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When Prime Minister Anthony Albanese formally unveiled plans with the U.S. and U.K. on Monday to develop and deploy nuclear-powered attack submarines, it set off a chain reaction of questions and criticism at home, and notably within his own party.
The plan, in which Australia initially will buy up to five U.S.-made submarines before building a new version with British and American help, is aimed at reinforcing American-led military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region to counter China’s military growth. The security pact, called AUKUS, has been criticized by China for threatening peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.
Although the agreement has bipartisan support in Australia, it has also triggered criticism in recent days from former prime ministers, diplomats and experts who have questioned everything from the eye-watering cost and the submarines’ usefulness, to whether that the agreement binds Australia to U.S. interests.
Experts say that the debate, which has sometimes turned vitriolic, speaks to the need for a broader national conversation about Australia’s future strategic direction and its role in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
“It’s a very serious bet that Australia has made to unambiguously side with the U.S.,” said Mark Kenny, a professor at the Australian Studies Institute at Australian National University, “and the decision has implications for Australia’s security, existential implications in some respects, and that has happened without a huge amount of debate.”
“Over the coming days, weeks and months, there’ll be greater friction that arises out of this,” he added.
The most vocal critic, former Prime Minister Paul Keating, launched extraordinary personal attacks at the government ministers involved in the deal. Mr. Keating, who is from the same center-left Labor Party as the current prime minister, said that the deal put Australia’s sovereignty at risk and had “screwed into place the last shackle in the long chain the United States has laid out to contain China.”
Better Understand the Relations Between China and the U.S.
The two nations are jockeying for influence on the global stage, maneuvering for advantages on land, in the economy and in cyberspace.
Mr. Albanese has said that Australia will have full autonomy over how the submarines are used. But as my colleague Damien Cave wrote, Australia is unlikely to develop the expertise needed within the next decade, and many if not most of the crew aboard the submarines may have to be American. In that case, the question becomes whether the two countries would be able to diverge cooperatively on how the submarines are used.
The deal has also sparked internal tensions in the Labor Party, with a handful of former senior Labor politicians speaking out against it, while a local party branch formally opposed the agreement.
The former Liberal prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, raised concerns that the strategy would “be seen as making us even more dependent on the United States and now the United Kingdom.”
Meanwhile, state premiers have disagreed over where high-grade nuclear waste will be stored, and some residents in a town where nuclear submarines could be based have said they do not want the site in their backyard.
Although the AUKUS agreement was announced a year ago, the current debate has in part been sparked by the revelation that the deal is projected to cost $246 billion (368 billion Australian dollars) over the next three decades, said James Curran, a professor of Australian-U.S. history at the University of Sydney. That hefty price tag effectively asks whether China’s threat to Australia is worth that much money, he said — and the answer is unclear.
Questions of cost, how to handle nuclear waste, and the potential pitfalls and delays the project might encounter were not discussed publicly by the government prior to the announcement on Monday, Professor Curran said, on the unspoken premise that any cost would be justified by the national security that would be provided.
“I think they have made what is a fairly safe bet that they didn’t need to sort of engage the public in a broader debate because everyone would automatically equate the need for this new capability to defending Australia from the threat of China,” Professor Curran said.
It’s clear that China’s “rapid military growth, lack of transparency and bullying assertiveness in recent years” needs to be taken seriously and was the driver of the AUKUS agreement, he said. However, there were unresolved questions about “the assumptions that underpin both the China threat narrative and the reason for spending this amount of money on this kind of deterrent,” he added.
Similarly, Professor Kenny said that Australia should have a cleareyed debate about what kind of threat China realistically posed to the nation.
“The China question needs to be thought through much more clearly, and I don’t see a lot of evidence of that in the way the debate is being mediated at the moment,” he said.
The highly politicized nature of national security debates tends to polarize opinions and leave little room for nuance and equivocation, which could be perceived as appeasement, he added.
“The trouble with that kind of dynamic in a debate is that it clouds the opportunity for proper strategic thinking and clear strategic imagining and scenarios,” he said.
Now for this week’s stories: