renege on its contract to buy 12 diesel submarines from France for $67 billion, a small fraction of the gargantuan $368 billion deal with the United States? What does it gain—and what does the United States gain—by annoying France, one of its close NATO allies?

To understand this, we must see how the United States looks at geostrategy and how the Five Eyes—United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—fit into this larger picture. Clearly, the United States believes that the core of the NATO alliance includes itself, the United Kingdom and Canada for the Atlantic, and the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia for the Indo-Pacific. Its other allies, like the NATO nations in Europe and Japan and South Korea in East and South Asia, revolve around this Five Eyes core. That is why the United States was willing to offend France to broker a deal with Australia.

What does the United States get out of this deal? On the promise of giving eight nuclear submarines to Australia 25 to 40 years down the line, the United States gets access to Australia as a base to support its naval fleet, air force and even soldiers. The White House uses the exact words that convey this: “As early as 2027, the United Kingdom and the United States plan to establish a rotational presence of one UK Astute class submarine and up to four US Virginia-class submarines at HMAS Stirling near Perth, Western Australia.” The phrase “rotational presence” has been used to provide Australia with the fig leaf that it is not offering the United States a naval base, as that would violate Australia’s long-standing position of not allowing foreign military bases on its soil. All the support structures required for such “rotations” are what a foreign military base would have. Therefore, the “rotational presence” would function as the bases of the United States.

Who is the target of the AUKUS alliance? It is explicit in all the writing on the subject and what all AUKUS leaders have said: China. In other words, this is a containment of China policy with South China and the Taiwan Strait as the key contested oceanic regions. Positioning United States naval ships, including its nuclear submarines armed with nuclear weapons, makes Australia a frontline state in the United States’ plans to contain China. Additionally, it creates pressure on most South East Asian countries that would like to stay out of any United States-versus-China contest in the South China Sea.

While the United State’s motivation to draft Australia as a frontline state against China is understandable, what is difficult to understand is what Australia gains from such an alignment. China is not only the biggest importer of Australian goods but also its biggest supplier. In other words, if the argument is that Australia is worried about Chinese attacks on its trade through the South China Sea, the bulk of this trade is with China. Why would China be mad enough to attack its own trade with Australia? For the United States, it makes eminent sense to get the whole Australian continent to host its forces much nearer China than its own territories, 8,000-9,000 miles away.

The United States, which already has Pacific Ocean bases in Hawaii and Guam, gets two anchor points in Australia and Japan, one to the north and the other to the south of the East Pacific Ocean region. It is an old-fashioned game of containment: one the United States played with its NATO, SEATO and CENTO military alliances after the Second World War.

The problem the United States has today is that even countries like India, despite their issues with China, are not signing up with it in a military alliance. In particular, the United States is now in an economic war not just with Russia and China but with many countries, from Cuba and Iran to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela and Somalia. India was willing to join the United States, Australia and Japan in the Quad and participate in military exercises. But it backed off from Quad as a military alliance. That is why there is pressure on Australia to partner with the United States militarily, particularly in South East Asia.

We still have to understand what is in the recent deal for Australia. It may get five (3+potentially 2 more) Virginia-class nuclear submarines second-hand, but even that is subject to United States Congress approval. Those who follow United States politics know it is currently treaty incapable. In recent years, it has not ratified a single treaty, be they on global warming or laws of the seas. The other eight nuclear submarines are a good 25 to 35 years away. And who knows what the world would look like so far down the line.

Why—if naval security was its objective—did Australia choose an iffy nuclear submarine agreement with the United States over the sure-shot supply of French submarines? This is the question the former Australian prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Keating have asked. The deal makes sense only if Australia now sees itself as a cog in the United States’ wheel in the South East Asian region and accepts its vision of naval power projection in a region it shares. The vision is that settler colonial and ex-colonial powers—the G7 and AUKUS—should be the ones who make the rules of the current international order. Behind the talk of a “rules-based international order” is the nailed fist of the United States in the form of NATO and AUKUS. This is what Australia’s nuclear submarine deal really means.

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