The three big questions Australia’s leaders must answer about the AUKUS deal

Former foreign minister (1988 to 1996) under a Labor government, Gareth Evans questions the wisdom of the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. This comes from the viewpoint of some who favours the alliance with the United States. Even so, he sees significant problems in this deal, which are enough to question the wisdom of going along with it. His words ae important. Evans joins a growing list, including Paul Keating, Kim Carr, Bob Carr, and Peter Garrett. They add to the growing tide of opposition. This has been confirmed by the latest Essential poll. This article was published as an opinion[piece in The Guardian (21 March 2023).

Love Paul Keating or loathe him, admire or abhor his invective, he has raised questions about the AUKUS deal which are hugely important for Australia’s future and demand much more compelling answers than we have so far received from government ministers past or present.

The big three for me are whether, for all the hype, the submarines we are buying are really fit for purpose; whether an Australian flag on them really means we retain full sovereign agency in their use; and if it does not, whether that loss of agency is a price worth paying for the US security insurance we think we might be buying.

On any read of Australia’s defence needs – focusing on potential adversaries’ capability, not presumed intent – a very strong submarine fleet is a crucial component, along with air, missile and cyber power. And there is no question as to the greater capability of nuclear-powered submarines when it comes to speed of movement, time on distant station and probably – though this is contested – detectability. They are a hugely effective asset.

‘Only one is paying. Our bloke’: Paul Keating attacks Labor leadership over AUKUS deal – video

But is the fleet – on the brave assumption the vastly complicated acquisition program does not become the “goat rodeo” (fiasco) predicted by some respected US-based analysts – really our best buy? If the purpose of our new boats is to be a useful, albeit numerically marginal, add-on to US underwater capability in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, they can play that role well.

But if their primary purpose is to prevent continental Australia – and our Indo-Pacific sea-lanes – from possible attack, it remains entirely legitimate to demand a detailed explanation as to how that task could be better performed by the AUKUS fleet than the 20 or more sons-of-Collins we could buy for the same price, given that only three nuclear-propelled boats are likely to be on station at any given time.

The core issue is how comfortable we should be in so obviously shifting the whole decades-long focus of our defence posture away from the defence of Australia – which has always included a strong presence in our archipelagic north and, within a very considerable radius, the sea-lanes so crucial to our trade – toward a posture of distant forward defence. The case must be made, not just asserted.

The second big unanswered – or less than persuasively answered – question is whether, by so comprehensively further yoking ourselves to such extraordinarily sophisticated and sensitive US military technology, Australia has for all practical purposes abandoned our capacity for independent sovereign judgment. Not only as to how we use this new capability, but in how we respond to future US calls for military support.

There were assurances at the time of the first AUKUS announcement by the US secretaries of state and defence that “there will be no follow on reciprocal requirements of any kind” and “no quid pro quo”. But in my own experience that is not quite the way the world – and American pressure – works.

When I hear the refrain that an Australian flag means just that, and that we will retain complete operational independence in the use of these boats, whatever the context, I can’t help but be reminded of then US secretary of state James Baker’s reply to my call to him as foreign minister at the height of the first Gulf war in 1991.

When I suggested that, given the sensitivities involved, it would have been helpful for us to have had just a little consultation before some assets of ours were ordered into a particularly vulnerable location, I was left in no doubt, buddy, that it was Washington running this war, not Canberra.

When it comes to decisions to go to war, we have too often in the past, most notably in Vietnam and the Iraq war of 2003, joined the US in fighting wars that were justified neither by international law nor morality, but because the Americans wanted us to, or we thought they wanted us to, or because we wanted them to want us to.

We need to remind ourselves more often that both the UK and Canada sat out the Vietnam war without alliance rupture.

The biggest test case we face is if China launches an unprovoked attack on Taiwan, which I think is far less likely in the foreseeable future than the China-scare brigade insist, but not to be completely discounted. Senior US figures, including deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, as far back as 1999, have told Australian interlocutors that if the US found itself in conflict with China over Taiwan, it would expect Australia’s support, and would mean the end of the alliance if it didn’t get it.

The notion that we would have no alternative but to go to war in these circumstances has in recent years gained much more traction – on both sides of politics, albeit a little more reluctantly on my own – than it should have. We need to remind ourselves more often that both the UK and Canada sat out the Vietnam war without alliance rupture.

My last big question may be unanswerable for now but should be getting far more attention. Just how much security has our devotion to the US and our ever-increasing enmeshment with its military machine, really bought us, should we ever actually come under serious attack?

While the ANZUS treaty requires the US “to act” in these circumstances, it certainly does not require that action to be military.

I am afraid that we should be under no illusion whatever that, for all the insurance we might think we have bought with all those past down-payments in blood and treasure and our “century of mateship”, the US – whoever is president – will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests under threat. Presidents Obama and Biden might have a little more decency than that, but the return of Trump or a Trump-clone – for whom allies are encumbrances not assets – is anything but unthinkable. And if that doesn’t concentrate our national mind before we bed down the AUKUS deal once and for all, nothing will.

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