This article was first published by the Lowy Institute in The Interpreter on 22 March 2023 and is reproduced with permission.
Whatever the flag, Washington would not sell nuclear-powered boats unless it could count on them in war over Taiwan.
Defence Minister Richard Marles is sure that the AUKUS submarine deal does not commit Australia to support America in a war with China over Taiwan. He made the point in two different ways during an interview with the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday, responding to two questions from host David Speers.
SPEERS: In return for access to these Virginia-class subs, has Australia given the United States any sort of commitment explicitly, implicitly, that we will be there in the event of a conflict over Taiwan?
MARLES: The answer to that is of course not … I’ve listened to that conjecture from a number of commentators. It is just plain wrong.
SPEERS: So no quid pro quo here over access to these Virginia-class subs?
MARLES: Absolutely not. And I couldn’t be more unequivocal than that … The moment that there is [an Australian] flag on the first of those Virginia class submarines in the early 2030s, is the moment that that submarine will be under the complete control of the Australian government of the day … that is obviously the basis upon which this is happening.
Marles’ second answer is no doubt right. If and when the Virginia-class subs are in service with the Royal Australian Navy under Australian command, they will not go anywhere unless the Australian government sends them. That is our choice.
But that is not quite the point. The real question is how AUKUS affects that choice – the choice Australia would make about whether to join a war with China. And the answer is clear: AUKUS commits Australia to fight China if America does, simply because the AUKUS deal will be off if we don’t. So Marles’ answer to Speers’ first question is wrong.
That is because America will only sell us Virginia-class boats if absolutely certain that those boats would join US operations in any war with China. They will come straight out of the US Navy’s order of battle, because no extra Virginia-class boats are to be built to meet Australian needs. So every boat that joins the RAN is one less in the US fleet, and the US Navy is already desperately short of submarines. It is simply inconceivable that Washington would agree to a significant diminution of its submarine capability in this way as its military rivalry with China escalates. So the Americans must be very sure that any Virginia-class subs they pass to Australia will be available to them when war comes.
Nor will Washington provide the systems and technologies essential to the Anglo-Australian AUKUS-class subs unless our commitment to support America in a war with China is clear. Why else would they take this extraordinary step? Unless Australia is willing to go to war with China, the whole AUKUS deal will not be in America’s interests.
So the Americans must believe that there is, at least, a clear implicit commitment. That commitment will probably have to be made fairly explicit sometime soon if the deal is to proceed. It is hard to imagine that Congress would authorise the transfer of the Virginia-class without firm undertakings.
Indeed, AUKUS has only got this far because Washington already takes our commitment for granted. They keep saying that we have fought with them in every war for more than a century. They heard then defence minister and now Opposition leader Peter Dutton say in 2021 that it was “inconceivable” that Australia would not fight with them against China, and they hear the way the Albanese government speaks of the alliance, and it simply does not cross their mind that we would not be there for them.
In July 2022, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley reflected this when asked by Sarah Ferguson on ABC 7.30 whether Washington would expect Australia to join America in a war in Asia. He expressed complete confidence that “if something occurred in the future, then Australia and the United States would still be shoulder to shoulder”.
And no wonder. Americans see this as a fundamental obligation of the alliance that we hold so dear and that we declare to be the very heart of our foreign and strategic policy. No one who was there will ever forget the way one of Washington’s most renowned figures, Richard Armitage, spelled this out in words of one syllable to an audience of prominent Australians almost 25 years ago.
So AUKUS is only going to work if the Albanese government plainly acknowledges Australia’s willingness to join America in a war with China. But that is a war that America has no clear way to win, and which may well become a nuclear war. That is one of the many reasons why AUKUS is a dumb idea. It also raises big questions about Australia’s whole approach to the US-China contest.