Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke a lot about freedom and sovereignty when opening the three-country press conference announcing Australia’s massive new pact with the United States and the United Kingdom, last Thursday.
Morrison proudly spoke such words in front of US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with plenty of flags shared across the virtual announcement, highlighting the close ties and history of friendship between the three nations.
Morrison said the new AUKUS trilateral partnership with is nuclear-powered submarine deal was one that would prepare us for meeting the challenges of the “new era” in terms of national security.
And yet what many of us saw again were three men, determining a strategic direction of Australia that would continue for decades to come, impacting all of us.
It looked much like an “old era” answer to “new era” challenges.
Sure, these new changes would see Australia gaining access to nuclear technology to enable nuclear-powered submarines – access the United States and UK have never shared with another country. Sure, there were a lot more than these three men involved in coming to this conclusion. But it’s fast becoming clear that this was yet another massive decision that appeared to lack the collaborative foresight one would hope would be occurring in these situations.
It was another decision that, the more we are not learning in the week since it was announced, appears to have been shared in haste and with little to no regard for the broader consequences.
And it was another decision that appears to prioritise political convenience for Morrison, cementing a reliance on the United States for decades to come.
This continued US reliance is palatable to Australians that right now, given it comes with a Biden presidency. But would such a decision have been announced if Trump had won another term? And what happens if Trump takes the Republican nomination in 2024, or somebody even worse steps up to lead the United States through this “new era” with Australia chained firmly alongside it?
Meanwhile, Australia does not currently have a nuclear industry. Is this the start of such an industry and if so, how big will it be? Morrison was adamant that nuclear weapons are “not on the agenda”. That there are “no plans for it, no policy for it, no contemplation of it”, he said. And yet until this past week, as far as most of us thought, nuclear-powered submarines were not on the agenda either.
What does this say about Australia’s stance on nuclear proliferation, given it’s been 63 years since the United States last shared this technology (with the British Royal Navy)? Australia is a non-nuclear weapons country with a long anti-nuclear protest movement history. It will now become the just seventh country in the world the have nuclear submarines, next to the US, the UK, China, Russia, France and India – and while Morrison is adamant this deal has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, it’s curious to consider that Australia will become the only country among this nuclear-powered sub club to not have nuclear weapons.
And what about Australia’s relationship with France and the European Union. There appears to have been no attempts to pre-warn or negotiate with the French Government on this new deal, given it would see an existing $90 billion contract torn up. In response, France has recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia. And it looks like the consequences of this “treachery” as the French have put it, could hinder Australia’s ability to further negotiate on an all-important trade deal with the European Union. President Ursula von der Leyan told CNN overnight that there are “a lot of questions” that need to be asked in response to the torn-up deal with France.
“One of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable, so we want to know what happened and why,” she said noting the need to get those answers before the EU continues its “business as usual”.
Most important of all, what does this deal say about Australia’s place and relationship in our region – did we contemplate, even for a moment, the potential to better engage and collaborate with neighbours on how to manage a rising China?
Do nuclear-powered submarines actually deter a rising China? Or does it merely antagonise and firmly ensure that Australia has no chance of going back to any kind of functional relations with China, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying in response to the deal that “Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts?”
Defence Minister Peter Dutton himself has warned about growing retaliation from China, suggesting “more aggressive behaviour” ahead and that there is evidence of significant cyber attacks, “some of which the public is aware of but in other parts, not.”
Meanwhile our neighbour New Zealand, often described as our “closest friend”, has been a no-nuclear zone since 1984. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already called Morrison to let him know the subs would not welcome in the waters near her country. Singapore has shared its concerns about the AUKUS alliance. Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed much more serious concerns.
These are all questions many of us want to sit back and believe are simply being answered with clear intelligence regarding our region and the growing role of China within it. We want to believe we have sound men at the helm, making sound decisions based on the best and most accurate information and advice possible. We want to believe there are more diverse voices included in these decisions. Perhaps there are, although we don’t know if these voices are actually heard.
But if governments – particularly the Morrison Government – were paying any real attention to advice or intelligence, it would be sending and delivering on much stronger messages on climate change, on vaccine equity, on global gender equality and so much more.
We remain in the “old era” of men making decisions to suit their political agenda, and it is getting more terrifying by the day.