In a show of incompetent diplomatic maneuvering, Australia set itself upon a dangerous course for the geopolitics of the entire Indo-Pacific via its acquisition of submarines. Its bewildering resignation of self-determination for a nuclear naval strategy under the AUKUS is a potentially self-defeating problem for all three countries involved. Though unintended, for better or worse, this fumbling may result in a better long-term strategy for Australia, much like a ‘French Cut’ in cricket. Though there is more reason than not to doubt the short-term benefits of this arrangement, time will tell.
The story begins in the early 2010’s when Australia began the process of establishing its 21st century geopolitical strategy, defining its dependencies on oceanic trade across the Indo-Pacific and steps it would take towards modernizing its naval capabilities to protect them. Lacking the technologies and industrial base to build a capable naval force, the Australian government published several whitepapers (2009, 2013, & 2016) which aligned strategy, capabilities, and resources, and set about an acquisition strategy for foreign designs of submarines and surface warships. A 2015 Rand Corporation study delivered to the Australian Department of Defense supported the strategy for acquisition, estimating that home-built ships would carry a 30-40% premium compared with buying ships from foreign shipbuilders. However, the government also recognized the significant economic and security benefits for self-determination of improving its domestic industrial capabilities so that it could support the construction and maintenance of future navy requirements.
At first, Australia explored opportunities in its relative backyard, seeking a contract for Japanese-built submarines that had performed extremely well in recent US-led war games. There were, however, two factors working against such a deal, namely that Japan was unwilling to share its shipbuilding technologies, while Australians would insist that some of the construction should take place in Australia. Furthermore, the polarized nature of Australian politics undermined the opportunity, and opposition party leaders threw a wrench in Prime Minister Abbott’s process by invoking WW2 era rhetoric against the Japanese partnership.
As such, a new tender was issued to Japanese, French, and German shipbuilders for the construction and retrofitting of Australian submarines. Prime Minister Turnbull, again on the campaign trail, rallied the nationalist angle in the matter, “Australian built, Australian jobs, Australian steel, right here where we stand.” Despite the better perceived performance of Japanese submarines, it was ultimately the French offer that directly supported Australia’s geostrategic requirements, as well as Turnbull’s political interests, that won what the French called, “the deal of the century”. The now infamous contract was then signed for 12 French-Australian built submarines at an initial price tag of $50 billion. In a sign of things to come, the Japanese felt stung by the sudden withdrawal of Australian commitments, while many in Australia worried the deal had invariably harmed their relationship.
Chapter 1: The “Deal of the Century”
Despite the early controversy associated with the French-Australian contract, the deal itself made quite a lot of sense for both countries respective to their interests and strategies for the region. In fact, it was overtly celebrated as such. For that reason, it boggles the mind that the Australians would eventually abandon the project for a contradictory one. To be fair, the deal itself was never without road bumps and hiccups. But the source of friction was intrinsic to the conflicts within Australian partisan politics and fits squarely in the failure of Australians to define their role and purpose in their region. So, what was this so-called “deal of the century”, and why was it so flippantly abandoned?
The deal awarded to the French included the design of an Australian industry-friendly Shortfin Barracuda; a spacious, diesel-electric submarine capable of traveling 18,000 nautical miles for 80 days, altered with a pump-jet propulsion system that would be quieter than the traditional propeller system and outfitted with a Lockheed Martin targeting system. Of the three bids, its design was the most favorable for three specific reasons: 1.) The range, speed, size, and experience of the submarine outmatched those of Germany and Japan; 2.) The French Naval Group was willing to source much of the construction from Australian industry; and 3.) The technology of the submarine was the most compatible with American-backed systems and could be implemented to significantly improve Australia’s existing, home-built Collins class fleet. That, and the French opened billboards in Adeleide, Australia promising over 2,900 jobs at home.
The French design was also the best suited for the outline in Australia’s 2013 “Future submarine industry skills plan”. The 2013 Defence Whitepaper listed specific priorities that were also accomplished through the French deal:
- Established the principle of self-reliance in deterring or defeating armed attacks on Australia;
- Defined Australia’s future strategic requirements as a credible maritime force sufficient to achieve greater influence and reach for stability in the Indo-Pacific region and Australian domains through primarily mission-ready, intelligence, humanitarian and disaster relief planning, and maritime training tours;
- Ruled out the consideration of nuclear-powered submarine capability;
- The Future Submarine Program would be built on Australia’s experience with the Collins class fleet and range of capabilities;
- Provided detailed analysis and feasibility studies confirming that fleet bases in Sydney and Perth would continue to meet the Royal Australian Navy’s needs for the foreseeable future;
- Recommended against establishing an east coast fleet base in Brisbane, citing excessive cost estimates, sustainability of continued industry, and challenges with both land and environmental factors.
