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2021 in Review: Australia's Surprise New Security Arrangement

29 Dec 2021
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Prime Minister Boris Johnson joins US President Joe Biden and the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison from No9 Downing Street at the launch of the AUKUS Partnership. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

Leaders of the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom have announced a new trilateral security pact. Their brief, though momentous, statements were notable more for what they did not say.

It’s not every morning that Australians turn on the television at 7:00 AM and find themselves being addressed by Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson, and Joe Biden before all three vanish from the screen without as much as a “Gud-day” or question time. Democrats will ask why AUKUS, the new arrangement between three of the Five Eyes partners, was not first announced to lawmakers in Canberra and London.

We were left to speculate on several aspects of the new arrangement. There was no timetable nor terms under which Australia would acquire nuclear-powered submarines from the United States or the United Kingdom. What compensation, if any, Australia will pay to France’s Naval Group for the cancellation of the A$90 million contract to build diesel-electric submarines to replace outmoded Collins class vessels? Since this deal has been planned for months, it is reasonable to expect that Treasury estimates will tell us.

It is not yet known where an Australian nuclear submarine fleet is to be based, or when manufacture will start in South Australia. There have been suggestions that the US Navy may be seeking an Indian Ocean port facility at Exmouth, WA, as well as additional training for US marines in the Northern Territory, and the rescinding of the $506 million 99-year lease of the port of Darwin to the Chinese-owned Langridge Group.

As for how and when a nuclear power generation industry is to be established in Australia with the technological assistance of American and British companies, the first plant would presumably be built near the proposed submarine. It might also provide Morrison with his much-vaunted technical solution enabling Australia to reach the climate change targets it needs to commit to at COP26 in November. However, problems may lie ahead as the Australian Labor Party says it will oppose the development of nuclear power in the civil sector.

Also left unstated were the details of technology transfer in such areas as artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, or defence cooperation in Antarctica as well as the forces behind this new strategic development.  There was no mention of China as a threat, or any discussion about possible cooperation with other allies such as Japan or India.

Rather weakly, Morrison tried to claim that the global security situation had changed significantly since 2016, when the Coalition government signed the agreement to buy diesel electric submarines from the French. He failed to mention that the Australian order was for a non-nuclear redesign of the Barracuda nuclear submarine, which is in successful service with the French Navy. A redesign would have been a poor choice, with the resulting submarine too slow, too noisy and easy to detect, and lacking the long range of Britain’s Polaris, or indeed the Barracuda. But Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister at the time, went ahead. The redesign never worked, leaving Morrison to clear up the mess. Turnbull should apologise for this expensive error of judgement.

France understandably expressed strong displeasure at the latest turn of events, although it cannot have surprised the French that Australia had finally come to realise that it had bought a pup. French president Emanuel Macron is furious he was not told of the deal. France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, described the decision as a “stab in the back,” but really it was a full-frontal blow from both Biden and Johnson, who appear to have difficulties in dealing with Paris at every level. Le Drian said French business would be hurt, and the new deal “shuts French military out of a key initiative in Western efforts to build a bulwark against China.”

There was also displeasure in Brussels, where European Commission officials were caught unawares on the very day when they launched their own Indo-Pacific strategy. Consequently, it got even less attention than usual in the British and American press, and in most cases, none at all. The European Union’s strategy paper for the Indo-Pacific promised “enhanced naval deployment by member states to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation.”

Both Josep Burrell, head of the bloc’s defence and security team, and Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, issued wake-up calls for Europe to be more active in promoting Europe as an autonomous defence force. Von der Leyen said what was needed was a European defence ecosystem with support for the continent’s defence manufacturers.

Wednesday was arguably Boris Johnson’s best day since taking office. Not only was he at the centre of a new global security arrangement involving Britain’s traditional allies, Australia and the United States, but was able for the first time to put flesh on the bones of his favourite of “Global Britain.” The AUSUK announcement came at 10:00 PM UK time on Wednesday, the day he completed his first Cabinet reshuffle. Three Cabinet ministers were sacked, and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was demoted. Remember, he was the one who was on a Crete beach when Kabul fell to the Taliban, only returning to his desk in the last desperate week of the evacuation. Liz Truss, the trade secretary who recently negotiated the free trade agreement with Australia, was rewarded with the top job at the Foreign Office. Johnson has now got a Cabinet he can master. The only exception is the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who will keep a firm eye on overspending, and has already won the battle to raise taxes.

Beijing has correctly assumed that China, though unnamed, is the main target of AUKUS, and has expressed its displeasure through outspoken ambassadors and state-owned media. It will be only too aware that an Australian Navy equipped with nuclear-powered submarines and Tomahawk cruise missiles is a force to be taken seriously. The Australian Navy will have the capability to block China’s sea routes to the Middle East oilfields and its trading partners. The relief felt in Taipei to the news is palpable. The inescapable fact for China is that, with a fully rearmed Australia, it now faces the prospect of a third country able to project power in the Pacific, alongside the US and Japan.

This article was originally published on 17 September 2021.

Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.