Australia will acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines as the first act under a new security partnership with the US and Britain squarely aimed at combating China’s growing power in our region.
The deal will include submarines built in Adelaide, but seal the scrapping of a controversial $90 billion subs deal with French naval builders that has been marred by years of delays and cost blowouts. A former French ambassador to the US described it as Paris having been “stabbed… in the back”.
AUKUS pact to share military technology
The alliance, named AUKUS, was announced during a historic joint address by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, British PM Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden on Thursday morning (Australian time).
“Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region – the Indo-Pacific. This affects us all,” Mr Morrison said, joining the two other leaders in a video address from Canberra.
“To meet these challenges, to help deliver the security and stability our region needs, we must now take our partnership to a new level.”
The AUKUS partnership will operate alongside other Australian-involved alliances, including Five Eyes and ASEAN.
“It sounds strange with all of these acronyms but it is a good one,” President Biden joked.
Rumours had exploded in political and diplomatic circles overnight, after news emerged an emergency cabinet meeting that had required federal ministers to jet into Canberra at short notice on Wednesday night.
There were expectations that the Thursday morning announcement could be on Australia’s troubled submarine program, but the new AUKUS partnership caught some by surprise. Senior opposition figures, including Labor leader Anthony Albanese, were also briefed on Wednesday, while defence and diplomatic communities in Canberra have briefings scheduled for later on Thursday.
Coalition MPs are also expected to be briefed in detail on Thursday. Several had been pushing for Australia to invest in nuclear submarines for some time. One government MP told The New Daily that Thursday’s nuclear announcement “one of our best decisions in a decade”.
Former PM Tony Abbott opened tenders on the submarine build in 2015, but was thought to favour a Japanese bid over the French tender. In a statement on Thursday, he said the nuclear sub plans were “important because it acknowledges the scale of the strategic challenge from China and declares that Australia will play our part in meeting it”.
China’s Washington embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said countries “should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties. In particular, they should shake off their Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice.”
A written statement said AUKUS would aim to “deepen diplomatic, security, and defence co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region”. A video presentation before the leaders’ address said the alliance would focus on “peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific, and for the good of the world”.
New submarines plan
The alliance’s first act will be to help Australia acquire nuclear submarines. These ships will be powered by nuclear technology, but will not be equipped with nuclear weapons, the leaders stressed.
“The future of each of our nations, and indeed, the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific, enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” President Biden said.
“This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances, and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow. It’s about connecting America’s existing allies and partners in new ways and amplifying our ability to collaborate.”
The three nations will also collaborate on “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities”, according to the written statement.
Few details of the submarine program were announced on Thursday morning, beyond Mr Morrison’s commitment that they would be built in Adelaide, as the French submarines were scheduled to be. The statement noted the AUKUS nations would “embark on a trilateral effort of 18 months to seek an optimal pathway to deliver this capability … at the earliest achievable date”.
No information has yet been shared on a firm timeline for completing the build, how many submarines will be built, or what they will cost.
South Australian Labor opposition MP Tom Koutsantonis tweeted: “Are we manufacturing nuclear powered submarines with Australian sovereign capability here in SA or are we assembling nuclear powered submarines we have purchased off the shelf from the UK & the US? There is a big difference in jobs & investment in the two propositions.”
‘Great disappointment’ at scrapping of French deal
Australia’s new fleet of submarines was to have been built by France’s Naval Group, but the build was dogged by controversy including years of delays and concerns the program – initially costed at $50 billion – would blow out to $90 billion for construction alone. Tens of billions more would be needed to maintain the subs once they were finally in the water in the 2030s, experts warned.
Senior government sources told The New Daily that the nuclear subs plan will spell the end of the Naval Group contract.
But the decision to drop the French deal, which could reportedly cost Australia hundreds of millions in exit fees, could create further diplomatic waves in Europe.
France’s foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and armed forces minister Florence Parly called the decision “regrettable”, claiming it was “contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia”.
The French politicians slammed “an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret.”
Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States, was also critical of the announcement.
“The world is a jungle. France has just been reminded this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia. C’est la vie,” he tweeted.
Naval Group said it was “a great disappointment” that Australia “did not wish to initiate the next phase of the program”. The company said it offered Australia “commitments never made by any industry in terms of transfer of technology, content and local employment.”
The announcement had a lighter moment when President Biden referred to Mr Morrison as “that fella Down Under”, after referring to Mr Johnson as “Boris”. Some media outlets speculated the President had momentarily forgotten Mr Morrison’s name.