For all the reasons above, the Defense Minister, Marise Payne, concluded that Australia’s “Securities priorities [were] embedded” in the submarine program, and the Industry Minister Christopher Pyne concurred that the French won the bid because their design met the defense requirements for the world’s best conventional subs. Furthermore, France understood, in perfect alignment with Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy, that defense of the region should “encourage Beijing in the right direction and push back together when that does not occur”. After all, Australia has always had to walk a fine line with its security issues aggravating China, its largest trading partner. While every other European state had only economic interactions with China in the region, Australia could count on the fact that France would be charged to its security outlook by virtue of its overseas territories, home to nearly 1.6 million of its citizens in Australia’s immediate backyard. Developing stronger ties between French-Australian defense industries, therefore, was also a logical decision to make for the future of its security strategies. That is, of course, until partisanship in Australian politics would make a mess of a sensible deal.
Members of Australia’s Parliament wasted no time punching holes in the deal. By 2018 the fever pitch of Australian partisan politics had caught fire to it, where senators questioned, in bad faith, the acquisition and sustainment costs and debated whether the submarines fit Australia’s place in the world. It was obvious to everyone that the costs of the submarines would not be limited to $50 billion, and that negotiations would still need to take place for other costs not included in the acquisition strategy, citing in particular those of Australian design, investments in science and technology, delivery of logistics supports, design and construction of a new submarine yard, wharves, training centers, crew facilities, test sites for mechanical component testing, propulsion land based testing facilities, combat systems and integration facilities, etc., etc.
Was Australia ready to make this a $100 billion investment, based on the geopolitical strategy they’d laid out in previous years? Certainly. The parliamentary body felt its back was pressed against the wall by time and situation; the Chinese navy had already increased its deployments in the Indian Ocean and made incursions in ‘Australian waters’, the aging Collins class submarines were decrepit and insufficient for the job, the Australians didn’t have the capacity to build their own vessels while acquisition partners would have to redesign their off-the-shelf submarines to meet Australian objectives, and changing relations between the United States and China seemed confused.
Yet again, going nuclear wasn’t an option for debate; the parliament widely agreed that the French design was the best they could get on conventional capabilities without going nuclear, and Senator Bernardi summarized why the nuclear submarine wasn’t in line with Australia’s objectives, anyways:
“Nuclear submarines are wonderful things if you’re operating in deep water and in a covert capacity for a very long time. They’re not appropriate for a lot of the other work that Australia does in surveillance and counterintelligence and the other mission-ready stuff that takes place in relatively shallow waters.”
There was ample room for the Australian government to express concern that the amalgam of requirements they had for a sensible submarine program was a difficult mix for any one design to satisfy. In 2014, the Australian Defense Minister David Johnston said he wouldn’t trust the Australian shipbuilders to “build a canoe”, but by 2016, the Defense SA sounded more confident in the program and expressly stated that it was not a “French” submarine. It would be an Australian submarine being built by design partners in France and the US on Australian soil. Thus, the French deal brought together the best possible blend of strategy, politics, and capabilities, with heavy investments in Australian industry to boot, and received unanimous support from the various experts in the government’s competitive evaluation process.
Partisanship was the only motivating factor in this controversy and showmanship. At the time, the Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd lamented the partisanship at play, insisting that the French submarine program was a “realistic assessment of China’s evolving strategic posture in our region, particularly the South China Sea”. Prime Minister Turnbull would later agree, “The French offer represented the capabilities best able to meet Australia’s needs.” But Rudd went further, accusing Prime Minister Abbott of being “pathologically opposed to supporting Australian manufacturing – whether in the automotive sector, or the maritime industry”. Instead of making the appropriate investments in commercial industries, the liberal party was playing games with national security and defense spending. Instead, the government had populated itself with cabinet members from South Australia who were determined to make the submarine deal a campaign pledge to restoring manufacturing jobs from their faltering region. Thus, Adelaide, Australia would become the primary beneficiary of a new, sustained submarine industry, with French backing.
