Memo PM: on AUKUS, you need to lead it or lose it

The then Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison and then Leader of the Opposition the Honourable Anthony Albanese at the Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial to mark the opening of the 2020 Parliament in Canberra. 05 February 2020. Source: Defence Images at

Written by

Peter Jennings

On the Australia-US alliance, leaders in both countries always say relations have never been better. We celebrate a century of mateship built on battlefield co-operation with a big appetite for chin-quivering rhetoric about fighting our enemies “shoulder to shoulder”.

The talk is mostly true. It enables a depth of defence and security co-operation few countries even understand, let alone could copy.

But don’t be fooled. There are limits to co-operation set by national interest. Both countries have unspoken fears about each other.

Australian strategists worry about America’s isolationist instincts, which are never far below the surface.

The Indo-Pacific is on a 1930s-style slide to high risk and low security. While Canberra obsesses about how to stabilise its relations with China, our profoundly more important relationship with the US is often taken for granted.

We need to watch for signs of American concern about Australia, and one has just been delivered in the form of a letter to President Joe Biden from two highly important US senators.

Democrat Jack Reed is the chairman of the Senate armed services committee and, until his retirement from the Senate this week, James Inhofe was the committee’s Republican ranking member. They are serious and influential figures in Washington, running one of the most important congressional committees.

Their letter asks Biden to make “a sober assessment of the facts to avoid stressing the US submarine industrial base to the breaking point”.

“We are concerned that what was initially touted as a ‘do no harm’ opportunity to support Australia and the United Kingdom and build long-term competitive advantages for the US and its Pacific allies may be turning into a zero-sum game for scarce, highly advanced US SSNs.”

The worry is that America’s two submarine construction yards can’t meet the US Navy’s demands for new boats while China is rapidly expanding its surface and sub-surface fleets. This “would make the US Navy less capable of meeting sovereign wartime and peacetime requirements”.

A second concern is that “just as the submarine industrial base constraints are real, so are statutory and regulatory constraints. We still have little understanding of what … permissions or waivers would be needed to realise the AUKUS SSN (nuclear submarine) options.”

Reed and Inhofe warn: “These permissions or waivers are a serious matter and should not be taken for granted in negotiating any agreements.”

Australia’s political leaders dismissed any likely risks to delivering in March the plan for Australia’s preferred “optimal pathway” to nuclear-propelled submarines. Speaking last Saturday, Anthony Albanese saw nothing to be concerned about. He mentioned his meetings with Biden in Tokyo, Madrid, London and Bali, and said Australia had been “engaging very closely on ensuring that the optimal pathway is delivered”.

At the same press conference, Richard Marles said: “Last year, I met with senators Reed and In­hofe. They are both very strong supporters of Australia and really I have no doubt, at the end of the day, that we will be able to deliver this with support across the political systems of both the United States and the United Kingdom.”

What else could they say? Our political leaders most invested in delivering the AUKUS plan have little public option at this point other than to stay the rhetorical course.

Our senior officials will be telling the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister that everything is on track because, at officials’ level, it probably is. Defence always suffers from a conspiracy of optimism to deliver complex projects.

Politicians should be more worried. Reed remains chairman of the armed services committee. Inhofe will be replaced by an equally capable senior Republican. When people of this calibre sound warnings, the right Australian response is to listen and to actively address the concerns.

What are the American doubts about Australia and AUKUS delivery? The essence is this: US leaders will put their own military needs first. Congress knows of a strong view in the US Navy questioning Australia’s capacity to step up to build and operate uniquely complex nuclear-propelled submarines.

The US will worry, too, about Australia’s ability to protect critical nuclear propulsion information from Chinese spying. Only once before has America shared this technology – with Britain in the late 1950s. It took congress a decade to amend the McMahon Atomic Energy Act to allow that co-operation.

Americans doubt whether Australia is truly with them in the commitment to stop the Chinese Communist Party dominating the Indo-Pacific. They see an array of former Australian prime ministers who turned against the American alliance and an even larger number of Australian elites who happily take Beijing’s coin in the name of economic co-operation.

Two former Australian prime ministers, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd, are on the recent public record vigorously opposed to the nuclear propulsion proposal. Next month Rudd will become our lead negotiator for AUKUS with congress.

Congress knows that some Australian premiers, many business leaders, university vice-chancellors and others are only too eager to reset the relationship with China and resume building lucrative but independence-sapping commercial ties.

Let’s not forget Australia’s persistent failure to reach that minimal benchmark of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence. Yes, America agreed to Canberra’s proposal to deploy the US Marine Corps in Australia’s north, but it also remembers Australia fighting for years over how to split chickenfeed dollar amounts to build facilities for the marines.

Nor has the US forgiven Australia’s bizarre decision to allow a Chinese company to lease the port of Darwin in 2015 for 99 years. The port is critical to the future of Australian and US military positioning in the north. No matter what the talking points say, that issue is not gone and not forgotten in the Pentagon.

If Americans pay any attention at all to Australian policy debates, they will see that the overwhelmingly dominant topic is how, in Albanese’s words, “we will co-operate with China where we can (and) we will disagree where we must”. Americans ask: what place does that leave in Canberra’s thinking for the alliance? What is AUKUS if not a means to deter China? What is the depth of Australia’s commitment to build the industrial heft for submarine and missile construction? When will we see that?

One should not underestimate the genuine affection and regard American political leaders have for Australia. Reed and Inhofe were and are strong alliance supporters, but they are not to be fobbed off with Australian embassy barbecues and warm words about being “brothers in arms”.

Albanese needs to be more energised about the risks to AUKUS, and hence to his prime ministership, than was on display at last Saturday’s media conference. He foreshadowed a meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, “who I will meet with again in the first half of the year”, but there was no mention of further engagement with Biden, the essential figure in AUKUS success.

Australian prime ministers have no more important job than to shape American political thinking about the alliance.

It would be odd if an Australian prime minister did not visit Washington within a year of coming to office. With the AUKUS “optimal pathway” announcement due in March, Albanese should make it a priority to make that trip, a key part of which should be to meet key members of congress.

Because the AUKUS agenda is so big and cuts across many established rules and power structures in the three capitals, it will succeed only if presidents and prime ministers personally drive the agenda.

Albanese can’t hand that task to Marles or Rudd. For better or worse, AUKUS delivery and Albanese’s prime ministership are conjoined twins.

There is more that Albanese should do. To show Australia’s bipartisan commitment he should ask John Howard and Kim Beazley to make a joint visit to Washington, building congressional support for the arrangement.

Parliament should be asked to form a bipartisan AUKUS standing committee with the express purpose of building ties and keeping tabs on the congressional pulse. Across time we might hope that our parliamentarians would build the level of personal expertise in defence and security that we see in some of their US counterparts.

Just like the French submarine project, AUKUS will progress until it doesn’t. If it fails it will be the Prime Minister’s personal problem.

The message for Albanese on AUKUS is: lead it or lose it. If you lose it, you risk the alliance.

This article was published in the Australian on 10 January 2023