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Living With Our Expensive AUKUS Nuclear Submarines

By Denis Bright  

Will we all continue to live with those dark AUKUS nuclear submarines?

The Christmas edition of The Australian (24-25 December 2022) released a quote from the head of Australia’s nuclear task force Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead. It described the AUKUS submarines as the gold standard of our new security blanket. Spies worldwide wanted to know so much more as the consultative processes surrounding the details were always in the hands of political, military and intel insiders. The wider public would always be left with future payments to cover the financial costs and fall-out from lost trading and investment opportunities between Australia and China.

Writing in The Guardian (8 June 2022), Daniel Hurst estimated that the still undefined AUKUS deal would be an additional $90 billion over the French diesel-powered submarines negotiated by the Turnbull Government.

Yet, Australians seemed to welcome the dark submarines which had a popularity rating of 62 per cent despite an acknowledgment that the deal would inflame relations with China and our future commercial ties according to Katherine Murphy of The Guardian (28 September 2021).

The Albanese Government has already made a goodwill payment to France of $835 million for our breach of contract over the cancelled submarine deal (ABC News 11 June 2022). These costs will fade into insignificance when the full costs of the AUKUS Submarine deal evolve.

The French Government tried hard to promote its contribution to the US Global Alliance after gaining its contract with the Turnbull Government for the sale of the diesel-powered submarines to Australia. French Navy Rubis-class nuclear powered submarine (SSN) Emeraude and Loire-Class support & assistance vessel (BSAM type) Seine reached RAN Fleet Base West in Perth on 9 November 2020 (Naval News 10 November 2020). Prior to the maintenance and logistics visit, Australian Defence Force elements, including the Frigate HMAS Anzac, and Collins-class submarine HMAS Sheean and a P-8A Poseidon aircraft exercised with the French Navy units off the coast of Fremantle.

The ageing nuclear submarine Emeraude was commissioned in 1988. Ten crew members were killed in an accidental explosion off Toulon, France in 1994. Reporters from Vingt Heures (Channel 2 in Paris) were invited on board to film the missiles on the attack class submarine after its triumphal return after a six-month voyage to Australia, the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits in early 2021. Naval News in Paris were unable to comply with my request for a detailed map of the navigation route which was flicked across the television screen by reports from Vingt Heures. Were the French vessels welcomed into the naval installations at the US installation on Diego Garcia on their merry jaunt from the Red Sea to Western Australia I wondered?


Image: Voice of America (VOA)


Up north in the South China Sea, both China and Taiwan of course have rival claims over specific islands and reefs across the South China Sea, so the Emeraude had to be on guard as it moved in stealth mode through troubled waters.

Perhaps more commercial globalization is the only recipe for the new wave of security fears about an emergent China. While China remains dependent on mineral and energy resources from Africa, the Middle East, Australia and energy rich Indonesia for its national economy, it can hardly cut off its supply network with shipping embargoes as claimed by advocates of Freedom of Navigation. The AUKUS submarine deal did not canvass such issues and were to be a trump card in giving a khaki hue to the federal LNP’s plans to win the 2022 election for Scott Morrison. Having won the election, the Albanese government was soon caught up in positive political spin that was deemed to come with the AUKUS deal which required no background briefings to balance references to gold standard security advantages for Australia.

It was a bit late for the Chinese Embassy’s goodwill event on 10 January 2023, to change the tide of Australian public opinion (ABC News, 10 January 2023):

The ambassador made both remarks during a wide-ranging and largely upbeat press conference in Canberra held to mark the New Year.

He declared relations between China and Australia had reached a period of “stability”, saying the Chinese Year of the Rabbit offered an opportunity to “jump over obstacles” that had emerged in recent times.

But there are still deep doubts in Canberra about China’s trajectory and the limits to the rapprochement in the wake of high-level meetings between Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and President Xi Jinping, as well as Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her then-Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing.

Jumping over obstacles to goodwill demands a cooling of tensions over access to the South China Sea, ironclad guarantees about the special status of Hong Kong and an end to saber-rattling over Taiwan which is largely integrated into the economy of China in trade and capital flows. Ambassador Xiao Qian of the Chinese Embassy in Canberra proposed a similar lifeline for Australia to minimize the costs of the AUKUS submarine deal (The Guardian 10 January 2023):

China’s ambassador to Australia has offered a glimmer of hope about the cases of two Australians detained in China, saying he wants a “solution” to be found as quickly as possible as Canberra continues to push for their release.

Xiao Qian also revealed that Chinese and Australian officials were in talks in Geneva about resolving their trade disputes, and he held open the possibility of resuming two-way talks about human rights.

In a wide-ranging press conference at the Chinese embassy in Canberra on Tuesday, Xiao was largely positive about the prospects of continuing the diplomatic thaw between the two countries this year, but stepped up criticism of the AUKUS security deal.

