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The risky business behind Morrison's submarine deal

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

The sudden commitment of the Australian Government to build nuclear-powered submarines is a tale of some skulduggery and a game of high risk/high return. 

The so-called AUKUS deal has the pudgy dabs of one Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister, on it if you choose to think of business first — a matter of who gets the next submarine contract.

The French Government saw it as English “opportunism”, cutting them out. They pointedly and contemptuously said they had not bothered to recall their ambassador to London. They did briefly recall their Washington ambassador and also their Canberra man, keeping him back in Paris much longer, meantime refusing to talk to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Was the deal a cunning plan — made in London?

The French view – excoriating Johnson and Morrison – is credible if you attempt to understand how and why the British manoeuvred themselves back into the situation “out East” — into Australia’s region.

When AUKUS was announced, their new aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, was already in the China Sea on the way to Japan with escort ships, called a “Strike Group”.

Why would Britannia be trying to rule some waves back in Asia?

  • Possibly it was an idea of solidarity with the United States and regional powers opposing Chinese expansion, such as the Quad — the diplomatic linkage among Australia, India, Japan and the USA.
  • After Brexit, the secession of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Boris Johnson might have thought that AUKUS would help him get a closer direct relationship with America — to take over from the EU as Britain’s chief partner.
  • As for Australia, what more profitable way to resuscitate the British Empire than to link up closely with one of its richer and more powerful jewels?
  • On top, by influencing the Australians to drop their French naval contract, he might in fact drive a wedge between Australia and Europe, putting it closer to the UK, making it less independent.
  • The deal is the kind of thing Johnson might have set up with his friend and political soulmate, Donald Trump, bringing in Morrison, also a friend and political soulmate, as a paying, junior partner. It is understood to have been mooted as much as 18 months ago, while Trump was U.S. President. Given the amount of secrecy surrounding it, you cannot tell.

Will Australia’s nuclear submarines be English?

There is one more possible answer to the question of why Britain is so interested in Australia and Asia right now: they might get the Australian nuclear submarine contract, obtaining the French company’s AU$90 billion and a lot more.

Recently, the economist Steven Hamilton pointed out the UK is planning to build seven successors to its Astute class submarines and up to eight more being talked about for Australia would greatly improve the business plan. An Australian order would not have the same kind of impact on America’s construction of 66 replacements for its Virginia class ships. The ship-building idea, Hamilton said, ‘might explain the otherwise puzzling “UK” in AUKUS’

Ongoing trouble over AUKUS

Analysts in Europe and the USA, while Australians fiddled with scraps of information the Australian Government was able to give out, predicted ongoing trouble over the AUKUS agreement.

Le Monde focused on the potentially destabilising influence of more nuclear warships in the Asia-Pacific and anger at the Cherbourg shipyard, where 80 Australian workers were left stranded.

Politico said the French initially blamed the U.S. for what happened, as a “Trumpian” betrayal of allies, amongst other impacts:

‘The fallout from the announcement of a new defence alliance between the United States, Australia and the UK to counter China has only just begun.’

Recent analyses of British defence policy have shown up a huge increase in spending, with the declared aim of making Britain the leading European member of NATO and within ten years, the leading European power East of Suez.

Much of the latter task will be in the Gulf States area; the burden further east, into the Pacific, was expected to be retained by the concentration of French forces in New Caledonia and Tahiti, including seven combat warships.

Au revoir to France — and to Australia in the Pacific?

How will that go, after the exclusion of France from the recently improvised AUKUS alliance and peremptory scrapping of Australia’s $90 billion submarine construction agreement with that country? 

What will be the effect on Western co-operation and pre-eminence in the Pacific island states and Australian influence in the region in its competition with China? 

South Pacific security has been shared by Australia, France and New Zealand, an arrangement obviously based on common understanding, mutual opportunity and trust.

Leaders in the French Government by the end of September were trying to explain to their Australian counterparts about this “transparency and trust”.  

Ominously, the French have also been talking with the rest of the European Union about maybe not proceeding with its comprehensive free trade agreement under negotiation with Australia. That agreement, if not stymied by what has happened this year, would open a market of over 500 million to Australian producers.

Is there a plan?

Was any of that considered in Canberra? One of the many questions raised about the improvisation of the AUKUS alliance is why it was not prepared for: no public debate on going nuclear; no consultation with trusted allies; and nothing on where the nuclear submarines might be serviced, their costs and guarantees of sovereignty for Australia and its naval forces.

Nothing has been helped by the behaviour of Morrison on his “diplomatic trip” to the United States. This writer is prepared to put aside embarrassment over a man well out of his depth. Let members of the public watch him on television and form their own views.

However, he has shown no deviation from the destructive tendency to say whatever comes to mind, that might make him popular in the moment, then have to drop it later on. In Washington, Morrison became an advocate of action against climate change, even hoodwinking the Congressional leader, Nancy Pelosi, while remaining recalcitrant on it in Australia.

What about the submarines?

Returning to the submarines, which aside from all government show biz are important in national defence and need study by serious-minded people.

Nuclear powered submarines can improve on the 12 diesel-powered modified Barracudas contracted from France, by staying submerged for very long periods, going far, not requiring refuelling and should be quieter.

But they will cost more than the blown-out costs of the French process and there are imponderables like how to support them without a domestic nuclear industry. They are not expected before 2040 and could then be obsolete due to bounding technology.

Australia has an additional, major problem with all naval ship-building because of the insistence that ships have to be constructed in Australia. It is imperative in politics for preserving jobs, skills and expertise. Home construction of the present Collins class ships saw long delays, cost blow-outs and crippling design problems.

It might have been feasible, depending on capabilities, and much cheaper to replace the Collins fleet by buying existing submarines, as was considered in 2015. Trying to back the Japanese Soryu class, then under consideration, the Japanese navy brought a submarine into Sydney harbour with their naval flag up — a bad look given their attack on the harbour well within living memory.

Now, will military threats wait until 2040? Should we look on eBay to get some operational under-sea warships, even if not up to frontline standard, in case the Collins class don’t make the distance up to the arrival of the nuclear ships — English or American naval vessels with an Australian flag on them?

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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