Inside Story

Spiky questions remain for AUKUS proponents

There is an alternative, but the debate looks like taking some time to shift

Sam Roggeveen 19 March 2024 1609 words

“Deterrence”? British defence secretary Grant Shapps (left) and Australia’s defence minister Richard Marles at Rolls Royce’s nuclear reactor manufacturing site in Derby in November. Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Alamy

The debate about AUKUS — the military technology-sharing agreement best known for its promise to supply eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia’s navy, announced in September 2021 by prime minister Scott Morrison — was initially conducted mostly among defence boffins. But in March 2023 Morrison’s successor, Anthony Albanese, went to San Diego to announce the “optimal pathway” for the deal.

Labor had long endorsed AUKUS, but now a Labor PM was standing beside US president Joe Biden and British prime minister Rishi Sunak to announce how it would be implemented. The political symbolism was sharp; what had previously been endorsed by Labor was now being wholeheartedly embraced.

Soon after, former prime minister Paul Keating appeared at the National Press Club to drop a rhetorical depth charge. He called the Albanese government’s embrace of AUKUS Labor’s “worst international decision” since Billy Hughes tried to introduce conscription. Suddenly the debate opened up, and since then doubts and criticisms of AUKUS — among them my book The Echidna Strategy — have barely let up. As former Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese put it during Adelaide Writer’s Week in February, the anti-AUKUS argument is now reasonably complex and sophisticated while the pro-AUKUS position rarely rises above platitudes.

In the two-and-a-half years since the deal was announced, we have not once heard — either from the Morrison government or its successor — what the order for eight nuclear-powered submarines is actually designed to achieve. With neither a prime minister nor a senior minister providing any kind of strategic rationale for the deal, the case for AUKUS has not advanced beyond clichés and truisms about “deterrence.” Apart from pacifists, everyone is in favour of deterrence; the debate is solely about how we deter, and on this point the pro-AUKUS side has barely engaged.

Still, for all the strength of AUKUS scepticism, it seems unlikely to have any perceptible impact on government policy. Foremost among the reasons is the fact that major-party support for AUKUS remains steadfast: neither Labor nor the Coalition is likely to move away from AUKUS because they have nothing to gain by doing so.

AUKUS was conceived by a Liberal-led government, and the Liberal Party typically feels that national security is its electoral strong suit. So, barring a major reversal in the practical implementation of AUKUS (more on that in a moment), it is difficult to see what they could gain by revising what they regard as a signature policy initiative. Former prime minister Scott Morrison recently said that history would record AUKUS as the best decision his government made.

Of course, it’s not unprecedented for subsequent leaders to walk away from policy stances championed by their predecessor. But Peter Dutton was defence minister when AUKUS was conceived so he is closely associated with the policy and will stand by it.

Is Labor support for AUKUS more fragile? A heated debate took place at the party’s national conference in September last year, but ultimately a resolution backing the initiative passed with a comfortable majority. Former Labor leader Kim Beazley was moved to describe AUKUS as a “core Labor value,” evoking a sense of grassroots support and deep historical resonance. Beazley called the conference vote “the most significant move in the party since the 1963 Labor Federal Conference,” which dealt with the establishment of the North West Cape naval communications station.

But there is reason to doubt the sincerity of Labor’s conversion. Before AUKUS, no senior Labor figure had ever campaigned for nuclear-powered submarines. Indeed, support for such subs was a fringe position even in the Australian strategic debate. Then, in September 2021, the Morrison government gave the Labor opposition less than a day’s notice before announcing AUKUS. Labor, fearing a khaki election, instantly threw its support behind the initiative.

By any measure, it was a lightning-fast conversion on a huge policy question. And it seemed to be based largely on political calculation rather than deep principle or historical affiliation. Beazley’s “core Labor value” declaration looked like an attempt at what American political strategists call “astroturfing” — political elites creating an artificial semblance of grassroot activity.

But even assuming support for AUKUS inside the Labor caucus is a mile wide and an inch deep, does that matter for the future of the project? Perhaps less than we might think. Major political questions are never decided purely on principle or on the careful weighing of policy alternatives divorced from party-political considerations. Politicians can change their minds, but they change them faster if arguments align with incentives. At present, that’s simply not the case.