To make things worse, a massive security breach of the French Naval Group took place in which a 22,000-page document was published by an Australian newspaper that detailed the designs of a similar submarine deal made with India, derailing the assuredness for information security with the French company. Through an investigation, it was ultimately revealed that an outspoken Australian senator’s office had leaked the document to the newspaper in a ploy to sabotage the deal. While the leak wasn’t as damaging as initially thought, the leak of French Naval Group and India’s sensitive submarine designs created significant tension for their relations, with India reconsidering plans to buy another $2 billion of weapons from the Naval Group.
Soon after, the partisan frenzy over jobs in Australia came to a head. After it was relayed to the French that the deal would have to relocate more of the manufacturing process to Australian shores, it was adjusted to $90 billion to account for added costs and timeline for delivery. Again, no time was wasted to bash the French for delays and road bumps that the Australians specifically asked for, and the new Prime Minister Scott Morrison had rush to the French President to salvage the deal and restore his political control of the situation. Again, the French restated their commitment to the strategic partnership and Australian industry, while worse cost overruns and project delays and a revolving door between Australian public officials and British BAE Systems in a similar deal for frigates went absent from discussion. And while politicians would bemoan news that the French deal would create jobs in France, they were notably silent that the accompanying deal with Lockheed Martin for submarine weapons systems would create only 200 jobs for Australians while creating more than 2,600 in the United States.
Smoother sailing was the forecast between the parties until suddenly, on September 21, 2021, a news organizations announced that a new deal for nuclear submarines had been made between Australia, the UK, and the US in a grand strategic accord to be called the AUKUS. Earlier that day, Australian officials had communicated to the French, also fully capable of building nuclear submarines, that they were “satisfied with the submarine’s achievable performance and with the progress of the program”. Blindsided by their allies and having only learned of the new deal through said media publications, the French felt stabbed in the back and recalled their ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, leaving its ambassador in the UK and referring to that country as a “fifth wheel”. The world, looking no deeper than at the overtly dramatic French outrage, understood that Australia was probably making a better decision to align itself with a greater power in the region and the Anglo-speaking countries it shares stronger relations with.
But was it really better than the “deal of the century”?
Chapter 2: Australian Strategy and Capabilities
Strategy and capabilities follow Australian interests, which, concerning submarines, are to enhance the security of its region and supporting the rules-based international order. Submarines are a major driver of Australian ADF strategic planning, contributing to a wide range of activities in operations spanning enormous distances. For reference, Australia’s maritime and exclusive economic zones encompass over 10 million square kilometers, and its humanitarian missions are responsible for over 53 million square kilometers from the Eastern coast of Africa to the Pacific Islands. Its exclusive economic zone is the third largest in the world, behind only the United States and France. Australia’s submarine program therefore must be ambitious to tackle the challenges of anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and special operations missions in these spaces. That’s why, with so much area to cover, Australia understood that it would need to double the size of its submarine fleet in the early decades of the 21st century.
The aforementioned 2013 Defense Whitepaper detailed in very clear terms that the relationship between the United States and China would determine the outlook for Australia’s region of the world, but that its policy for the two should ensure that strategic competition in the region does not lead to conflict, warning of miscalculations leading to escalation. will more than any other single factor determine our strategic environment over coming decades. In the 2016 Defence Whitepaper, this central partnership was again at the forefront of Australian defense strategy, stating that interoperability with the United States would be at the heart of the ADF’s potency. It included that over 60% of acquisition spending was on equipment from the United States, and that the cost of maintaining these high-end capabilities would be impossible without its alliance. These white papers, as well as official policy, unambiguously position Australia as a sidecar to United States-led operations, wherever Australian interests are aligned.
There are other international alliances and partnerships which play a prominent role in Australia’s security outlook. Only two European partners were named in Australia’s 2016 whitepaper: France and the United Kingdom. The paper specifically cites Australia’s longstanding and close defense relationship with France with regards to France’s important capabilities in the Pacific as well as their mutual security of Southern Ocean territories. It also signifies the UK’s ties to the region through mainly a symbolic dimension for shared cultural ties and history, but nonetheless regards the UK as a critical intelligence, technology, and UN and NATO institutional partner in its security matters. Finally, the paper highlights the regional importance of its partnerships with Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, India, and China for capacity building and cooperation for counterterrorism, shared maritime awareness, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and integrated air and missile defense.