Since the formation of ASEAN, regional countries have opted for a more peaceful diplomacy. PNG and Timor-Leste have observer status in the existing ten country ASEAN grouping.

Can Last Minute Diplomacy Invigorate the ASEAN Forum?

The mainstream media also has a profound blind-spot about the consequences of territorial acquisitions by Taiwan in the South China Sea. Even after the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Nationalist China retained control of the island of Hainan until 1950. Nationalist China had intervened from Southern China in support of French and British efforts to reclaim the old French Empire in Indochina during the first Vietnamese War 1945-46. Ironically, the Longpo Naval Base on Hainan is now a key Chinese naval installation. This is somewhat overshadowed by the Wenchang Space Launch site which is also capable of handling the Long March 5 Group of ICBM Rockets. Australians retain deep faith in the capacity of the AUKUS submarines with their conventional weaponry to outsmart such firepower to cheers from the potential manufacturers of the submarines in Britain and especially in the USA.

Hainan is almost as large as Taiwan itself. Decades later, Taiwan still retains some island outposts in the South China Sea including the island of Taiping where the military airport is indeed the main feature of the entire island as covered in the Italian-based PIME AsiaNews (12 March 2022):

Taipei (AsiaNews) Taiwan and Vietnam have rejected each other’s official claim over “illegal” activities near a disputed small island, part of the Spratly Islands, known as Taiping in Taiwan and Itu Aba in Vietnam. Part of the Spratly Islands, Taiping Island is claimed by both countries, as well as mainland China and the Philippines. Vietnam is also irked by Taiwan’s live-fire drill in waters around the island.

The ASEAN Forum opposes the return of great power rivalry between nuclear weapons states in the region. Writing in The Interpreter (13 September 2022), Melissa Conley Tyler noted the reservations from regional leaders about the AUKUS submarine deal:

When Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced the AUKUS trilateral security cooperation agreement a year ago, it didn’t get a uniformly positive reception in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was “deeply concerned” over an arms race in the region. Malaysia expressed concerns at multiple levels, with both the prime minister and foreign minister raising concerns that it could “potentially spark tension among the world superpowers and aggravate aggression between them in the region”. Malaysia’s Minister for Defence Hishammuddin Hussein went as far as saying he would consult with Beijing on its views on AUKUS.

With commitment to the AUKUS deal still at a consultative stage, favourable guarantees from China might yet modify those gun-ho commitments from the Morrison Government to the re-militarization of our region.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also revived concerns over the AUKUS submarine deal as covered by Ellen Ransley ( 9 January 2023):

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says it is “truly remarkable” the renewed debate about acquiring United States submarines has not considered how significantly it would undermine Australia’s sovereignty.

The federal government will within months announce its nuclear submarine plan, with both AUKUS partners – the US and the United Kingdom – in the running for supplying vessels to Australia until domestic industry is capable.

More public discussion of this complex issue might assist in modifying the worst excesses of the AUKUS deal with its enormous financial consequences and more dependency on those powerful friends abroad which have been such a feature of the federal LNP’s foreign policies for decades past.

This nostalgia for a return to Cold War solutions will hardly bring progress in reducing regional tensions. While waiting for the arrival of the AUKUS submarines, China continues with its development of land and sea based nuclear weapons. Perhaps some eleventh-hour deals are still possible to reduce future tensions, but change is difficult because of bipartisan agreement in Australia on this issue which seems to have strong electoral support in the absence of public discussion on the economic consequences.

As an early visitor to China in 1974-75, I must remain optimistic about the possibility of improvement in our relations with China during this Year of the Rabbit. From my perspectives in those far-off days towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, I could not have expected the positive depth and diversity of our relations with China.

Like the facial language in this old slide from my visit to Middle School No.10 in Guangzhou almost a half century ago, I would not have imagined the degree of mutual goodwill has been redeveloped between China and Australia after the fleeting years of the Whitlam Government (1972-75) shifted the location of our embassy from Taipei to Beijing.

Hopefully, this old goodwill will not be compromised by that No Win Fool’s Errand of the AUKUS submarine deal. The Albanese Government knows that it floats on quite favourable bipartisan public opinion in the absence of thorough reporting on this issue. In this new era of canny perception management, the old Beatles’ hit has a new relevance in vacuous commentaries from the Murdoch press mentioned on the front page of the Christmas Weekend Edition of The Australian.

We can all live with those expensive AUKUS submarines,
Our US mentors will soon be on board
Malcolm Turnbull warns that naval intel supervisors to remain on shore

As We still live a life of ease (a life of ease)
Every one of us (every one of us)
Has all we need (has all we need)
Sky of blue (sky of blue)
And sea of green (sea of green)
As seem from those dark, expensive submarines

Denis Bright is a financial member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis is committed to consensus-building in these difficult times. Your feedback by using the Reply button on The AIMN site is always most appreciated. It can liven up discussion. I appreciate your little intrusions with comments and from other insiders at The AIMN. Full names are not required when making comments. However, a valid email must be submitted if you decide to hit the Reply button.

