Like a well-disguised submersible, the news that Australia will get nuclear-powered submarines came out of the blue. Just five years ago, we signed an agreement with the French to provide us with diesel-powered submarines but it has since become clear that the technology wouldn’t be adequate to meet security challenges – plus the order wouldn’t have been completed for two decades. And so, at the same time the French contract was cancelled, a new security partnership between Australia, the US and UK was announced, called (rather uncatchily) Aukus.
All of this is pretty big news – even if you’re not someone who spends a lot of time diving into headlines about submarines. The full details have yet to be announced but it’s clear that this is really about sending a strong message to China. Tensions between Australia and China have increased over the past few years and, with this trilateral deal, Australia wants to prove to Beijing that it has big and powerful allies on which it can rely.
But it may catch Australia offside with some of its other friends: New Zealand and many Pacific countries are avowedly anti-nuclear and Wellington has already said that it won’t allow the subs in its waters. Australia is also a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the terms of which mean that we can expect International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to soon be on our doorstep wanting access. Meanwhile, China has put out a statement saying that the purchase is irresponsible. So the big questions now are: might this security pact inch Australia closer to a cold war-style stand-off with China? And will this escalation really make Australia safer in the long run?
Aarti Betigeri is Monocle’s Canberra correspondent. For more on this story, listen to ‘The Briefing’ on Monocle 24.