However, there is a cognitive dissonance playing throughout Australia’s strategic planning, marking a rift between its mapping of local realities and maneuvering beneath great power politics. Addressing the elephants in the room, Chinese and American dynamics are disruptive to Australia’s strategic clarity. The contradictory nature of Australia’s security outlook benefits from China as its largest trading partner while aligning with the United States in confrontation towards Chinese regional ambitions. The conundrum is not enviable, but not without hope. Its European allies are strongly aligned with Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and though they are less powerful forces in said regions, Australia has much to benefit from increasing the proportion of its military reliance on them. Australia can also take a leading role in forging new opportunities for cooperation with its regional partners, even if they do not have the combined technological nor economic edge to balance greater powers in their regions.
This is largely why Australia’s interests are not already entirely aligned with the United States, even while it toes the line with China and unambiguously sidecars itself to American power. Ultimately, Australia’s security outlook reflects another, more psychological divide of Australian cognitive dissonance: self-determination and colonial legacy. To be clear, Australia is not helpless. As a member of the G20, it boasts one of the world’s largest economies and controls access to an entire subcontinent worth of rare resources. The country punches above its weight, is capable of its own self-defense, and contributes mightily to the Indo-Pacific. Put simply, Australia is self-determined where it feels capable and colonial where it feels gapped. These are feelings based more on national sentiments than reality, and they are increasingly used for Australian partisan one-upmanship and are leading to an incongruous defense strategy.
After the announcement of AUKUS, many rushed forward to explain the perplexing and sudden shift of Australian policy as if it were a long time coming and even an expected outcome. Those analyses were as shortsighted as they were rushed, ignoring the consistency and longstanding record of Australian strategizing by rewriting that history into an American-centric geopolitical paradigm and overstating the UK’s contemporary relevance to the region. To Australians, as well as to the French, the AUKUS accord came out of the blue, and is committing their country to another country’s security strategy at more than four times their expenditure (a still low-balled figure), without details and guarantees for any of it, setting a miscalculated course for escalation with their largest trading partner.
Explanations, if there were any, would have to come later, and the partisan frustration in Australia is boiling over. Recently, on August 3, 2023, Senator Shoebridge put it bluntly: “Together, they burned over $5 billion on the torpedoed French submarine projects. These were the same submarines that the ADF and Defence were repeatedly telling us were essential for the defence of Australia, until one day they aren’t.” In fact, most senators have echoed similar complaints that the AUKUS submarine deal does little to nothing for Australia’s defense strategy. Few in the legislative body are convinced that nuclear submarines are the best answer for the country’s needs and cannot find answers nor details that would make the plan sensible, while others make pathetic appeals to Australian pride and fear in order to justify unconscionable spending for gaping holes in the new plan.
As was abundantly clear as early as 2009 and remains so, nuclear submarines will not replace the capabilities of the Collins class submarines, since their advantages lead to entirely different missions and operations. The plan for nuclear submarines is only an extension of American plans for China and Taiwan, but it is not a plan that makes sense for Australia’s greater needs. The plan does not account for the decade between when Collins class submarines are retired and when American nuclear submarines are scheduled for their first deliveries. There is even the novel problem that Australia hasn’t sorted out what to do with spent nuclear fuel, and since Australia is a non-nuclear country, it lacks the pre-existing resources, infrastructure, and the skills to maintain the remainder of what makes up a comprehensive set of nuclear capabilities.
Prime Minister Turnbull had little to offer Australians, and it wasn’t assuring. “There is no design, no costing, no contract. The only certainty is that we won’t have new submarines for 20 years, and their cost will be a lot more than the French subs.” It seems that these are indeed tumultuous winds of change for Australia’s navy, and for Australia.
Chapter 3: AUKUS Changes Everything
The AUKUS announcement marked an abrupt departure from decades of previously established, well thought-out, and grounded defense strategy. That much is beyond debate. But the first details of Australia’s new submarine program, revealingly, were published by Americans in the United States, where it was finally announced on March 13, 2023 that, “Australia has committed to a ‘proportional’ investment in U.S. and British industrial capacity, and over the next several decades will be spending more than $100 billion to buy the submarines and build up its own industrial capacity, as well as shore up America’s and Britain’s shipbuilding capability”. The tone in the Australian Ambassador’s statement was not as confident as it was made out to be, calling the submarine deal “a moonshot” hoping that the potential spillover effects of such a national effort would benefit the rest of the Australian economy.
