AUKUS Is a Big Deal, and Big Deals Should Lead to Big Debates

As in any good democracy, when a major decision is taken by the government, considerable criticism should be expected. The AUKUS submarine deal agreed in San Diego on March 13 certainly falls in that “major decision” category. This is the largest single defense procurement in Australia’s history for a technology Australia has no experience with, and it bears a development and delivery timeline that stretches out decades. It has also angered the country’s largest trade partner, China.

Australian defense minister Richard Marles has explained that AUKUS will provide the capability to deter efforts by another nation—China—to block the sea routes Australia depends on. Australia’s current deterrent capability is considered insufficient or missing entirely. Furthermore, leaders of Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom agreed to cover the looming gap in Australian capability by rotating U.S. and British nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) to Australia. These rotations will take place until the first delivery of the U.S.-made SSNs to Australia in the 2030s. The three nations will also work together to build a new class of SSNs called SSN-AUKUS that will help maintain the shipbuilding capacity in the United Kingdom and expand this industrial skillset to Australia.

With major Australian political parties actively supporting AUKUS and the Greens and parliamentary independents offering only muted criticism, the most active and vociferous Australian critics of AUKUS are retired political and government officials. Their critiques fall into three principal categories:

  1. The Borg Group: Resistance to China’s rise is futile, so Australians may as well make the best of that inevitability. This is related to the “let’s just hope for the best, she’ll be right” crowd. The problem with this argument is that resistance has shown to be effective. Australia refusing to kowtow to China’s economic coercion, and China now rolling back its economic sanctions against Australia (regardless of AUKUS) demonstrates that pushing back and standing up for Australian sovereignty—including the right to criticize another nation—actually works.

With China expanding its naval assets at the fastest speed in history (including new nuclear propelled submarines armed with nuclear missiles) Australia needs some sort of countermeasure.

  1. The Budget-Minded: Australia is paying how much? Can’t the government pay less for something else? This sentiment is based on the fact that China is Australia’s biggest trade partner, and it needs to maintain good relations with China for its economic security.

However, the main risk to Australia is not a Chinese invasion of the Australian continent. Rather, it is the cutoff of Australia’s access to refined petroleum, global internet, and general trade. This would be economic coercion ramped to the maximum, and Australia has already witnessed China’s willingness to utilize some forms of such coercion. The Australian military believes that the only way to counter this sort of action would be through the stealthy capabilities of submarines that can be hidden for weeks or even months and act to break such a blockade. This capability costs what it costs. To pay for something that would not have this capability is simply paying for something not fit for purpose. That is not a true budget-minded proposition.

China will make decisions on what goods to import based on its own political calculus. Currently, that means ending many of the restrictions on imports of Australian commodities and services. Australia cannot successfully game China’s decision making through preemptive appeasement. Consider how quickly China changed its zero-Covid policy, or how in less than a year China went from no communication with Australian officials to welcoming the trade minister and foreign minister and reopening trade in several blocked goods with no change in Australian policy.

  1. The United States and United Kingdom Are Yesterday’s News: Australia is tying itself to an unreliable polity whose values are diverging from its own and only has its own interests at heart. Will these vessels really be Australian if the United States owns the nuclear propulsion technology? Since the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia following the Vietnam War, the region has questioned whether the United States would be a reliable partner in a crisis. Would it trade Los Angeles to help save Sydney? What about Bangkok or Manila? This concern was amplified during the Trump administration when it seemed that the U.S. president would be willing to trade alliances for other benefits, or renege on alliance commitments if allies didn’t perform to Trump’s expectations.

But even under Trump, U.S. interests and presence in the Asia-Pacific did not change. Even a more isolationist United States recognizes the enormous U.S. economic interests in the region. U.S. exports to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations alone tally more than $325 billion with a similar amount of foreign direct investment to Southeast Asia. The United States is unlikely to concede the Asia-Pacific as a Chinese lake, especially given that the current anti-China climate in Washington will not end soon.

Finally, the pro-Australia sentiment in Congress and among the U.S. populace in general is unmatched by any other country. U.S. support for Ukraine would be nothing compared to a U.S. response if Australia were attacked.

Some critics have asked who will ultimately own and control the submarines given that the nuclear propulsion system will be U.S.-made. At least initially, the submarines are likely to include some U.S. crewmembers. But the captain of a naval vessel ultimately takes orders from their civilian political masters. All members of the crew take orders from their captain—period. An Australian-flagged vessel is Australian, just as a laptop running Windows belongs to the user, not Microsoft.

The Australian concern about having full sovereignty over the submarines mirrors the U.S. concern from some members of Congress and the U.S. Navy that, at a time that the United States desperately needs more seaborne firepower, the most effective vessels in the fleet will be going to another country over which neither the U.S. politicians nor military have control.

As reflected in the 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy, the logic of giving up some vessels in the short-term is recognition that the only way the United States can outcompete China is by fully utilizing and making U.S. allies as capable as possible. This is especially true of the United States’ most trusted ally. This does not mean U.S. war planning assumes or requires Australia will be part of any action.

There are many issues to be managed for AUKUS to succeed. These include workforce development, changes to U.S. export controls, and ensuring budgets in three nations remain supportive over decades. Greater discussion of these sorts of matters would be useful to ensure a constructive and robust debate over the advantages and potential drawbacks associated with alternative approaches. A real debate should be argued on merit—not on straw man arguments.

James Carouso is a senior adviser and chairman of the Advisory Council to the Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and was chargé d’affaires to Australia from 2016–2019.

James Carouso
Senior Adviser and Chairman of the Advisory Council to the Australia Chair, Australia Chair