In case you couldn’t work it out yourself, that text message was fake. I wrote that myself through one of the many websites that allow you to create imaginary text messages. However, I can imagine it’s the sort of text message chains that the Prime Minister might send.
The reality is that questions need to be asked that if “directly messaged President Emmanuel Macron Australia’s decision in a personal correspondence,” is really the most appropriate way to let a friend and ally know about the end of a $90 billion, multi-decade contract.
The original contract
So let’s go back to the original contract and the original situation.
Many Australians would remember the problems with the Collins-class submarines. All 6 were late, over budget and had various problems. The intention was to extend the life of the Collins-class submarines into the 2030s while a new Attack-class submarine was built in Australia.
French, German and Japanese consortiums entered a competitive evaluation process under Prime Minister Abbott’s government – which is a proper thing to do. As a population, we would want the government to properly inspect the bids to make sure they do the right thing. 14 months later, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that the Shortfin Barracuda, a variation of the nuclear-powered French bid, was selected as the winner. The Japanese were particularly pissed off at the time, because they thought that they were in with a good shot, particularly given the technology sharing they were offering.
In 2018, there was concern about the rollout of the project, with some worrying about the ability of the team to provide submarines before the Collins-class submarines were being retired. This was particularly the case when it comes to training and growing crews.
The late night press conference that sparked everything
The press conference of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrision flanked by US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have been considered to be a good thing in the office of Scotty from Marketing. However, it is clear that it has caused problems both domestically and internationally.
So let’s start on the domestic front.
For many Australians, they are currently locked in their homes. They can’t go to work, they can’t see their friends, they recently saw the Prime Minister get travel exemptions to see his family for Fathers Day when millions of other Australians can’t, and they generally feel that he has not handled the whole COVID situation poorly.
So to announce a multi-billion dollar investment into a few nuclear submarines that may or may not come along in the future for national security to deal with a threat that may or may not impose itself on Australia rubbed a lot of Australians the wrong way. For them, it looked as if the government was throwing money at an invisible issue.
I think it’s important to note that foreign policy is rarely an election issue in Australia. It’s not that Australians are so insular that they don’t think about it. It’s more that foreign policy is not an issue that affects them at a core level. The issue of foreign policy that political parties have focused on is national security, largely focusing on “illegal immigration.”
It certainly does not help when the Defence Minister admits that Australia considered buying nuclear submarines from France as early as 2016. It was also reported that the compensation payments could be as high as $400m.
Now – the international front.
There are a lot of countries that are unhappy with the announcement of this deal.
FRANCE – obviously, there are quelle pissed off. The fact that Macron won’t even speak to Morrison, and the ambassadors to the US and Australia were recalled shows how serious this is. It is worth noting that the French Ambassador to the US will return to the US this week following “a process of in-depth consultations, aimed at creating the conditions for ensuring confidence.” At the same time, there are no plans for the French Ambassador for Australia to return to Canberra. The fact that France is calling it a stab in the back indicates that there are likely to be repercussions going into the future
CHINA – As anyone with a vague interest in politics could have predicted, China reacted negatively to the announcement, calling on them to abandon their “cold war” mentality or risk harming their own interests. Now, China is upset because it will mean nuclear submarines in its backyard that are not its own. It is already upset with Australia because of how close it is with the US. Under the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), there is the potential for 3 sets of submarines in Chinese waters, 2 of them nuclear, and none of them American. That will make China particularly angry but will provide the 4 nations a lot of information.
THE EU – The EU is mostly upset because France is a member. This is of mild concern to all three nations, but probably mostly for the UK, given their current trade concerns. Australia should be concerned, as they are still working on their free trade deal with the EU, and I can foresee the EU pushing harder on certain elements on the deal to make sure they get their way. This will almost certainly require Australia playing very nice with other large nations within the EU, but I am not at all convinced that this will help.
INDIA – India is one of China’s biggest competitiors. The relationship between China and India is, at best, complicated – they are both friends and enemies at the same time. However, what India has understood is that AUKUS is a complementary force. At the same time, India would be frustrated, to some extent, about being left out of the discussion at the initial stages. They are probably not upset, in the traditional sense – but they would be having private conversations to be kept in the loop, primarily through the QUAD and other channels.
ASEAN – The Southeast Asian countries would be very concerned at the moment. Australia and the US have already spent time talking to their counterparts across Southeast Asia to calm nerves to stop them from thinking that this will start an arms race or a conflict with China. Indonesia and Malaysia were particularly critical of the deal, while Singapore took a more nuanced position, hoping that it would contribute to peace and stability in the region. On the other hand, the Philippines welcomed the AUKUS pact. Other countries in the region were quieter, as they are waiting to see which way the water flows.
Where to now for Australia?
Well, that’s what nobody knows. Australia has now firmly attached itself to the United States and the United Kingdom for at least a generation, as opposed to developing sovereign technology. The Labor Party has successfully avoided being wedged on this issue, while picking out specifics that are worthy of further investigation.
It will certainly harm our relationship with China going forward, but how it does that— no-one is quite sure.
Has the Morrison government avoided some conversations around climate change and the pandemic to talk about its perceived strengths on defense and foreign policy? Perhaps… but at what cost?
Let me know what you think in the comments