In their remarks, the three countries announced that they would be working closely over the next 18 months to hash out the details of the submarine plan; another self-imposed delay that would have been all the outrage were it for the French deal. The plan sets out three phases for implementation: 1.) Increased US and UK visits to Australian ports, integration of Australian servicemembers in American boats, and the beginning of Australian investment in its infrastructure; 2.) creation of the Submarine Rotational Force West – a joint force of US and UK submarines operating out of Australian ports – and 3 to 5 new nuclear submarines from the U.S. by the early 2030s; and 3.) finalization of the jointly designed and mutually operated SSN-AUKUS, initially to be built in the UK but eventually by Australia in the 2040s.
There are major problems beneath the surface that undermine the assumed realism of the plan. Currently, US funding and industrial capacity don’t meet the minimum requirements to build them, and the project has no plans for sustaining the commitment throughout its duration. The UK hasn’t been able to defuel and decommission 13 of its out-of-service nuclear submarines for decades and hasn’t demonstrated any capacity to build new nuclear submarines apart from its own requirements. Additionally, Australia’s defense ministry has cited significant problems for personnel: its recruitment statistics have been in decline for years while also struggling with retention, and it’s unclear whether the country of 25 million can identify and train enough people to support such defense initiatives. Finally, in what should come as no surprise to anyone following the ridiculous timing and shortsightedness of the deal, the Australian government still hasn’t considered what it will do without a conventional submarine force, or whether the Collins fleet is even a sufficient force. As it currently stands, Australia’s navy struggled to keep only one Collins submarine fit for battle-ready purpose. All of these issues can be overcome, certainly, but that is a far cry from good and intentional planning. As a result, uncertainties abound.
Despite the fanfare of finally having furnished details, more rather than less remains unknown of current arrangements. What is known is that at the expense of its own Future Submarine Program, increased and diversified industrial capacities with the French, and the steep expenses of its new defense arrangement, Australia gains a few nuclear submarines it never needed, greater scientific cooperation, cyber security, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, enhanced intelligence cooperation, and additional undersea capabilities. However, it begs the question why Australia couldn’t have arranged for all of the above. Given that they are clearly separate areas of interest with regards to capacity and strategy, the problems for its justification are compounding.
The AUKUS’s ill-planned implications go beyond the dubious matters of industry and capacity, but also mark a major change for the Atlantic, and for the United States’ shift towards the Pacific. It also tightens the noose around Russia and China, all but forcing them to double down together in their place in the US-led, rules-based world order. But the US needs help constraining them and would be better off relying on allies where it can, while bolstering its own forces as necessary. Enabling stronger ties between French and Australian defense industries, thus diversifying the military capacities in the region against Chinese ambitions and integrating the cause of a powerful and historic ally (the French) in the region, are all perfectly the United States’ best interests. Instead, AUKUS proponents insist on a gross overestimation of the UK’s ability to contribute to the region, which feels more like another post-Brexit-era tabloid headline than a reality. It was foolish for the AUKUS to push out the French, not to mention arrogant and counter-productive, since the AUKUS has barely any need for the UK nor Australian nuclear submarines in order to effect American-led goals for the region, but does need France.
AUKUS also exposes the extent to which United States is unclear whether it truly prefers European autonomy, having become a little too used to European subservience and dependency. While it lambasts Europeans for not taking more responsibility for their overall defense, it doesn’t favor when Europeans going their own way diverges with American interests. But the way in which the US has gone about arranging the AUKUS, without consulting France nor the EU, is counter-productive and prods the EU into defining its own defense strategy. In a silver lining for the French, President Macron’s call for a European Army was unintentionally megaphoned by the United States and the UK. Upon the AUKUS announcement, the French pronounced, “The regrettable decision just announced on the Future Submarine Program only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy. There is no other credible path for defending our interests and values around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region.” The EU’s foreign minister then concurred, “This forces us once again to reflect on the need to make the issue of European strategic autonomy a priority. This shows that we must survive on our own.” If the goal for Australia, the UK, and the US was to isolate themselves, this was a proper step in that direction.
It might well serve as a sharp lesson for Australia, in particular. Australia’s approach to the deal was definitively at odds with French intentions, but this should have been handled better by more experienced diplomatic hands. The French won’t soon forget their grand political deal for the region was just business for the Australians. At least one Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, understands the cost of that diplomatic miscalculation for Australia. Australia will have less influence over France’s policies with China, it has less reason to believe a better positioned France will walk in stride alongside Australia in several key multilateral areas, like NATO, the G7, G20, the UN Security Council, and the EU. At stake for Australia are taxes on its exports, free trade with the EU bloc, and any areas of multilateral importance in the Indo-Pacific, where France maintains a powerful strategic presence. Notwithstanding France, Australia has sent the inept and repeated signal (i.e., Japan) to the world that its commitments cannot be trusted.