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  1. Leila

    A good article to read on the bus on a balmy summer’s day by skies of blue and seas of green somewhere in Australia or beyond

  2. Indigo

    Paul McCartney was thinking about such a song when he was living with the family of his girlfriend Jane Asher in Wimpole Street, London. He recalled: “I was laying in bed in the Ashers’ garret… I was thinking of it as a song for Ringo, so I wrote it as not too rangey in the vocal. Do you dream about the US Global Alliance, Denis in the spirit of Paul McCartney?

  3. Laura

    Thanks Denis for making use of the Beatle’s 10th Studio Album from 1969 . The Yellow Submarine lyrics were also reinterpreted by the UK’s Radio X in 2022 .

  4. Tessa_M

    The AUKUS deal is not in the best traditions of the Boxing Day New year sales. Australians should expect better value for their outlays.

  5. James Robo

    Expect that nuclear weapons will be slotted into the AUKUS subs. Israel takes German subs with conventional weaponry and does its own add ons at home in both the Mediterranean and Red Sea fleets.

  6. Noreen

    Definitely a Long March from Gough Whitlam to today’s wasteful expenditure of $90 dollars.

  7. rubio@central coast

    Good diplomacy is Australia’s best defence.

    Japan was an ally during the Great War but the relationship deteriorated when the older industrialized nations resorted to tariff barriers to contain the economic success of an Asian nation. Japan copied the older industrialized nations with its own cruel and extreme forms of colonialism against China and Korea long before the Pacific War commenced,

    Why do our elites constantly place strategic preparedness over peaceful diplomacy as favoured by Gough Whitlam?

  8. Agnes

    Thanks Denis, a really interesting article. Very well researched and informative.

  9. Clakka

    Thanks for the article Denis,

    What a complete and utterly lame-brained stuff-up, as usual from the Oz political / military boof heads. Mostly they wouldn’t know their arse from their elbow when it comes to strategies of materiel, and the the commercial / trade / territorial security interplays of our region. Usually opting to be lead by the nose by militarised spooks and the commercial wiles of the British / American military establishment – whether their security strategies are relevant to Oz or not.

    Historically, it always seems to have been the same, an OTT imbroglio of mismanagement of ‘boys with toys’ giving rise to a catastrophic trail of assemblage and disassemblage of the associated design and construct industries and facilities, and the boots on the ground.

    Given this, and Morrison’s behaviour, who would really know what the Oz public thinks about AUKUS – more than likely just a groan and a “Here we go again”. Also, given the other hugely important pressures on our purse, like debt, and renewal and stabilisation of our energy and transport systems, what’s the fit with the inevitable huge cost of AUKUS subs & systems? It seems as usual we are coming from behind and heading up a blind alley.

    In my opinion, despite the blather, Albanese and Marles look pale on it – ooops.

    We best get Radio Australia fully fired up again and start talking fast.

    Totally agree with your line; “Hopefully, this old goodwill will not be compromised by that No Win Fool’s Errand of the AUKUS submarine deal.”

  10. Sinn Fein

    A great case for more independence in protecting our national sovereignty: The US competes with Australia to gain access to the Chinese market and to use Chinese factories to manufacture prestige brand names particularly in footwear

  11. rubio@central coast

    No wonder the Murdoch Press supports the military indsurial complexes in Brtiain and the USA. The top institutional shareholders in Lockheed Martin (LMT) and also prominent in News Corp. LMT produces 10 percent of global armaments and demands obedient support from all major players in British, US and Australian politics. Become too independent and there might be a political coup as occurred with Whitlam in 1975.

    “The top shareholders of Lockheed Martin are Marillyn Hewson, Daniel Akerson, Scott Greene, State Street Corp., Vanguard Group Inc., and BlackRock Inc.” (Investopedia)

    40 percent of News Corp shares are held by company insiders including members of the Murdoch Dynasty. Vanguard Corp and Blackrock Inc are key institutional shareholders in News Corp (Yahoo Finance)

    My MBA lecturer is keen on telling us about these connections between the military, the mainstream media, popular entertainment and politics.

  12. Andy56

    Yes i agree, good diplomacy is our best defence. Buying some nuclear subs and parking then on chinas door steps seems sureal. Better to buy some himars and donating to our neighbours. Not much use in australia. You want to conquer australia? Stop fuel supplies and its over in 14 days. This is the lesson from ukraine. Self sufficiency in resupplying the front line. Having our subs 7000km away means they are a one shot pony, very very expensive ones too. Its time we stopped being a country that thinks it can be everything to everyman in defence, or should i say forward projection. When defence is mentioned, it seems that licence is given to different meanings. Seems that smeering the language allows all kinds of vote buying.

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