Prime Minister Albanese has spoken openly about his plans to entrench Labor in office for several terms to guarantee its reforms can’t be undone (as was the carbon price) by the Liberals. To win successive elections, he and his senior ministers appear to believe that Labor should never give Australian voters reason to doubt its national security credentials. And the cost of providing that reassurance is, for the moment, manageable.

AUKUS spending is not expected to peak for some years. Of a total project cost of between A$268 billion and A$368 billion, the government expects to spend A$58 billion over the next decade, but with less than a quarter of that sum due in the first five years. In budgetary terms, therefore, the decision is easy. Why offer the opposition a stick with which to beat the government at the next election when avoiding that fate costs the government so little?

Labor doesn’t even have an incentive to encourage debate about the deal by having the prime minister or defence minister give a major address. Policy wonks want such a debate, but who gains? What powerful political force would be quieted by a prime ministerial statement? Critics of AUKUS are unlikely to be satisfied; supporters just want to see the project go ahead.

This reflects two things about the structure of Australian politics: first, the number of people who care about defence policy is tiny, and so government doesn’t feel an urgent need to be accountable; second, the number of key decision-makers in defence and foreign policy can be counted on one hand. Unlike in the United States, no alternative base of power exists in the legislature to encourage accountability.

But political incentives change, and this project will rise or fall on its practicalities. Once a steady drip of news reports about cost overruns and program delays begins, internal critics will emerge. (The latest worry concerns the capacity of US shipyards to fill Australia’s order while keeping the US navy itself supplied with new subs.) There are AUKUS sceptics in the parliamentary Labor Party, but scepticism will need to turn to disaffection and resentment. When ministers and parliamentary secretaries see their budgets sliced while AUKUS is fed, internal grumbling may begin.

What else could crack Labor’s AUKUS consensus? The most immediate threat, if he takes office next year, will be Donald Trump. It’s unlikely Trump even knows what AUKUS is right now, but if he’s confronted with its existence he may reel. Australians remember his blistering response when prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described to him a refugee resettlement agreement that his administration had inherited from Barack Obama. It was a testament to Turnbull’s deft handling of the call that the president didn’t renege on what he described as “the worst deal ever.” Goodness knows what he will make of an agreement that makes the US navy smaller so a foreign navy can grow larger.

Presently, Australia is responding to the prospect of a second Trump term in much the same way as America’s other allies — lots of fretting and crossed fingers but precious little policy change. The assumption appears to be that if Trump wins, allies are in for another rough four years before the situation returns to “normal,” much as it did when Biden replaced Trump.

That interpretation requires a good deal of optimism and a peculiar reading of recent history, yet it remains the prevailing view. It is remarkable to recall that Australia proposed AUKUS to the Biden administration just a few months after the 6 January assault on the US Capitol. Our government was evidently so convinced that this outrage, and the president who had provoked it, were aberrant rather than an expression of enduring change that they almost immediately proposed to his successor the most dramatic upgrade to the ANZUS alliance since it was signed in 1951.

While media and political attention is focused on whether AUKUS can be delivered, in the background lurks a strategic question: even if we can get AUKUS done, is it even a good idea? That’s the issue The Echidna Strategy focused on. Australia’s biggest strategic asset is distance — Beijing is closer to Berlin than it is to Sydney — yet the AUKUS submarine project is effectively an attempt to compress that distance when we should be exploiting it. If China ever wants to project military force against Australia, let it traverse the vast oceans that separate us. There is no pressing reason for Australia to project military power to China’s near seas and onto its landmass.

Such arguments have no purchase on either major party right now, but the real job of books like mine is to open the “Overton window” — to make the unthinkable thinkable. When AUKUS begins to sink under the weight of its misdirected ambition, political leaders will look for new ideas. An alternative defence strategy exists that is prudent and affordable, not weighted with ideological baggage from either extreme, and based on realistic assumptions about the future of Chinese and American power in our region. •