Former prime minister Paul Keating issued a blistering criticism of the new tripartite defence agreement between the UK, the US, and Australia, saying it locks Australia to act collectively with its partners in any military action against China.
The agreement, which was announced via a three-way press conference early Thursday morning, has at its core the objective of boosting Australia’s defence capability that includes moving to nuclear-powered rather than diesel powered submarines.
A joint statement issued by prime minister Scott Morrison, prime minister Boris Johnson, and president Joe Biden said the agreement will seek to leverage the expertise in both the United Kingdom and United States to help develop a nuclear-powered submarine capability.
“The development of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines would be a joint endeavour between the three nations, with a focus on interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit. Australia is committed to adhering to the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures to ensure the non-proliferation, safety, and security of nuclear material and technology,” the joint statement said.
“Australia remains committed to fulfilling all of its obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state, including with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Our three nations are deeply committed to upholding our leadership on global non-proliferation.”
But Keating said the arrangement results in a loss of Australian sovereignty and commits Australia to further involvement.
He expressed doubt about Australia’s ability to cope with advanced submarine technology.
“Australia has had difficulty in running a bunch of Australian built conventional submarines – imagine the difficulty in moving to sophisticated nuclear submarines, their maintenance, and operational complexity,” Keating said.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the decision to build nuclear powered submarines was a ‘disastrous and dangerous’ deal for Australia.
“Many Australians have woken up to the news this morning and are feeling scared and worried about what the consequences will be,” Hanson-Young said.
“This is a serious escalation in our military policy and spending. It puts a target on the back of Adelaide and South Australia.”
Maria Rost Rublee, associate professor in politics and international relations, said Australians needed to better understand the cost of the arrangements that have been announced given Australia does not have a large defence budget.
“Whilst there is a good feeling that comes with being included, with being on par with the UK when it comes to US relations, and trusted with sensitive nuclear technology, Australia needs to ask questions about what is best for our many defence needs and our limited budget,” Rost Rublee said.
“We need to understand how these will be made. In the US it costs about $US2-3 billion to build a submarine. And that’s with the systems already in place. We have no nuclear industry in Australia and nuclear-powered submarines involve very different technology to the conventional diesel-electric submarines, which were part of the deal with the French.”
Achieving sea control would require more than 12 submarines, according to Rost Rublee, and the
government needs to explain how long the construction of the submarines will take.
“We also need to query whether nuclear-powered submarines are the best option for our defence long-term. Yes, they can stay submerged in the ocean for long periods, but they are noisier, and with drone technology improving, they could be spotted.”