Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (left) with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Point Loma naval base in San Diego on March 13, 2023. Photo: Pool via AP
Hugh White
Hugh White

The Aukus gamble: can Australia rely on US alliance to secure its future in Asia amid rising China?

  • Australia’s ruling Labor Party is still clinging to the idea of a US-led global order, despite criticism of the risks and cost of Aukus project
  • But doubts are now growing about whether Aukus can boost Australian maritime capabilities, and wider implications for nuclear non-proliferation regime
Eighteen months ago, Australians were stunned when they learned of the Aukus proposal for their country to build nuclear-powered submarines. An initiative of such scale and audacity seemed almost to defy critique and analysis.
But that began to change last month when the leaders of the United States, Britain and Australia gathered in San Diego to announce the broad outline of how this massive project would work. They revealed a plan of immense complexity and staggering cost, beset by a host of technological, economic, political, strategic and diplomatic risks. Suddenly, questions are being raised.

Some of the most searching questions come from within Australia’s governing Labor Party, led by elder statesman Paul Keating, who has excoriated the present Labor leadership for its swift and eager embrace of the A$368 billion (US$248 billion) Aukus project.

‘A past mindset’: Aukus upends Australia’s attempted US-China balancing act

There are two reasons for Labor’s rather surprising embrace of Aukus. One of them is pure politics. Like many centre-left parties around the world, Labor fears it will lose votes if it seems soft on national security, and has fervently backed Aukus to avoid such criticisms from its conservative opponents.

Many Labor figures are also deeply committed to Australia’s alliance with the US, and they understand that this is what Aukus is really all about.

The present generation of party leadership came of age politically in the optimistic “End of History” 1990s, when preponderant US power seemed to guarantee a long era of peace.

They still retain that era’s faith in the idea of a US-led global order, despite the obvious challenges it now faces, especially from China. The stronger and more ambitious China has become, the more fervently they cling to the idea that only American power can protect Australia from Beijing. To them, this is what Aukus seemed to promise.

But now the doubts are setting in. First, there are questions about whether the programme to replace Australia’s existing Collins-class conventional submarines with nuclear-powered boats will actually work. The plan for Australia to buy up to five second-hand US Virginia-class submarines from the early 2030s might fall through for any number of reasons.

Learning to operate and maintain nuclear-powered submarines safely and reliably is a huge task, and will be especially demanding for the Australian navy, which has a poor record of acquiring new capabilities and maintaining existing fleets.

Two Collins-class submarines at the Australian navy base in Perth, Australia, in October 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE

These Virginia-class submarines are only supposed to be a stopgap while Australia and Britain work together to design and build a brand-new submarine – called the Aukus class – for their two navies. The new submarines are expected to come into service with the Australian navy in the early 2040s, but that too is uncertain. Work on the design has only just begun in Britain, and the delivery schedule is unrealistically ambitious.

Britain’s limited design and construction capabilities are already tied up with building a new class of ballistic-missile submarines. This and other UK submarine projects have long been plagued with problems, and further delays and cost overruns in the Aukus programme are virtually certain. Australia is not likely to have a minimum viable fleet of six Aukus submarines in service till at least the late 2050s.

There are also serious concerns about the wider implications of Aukus for the global regime which has done so much to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons for 50 years.

There is good reason to think that a larger fleet of cheaper conventional boats would be more cost-effective in meeting Australia’s strategic priorities than the nuclear-powered force proposed under Aukus

The reactors that will power Australia’s new submarines contain highly-enriched uranium that could be used in a nuclear warhead. This uranium will not be subject to the normal international safeguards used to enforce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, because a special provision, never used before, allows them to be waived for non-weapons-related military applications like nuclear propulsion.

Some experts fear this will create a dangerous precedent by allowing other countries to evade stringent safeguards, thus weakening the fragile credibility of the non-proliferation regime at a time when it is already under great stress.

All this raises questions about why Australia needs nuclear-powered submarines at all. No serious analysis supports Canberra’s assertion that conventionally powered subs will not be effective in the decades ahead. Indeed there is good reason to think that a larger fleet of cheaper conventional boats would be more cost-effective in meeting Australia’s strategic priorities than the nuclear-powered force proposed under Aukus. The suggestion that Aukus poses an effective deterrent to China’s strategic ambitions looks absurd against the reality that it will deliver no substantial new capability until the 2050s.

But perhaps the biggest questions are about what it means for Canberra’s alliance with Washington. The real possibility that the strategic contest between the US and China would lead to war can no longer be ignored, and Aukus marks a big shift in what that means for Australia.


China warns Aukus against going down ‘dangerous road’ over nuclear-powered submarine pact

China warns Aukus against going down ‘dangerous road’ over nuclear-powered submarine pact

The enhanced strategic commitment embodied in Aukus makes it now “inconceivable” – in the words of former defence minister and now leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton – that Australia would not go to war alongside the US against China.

However, dealing with China would be very different. It could be more intense and destructive and it is likely to be a battle that the US has no clear way of winning. A war with China will not save the US strategic leadership in Asia on which Australia has for so long depended.

Australia must therefore think deeply not just about whether the Aukus plan is the best way to build its new submarines, but also whether continued dependence on its old Anglo-Saxon guardian is the best way to secure its future in Asia.

Hugh White is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. A longer version of this article was first published on the website of the Asian Peace Programme, an initiative to promote peace in Asia housed in the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.