The big AUKUS question that Albanese has yet to answer
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The big AUKUS question that Albanese has yet to answer

Paul Keating is insouciant about China’s muscle and dismissive of Taiwan’s democracy. But he has changed the national debate about the submarine deal. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.


Like a depth charge fired from a destroyer, Paul Keating’s intervention at the National Press Club on Wednesday forced the big AUKUS questions to the surface.

Keating used plain words such as “invasion” and “threat”, whereas the government has said almost nothing about why we are making this $268-368 billion investment. It prefers to talk about economic spin-offs.

Apparently, Australia, one of the world’s top-performing economies for the last three decades and boasting unemployment levels of 3.5 per cent, is in urgent need of a huge government job-creation scheme.

Keating, however, wanted to talk about defence. He spelt out the essential facts plainly and correctly: Australia is next to impossible for China to invade because we are protected by vast oceans. Even if China could assemble a fleet large enough to mount an invasion, Australia could easily pick it off with anti-ship missiles.

So, if not an invasion, what should Australians be afraid of? Well, in some ways, Australia’s defence predicament is easier than Keating describes it, and in other ways, it is harder.

Keating worries that AUKUS is a sign that America wants to maintain hegemony in East Asia, and Australia is along for the ride. AUKUS certainly looks like a dramatic new American gambit to check Chinese military power, but is it?

The deal imposes few costs on the US. Indeed, it promises huge financial benefits to it. All the costs and risks fall on Australia. The US is no more militarily committed to defending its leadership in Asia today than it was before AUKUS was launched.

The Taiwan question is more difficult than Keating allows.

Ultimately, the contest for power in Asia will be settled by arms. It won’t necessarily be decided by war, but if the US fails to show sufficient capability and willingness to fight, it will lose its leadership. And on that score, the US is lagging.

Since the end of the Cold War, China’s forces have modernised at a truly alarming pace (Keating’s insouciance on this point is baffling). Yet, America’s military force structure in Asia has barely changed. Unless the US reverses the long relative decline of its military status with a dramatic force build-up, it will continue to drift away from leadership and towards becoming the balancing power Keating wants it to be.

Keating’s judgment that AUKUS has “screwed into place the last shackle in the long chain the United States has laid out to contain China” is therefore premature. Besides, the project itself is so ambitious and lengthy that there is time for Australia to rethink. On current projections, spending on the submarines won’t peak until the mid- to late-2030s.

Australia has been here before: we reneged on a handshake agreement negotiated by the Abbott government for Japanese submarines and cancelled a contract for French boats. Would it shock anyone if we did it a third time?

On the other hand, if we do see AUKUS through to completion, Keating’s judgment that “no Australian nuclear submarine could have more than a token military impact against China” looks too dismissive. A fleet of eight submarines will be larger than that of either the UK or France, both traditionally thought of as great powers. By 2050, the US Navy expects to have 66 nuclear-powered attack submarines. The Australian fleet would add 12 per cent to that total.

Finally, the Taiwan question is more difficult than Keating allows. He has in the past referred dismissively to “municipal” elections in Taiwan, and in his Press Club remarks, calls it a “so-called democracy”.

It would certainly be easier to dismiss Taiwan’s security concerns if its democracy was somehow tainted or illegitimate. Who wants Australians to die in a war to defend a phoney democracy? But perhaps inconveniently, Taiwan’s democratic achievement is real, and that makes the question of whether Australia ought to help defend it harder.

The success of Taiwan’s democracy is a standing rebuke to the Chinese Communist Party because it shows that the Chinese people could be trusted with free elections, freedom of speech, and all the other civil rights the Taiwanese now enjoy.

Whether that makes Taiwan a vital interest for Australia is a different issue entirely. On that question, Keating is correct. One of the strangest aspects of Australia’s security debate, illustrated by the recent “Red Alert” series in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald (both owned by Nine, the publisher of AFR Weekend), is how seamlessly Taiwan’s security has come to be conflated with our own, though Taipei is more than 7000km from Sydney.

Nuclear-powered submarines are designed for long ranges and high endurance. Supporters say that makes them ideal for defending Australia’s long coastline, but it also encourages this conflation. If we have submarines ideally suited to operating thousands of kilometres from Australian shores, there will be a constant temptation, encouraged by the United States, to use them in defence of Taiwan.

Inexplicably, Australia is dealing itself into a contest that is not vital for our national interest, but which could spark the most destructive war in human history, one that the US is poised to lose.

Keating’s intervention has changed the national debate about AUKUS. The government must now answer a question that it would prefer to leave submerged: how exactly will these submarines make Australia safer?


Areas of expertise: Australian foreign and defence policy, China’s military forces, US defence and foreign policy, drones and other military technology. Also, trends in global democracy.