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  • Rikki Lambert

A historic change in Australia’s defence posture

US President Joe Biden flanked by Australian PM Scott Morrison (left) and British PM Boris Johnson

At 7.00 am on Thursday morning, the prime minister, Scott Morrison announced the formation of AUKUS a defence cooperation agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The agreement will focus on technology transfers between the three countries and provide Australia with know-how in areas not previously available such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, cruise missiles and surface to air missiles.

The centrepiece of the arrangement is the construction of eight nuclear-powered submarines using American technology and British construction skills.

Implicit in the deal is the termination of the agreement with the French Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric powered subs. The new subs will be built in Adelaide using the infrastructure and skilled workforce developed for the French project.

Labor has agreed to support the new agreement on three conditions: that there will be no civil nuclear industry; that there is no use of nuclear weapons; and that the agreement is consistent with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. In his statement on the agreement, Scott Morrison made it clear that he would abide by these conditions.

The agreement is of huge significance. Dubbed by some as ANZUS 2.0, AUKUS is a trilateral agreement, but one that notably excludes New Zealand. With the UK’s inclusion instead, this agreement shifts the ANZUS Treaty’s Pacific Ocean focus to one that encompasses the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic Oceans too. It is an arrangement with global reach and profound, long-term implications.

There is much to unpack from this far-reaching announcement. It was only known publicly that a major announcement was coming less than 24 hours beforehand. In the slick promotional video that preceded remarks by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and finally US President Joe Biden, the fact that the three nations are democracies was touted as a defining and unifying feature.

The emphasis on the fact that the parties to the agreement are democracies, is a way of pointing out that the prime object of the agreement is China. The Middle Kingdom is yet to respond to the announcement.

However, some pro-China former Labor politicians, Paul Keating and Bob Carr, have criticised the agreement because they say it erodes Australian sovereignty and independence.

Over the next 18 months, the US and UK will “support Australia’s desire to acquire nuclear-powered submarines”. Adelaide will soon see technical and strategic teams from all three countries working on building the subs.

These submarines will allow Australia to “deploy for longer periods”, are “quieter”, “much more capable” and will allow “us to sustain and to improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific”, the White House said. All three leaders were at pains to stress Australia has no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons, though these capabilities will necessarily develop along with the limited AUKUS aims of propulsion.

Apart from the submarines, Australia is likely to become the most important western military base in the world. There will be a growing presence of American and British troops in Australia, along with forces from ASEAN, India and Japan.

Over time this will make Australia a stronger force in the region.

However, Paul Keating is correct when he argues that Australia should assert its own national interest, rather than slavishly following the United States.


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