To prove the point, Australians should feel embarrassed by their official’s laughable statement on the affair: “Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests.” It’s much easier to lie to oneself than to others, but in a world of great powers and even greater dimensionality, the easier path doesn’t usually pay off.
How is this all faring for Australia? Evidently, it already isn’t.
While the Australian plan for French submarines would have made sense for Australian interests, strategy, and capabilities, it also played well with Australia’s needs for self-determination. That plan represented a continuum of decades of sensible, careful, and responsible strategic planning. Indeed, there are already voices expressing their change of heart on AUKUS. Australians would be smart to question critically whether they will ever get nuclear submarines from this deal, whether American rhetoric matches its commitments to the Pacific (who, unlike the French, have nothing to lose by pivoting away from the Pacific, if necessary), and whether the AUKUS guarantees anything at all – because it doesn’t.
Australians are also discovering rot in the defense spending programs they’ve committed to with the parties in its AUKUS accord, most recently regarding those new frigates promised by BAE systems mentioned earlier. MP Stevens noted “that there is a cloud over the program. Frankly, it’s frightening.” This is no less true of the American side, whose own capabilities are so stretched thin that it’s unclear if the nuclear submarines it promised can be built on schedule, already notifying the Australians of a 2-year delay, with growing outcry in the US Navy and US Senate that the United States isn’t keeping up with its own defense requirements. Two Senators have already written a letter to the White House imploring that it pull the plug on the submarine deal.
Even the efficacy of the AUKUS submarine deal is under fire. Yet another former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, thinks the AUKUS strategy is “like throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain”, and the best American estimates show that the Australian contribution would only grow the AUKUS combined naval force by a mere 10%. To that end, despite its 18 months of catch up planning, Australia’s government still hasn’t justified the change of course for nuclear submarines after decades of defense study to the contrary, and insists the timing of its partisan incentives are not incentivizing. It’s never even been made clear why Australia’s entire submarine program should pivot suddenly from being about the objectives of its maritime responsibilities, to being single-mindedly about something it is ostensibly not about: deterring its largest trading partner. That debate now seems to be roaring back with a vengeance in Australia’s political landscape.
The French case for European strategic autonomy has inched closer to a sure thing, since the traditional system was unintentionally weakened by the American-led AUKUS pivot. That could mean, for the AUKUS, that if the EU’s interdependence on its members is lessoned, it would create more space for European cooperation and dependencies with China. Since the EU wasn’t consulted on the AUKUS, it also weakened the trust between those respected parties. The consequences of undercutting the “deal of the century” sent waves across a delicate balance of regional and global interests, the effects of which will be felt much more strongly in the third decade of the century, when Australia’s new submarine program is effectively offline or diminished.
Readers should take care to notice that proponents of the AUKUS only acknowledge the obvious problems when they attempt to minimize them. At first, the security pact was championed as a great strategic movement for its members’ navies in the region, even while it was clear that the nuclear submarine deal was damaging for it, the UK’s regional capabilities were grossly overestimated, and the French were cast aside as if they were irrelevant to the region. Secondly, as more and more unpleasant details of the nuclear submarine deal are revealed, proponents are moving the goal posts, emphasizing the ways in which the AUKUS deal is now about far, far more than the previously unquestionable nuclear submarines. The fact is, none of its proponents can see past the shallow appeal of nuclear submarines, their eyes on power far greater than Australia’s appetite, which would give the United States merely a sliver of an edge on China should it suddenly become aggressive in the 2040s.
A far more perfect arrangement for the region and Australia’s interests would have continued the French-Australian “deal of the century” that brought sustainable jobs, industry, and a capable fleet to Australia, deepened integration with a powerful European ally already established in the region, allowed the US to reinvest in and rebuild its own aging nuclear fleet, and established an accord between Australia, US, and UK for all those other categories of cooperation that are so important to them. Such an arrangement would have been more affordable, less provoking of China, and more capable of meeting the challenges of the Indo-Pacific, all in a more favorable timeline.
So, is this Australia’s ‘French Cut’? It’s highly doubtful, but decades are a long time to find out.
[U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Zachary Wickline / Flickr]
Nicolas Carjuzaa is a foreign affairs professional with years of experience researching the geopolitical strategies of the United States, France, and the EU. He earned an MSc in international relations from the University of Bristol, UK, and an M1 from Université Paris-Nanterre, France, focusing on international business and finance.