March 19, 2023

The US, UK and Australia’s Nuclear Submarine Deal

Prabir Purkayastha

THE recent Australia, US and UK 368 billion dollar deal on buying nuclear submarines has been termed by Paul Keating, a former Australian PM, as the worst deal in all history. It commits Australia to buy conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines which will be delivered earliest in the 2040s. These will be based on new nuclear reactor designs yet to be developed by UK. Meanwhile, the US, starting from 2030s, “pending approval from the US Congress, intends to sell Australia three Virginia class submarines, with the potential to sell up to two more if needed” (Trilateral Australia-UK-US Partnership on Nuclear-Powered Submarines, March 13, 2023). Reading the details, it appears that this agreement commits Australia to buy from the US eight new nuclear submarines, to be delivered from late 2040s to end of 2050s. If nuclear submarines were so crucial for Australia’s security, for which it broke its existing diesel powered submarine deal with France, this agreement provides no credible answers.

For those who have been following the nuclear proliferation issues, the deal raises a different red flag. If submarine nuclear reactor technology is shared with Australia, it is a breach of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Australia is a signatory as a non-nuclear power. Even supplying of such nuclear reactors by the US and the UK would constitute a breach of NPT. This is even if such submarines do not carry nuclear but conventional weapons as stated in this agreement.

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

To understand, we have to see how the US looks at the geostrategy, and how the 5-Eyes – US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – fit into this larger picture. Clearly, the US believes that the core countries of the NATO alliance are US-UK-Canada for the Atlantic and US-UK-Australia for the Indo-Pacific. The rest of its allies, NATO allies in Europe and Japan-South Korea in East and South Asia are around this 5-Eyes core. That is why it was willing to offend France to broker a deal with Australia.

What does the US get out of this deal? On the promise of eight nuclear submarines that will be given to Australia 25-40 years down the line, the US gets access to Australia to be used as a base for supporting its naval fleet, airforce and even US soldiers. The words used are, “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 use of the phrase “rotational presence” is to provide Australia the fig leaf that it is not offering the US a naval base, as that would violate Australia’s long standing position of no foreign bases on its soil. Clearly, all the support structure required for such rotations are what a foreign military base has, therefore they will function as US bases.

Who is the target of the AUKUS alliance? This is explicit in all the writing on the subject and what all the leaders of the AUKUS have said: it is China. In other words, this is a containment of China policy with South China and Taiwanese Strait as the key contested oceanic regions. Positioning US naval ships including its nuclear submarines armed with nuclear weapons makes Australia a frontline state in the current US plans for containment of China. Additionally, it creates pressure on most South East Asian countries who would like to stay out of such a US versus China contest being carried out in the South China Sea.

While the US motivation to draft Australia as a frontline state against China is understandable, what is difficult to understand is Australia’s gain from such an alignment. China is not only the biggest importer of Australian goods, but also its biggest supplier. In other words, if Australia is worried about the safety of its trade through South China Sea from Chinese attacks, the bulk of this trade is with China. So why would China be mad enough to attack its own trade with Australia? For the US it makes eminent sense to get a whole continent, Australia, to host its forces much closer to China than 8,000-9,000 miles away in the US. Though it already has bases in Hawaii and Guam in the Pacific Ocean, Australia and Japan provide two anchor points, one to the north and one to the south in the east Pacific Ocean region. The game is old fashioned game of containment, the one that the US played with its NATO, CENTO and SEATO military alliances after the Second World War.

The problem that the US has today is that even countries like India, who have their issues with China, are not signing up with the US in a military alliance. Particularly, as the US is now in an economic war with a number of countries, not just Russia and China, such as Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia. While India was willing to join Quad – the US, Australia, Japan and India – and participate in military exercises, it backed off from Quad becoming a military alliance; therefore, the pressure on Australia to partner the US militarily, particularly in South East Asia.

It still fails to explain what is in it for Australia? Even the five Virginia class nuclear submarines that Australia may get second hand, is subject to the US Congress approval. Those who follow US politics know that the US is currently treaty incapable: it has not ratified a single treaty from global warming to law of the seas in recent years. The other eight are a good 25-35 years away, who knows how the world would like that far down the line.

Why, if naval security was its objective, did Australia choose an iffy nuclear submarine agreement with the US over a sure-shot supply of French submarines? This is a question that Paul Keating, the Labour Party’s former PM has asked. It makes sense only if one notes that Australia now sees itself as a cog in the US wheel for this region. And it is this vision of US naval power projection in the region that today Australia shares. The vision is that settler colonial and ex-colonial powers: the G7-AUKUS should be the ones making the rules of the current international order. And behind the talk of international order is the mailed fist of the US, NATO, AUKUS. This is what Australia’s nuclear submarine deal really means.