Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference at Kirribilli House in Sydney, on September 19. Australia’s neighbours would be much happier if it led, instead, on climate change in the Asia-Pacific. Photo: EPA-EFE
Andrew Sheng
Andrew Sheng

Does Australia care how its Aukus submarine deal looks to its Asian neighbours?

  • Australia’s pact has raised Asean concerns of a nuclear arms race, hurt its trade ties with China and alienated Europe, particularly France
  • It also shows Australia would rather sink or swim with its Anglosphere counterparts than address climate concerns in its vulnerable Pacific island neighbourhood
Last week, US President Joe Biden, in announcing the Aukus pact between Australia, Britain and the United States, called Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison “that fellow from Down Under” in what appeared to be a senior moment. That the military alliance has upset many in China and France, and even Australia’s own commentators, should not have been surprising.

Has Australia seriously thought through the implications for its Asian neighbours?

First, do eight nuclear submarines by 2040 make military sense for Australian security? We can understand that a maritime power in the South Pacific with lots of coastal waters to patrol needs a strong navy. But, as former prime minister Paul Keating rightly points out, China is a land-based power that does not present a military threat to Australia.

Assuming that Australia’s nuclear submarines are similar to the 12 Columbia-class subs that the US plans to acquire by 2030 under a US$128 billion programme, Australia may be paying at least US$85 billion for equipment that could be obsolete by the time they come on stream.

Twenty years is a long time in which to improve defences against submarine attacks. In conventional warfare, submarines are a deterrent at best – their threat comes from carrying nuclear missiles. But even such nuclear missile-carrying potential could invite nuclear retaliation.


US, UK, Australia announce ‘historic’ military partnership in Pacific

US, UK, Australia announce ‘historic’ military partnership in Pacific
This is why Asean members such as Malaysia and Indonesia are concerned that Aukus may catalyse the nuclear arms race. In that case, Australia would lose its status as a haven for nuclear-free living, something that New Zealand cares deeply about, and why it distanced itself from the deal.

Second, what businessman spends nearly all the money he earns from his best customer to point a gun at him? China imported over US$100 billion worth of goods from Australia last year, giving it a trade and service surplus of US$55.5 billion. To spend an estimated US$85 billion on defence against your top customer defies business logic.

Third, the Anglosphere military alliance has created a split with Europe, already sore after Brexit and the US exit from Afghanistan. France is not only America’s first ally (helping in the American War of Independence against Britain) but also has serious Indo-Pacific interests, with about 93 per cent of its maritime economic exclusivity zone in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Fourth, you have to ask whether Australian military intelligence is an oxymoron when it recently ordered 70-tonne US Abrams tanks that are too heavy to carry by amphibious landing boats or travel across large parts of northern Australia.


Why worry about a China-US nuclear war when we have Nicki Minaj?

Why worry about a China-US nuclear war when we have Nicki Minaj?
Australia’s neighbours would be much happier if it led, instead, on climate change in the Asia-Pacific. Australia is ranked fifth or sixth among world’s biggest carbon emitters; among the rich countries, it has the highest per capita emission rate, similar to America’s. Australia’s voice on fulfilling the Paris Accord matters.
Unfortunately, given the mining lobby’s huge influence, Australia may not even achieve its agreement to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, let alone improve on that commitment by COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, in November.
Australia may be rich enough to mitigate its risks but the effect of climate change on its neighbours, particularly the Pacific Islands, is going to be devastating. In 2019, Pacific island nations such as Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, East Timor and Tonga warned that, by 2030, their lands could be made uninhabitable by rising seas, water salination, reef destruction and more natural disasters.

Why Scott Morrison’s climate inaction is a ‘code red’ in itself

The latest World Bank model suggests that the global decline in biodiversity and collapse in ecosystem services, such as wild pollination, food from marine fisheries and timber from native forests, could cost the world economy US$2.7 trillion annually by 2030. The injustice is that the poorest countries, including in the Asia-Pacific, will bear most of the loss. In particular, many indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on nature will suffer.

Why are we not surprised that on September 13, 2007, when the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by 144 member countries, the four votes against were from the Anglosphere countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US? These countries have treated their indigenous peoples shamefully, most recently with the unmarked graves of indigenous schoolchildren in forced assimilation schools in Canada.

According to Human Rights Watch, Aboriginal and Torres Islander people comprise 29 per cent of the Australian adult prison population, but just 3 per cent of the population. In the US, states with large Native American populations have incarceration rates for American Indians up to seven times that of whites.

The Aukus military alliance essentially signals to the world that money spent on real war is preferred to money spent on social justice at home and concerns for people and the planet. Who really profits from the nuclear submarine contract? Exclusive submarine suppliers such as General Dynamics and British Aerospace.

The Aukus deal confirms, essentially, that Australia opts to sink or swim with its rich Anglosphere few, rather than the global many. Who said the world was fair?

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective