Australia’s recent $368 billion deal with the United States and the United Kingdom to purchase nuclear submarines has been criticised by Paul Keating, a former Australian prime minister. The purchase commits Australia to acquire conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines using new nuclear reactor designs yet to be developed by the U.K. – this will take place in the early 2040s.
Pending approval from the U.S. Congress, the United States intends to sell Australia three Virginia class submarines starting from the 2030s, with the potential to sell up to two more if needed.
A closer look at the agreement details reveals that Australia is committed to purchasing eight new nuclear submarines from the U.S. to be delivered from the 2040s through the end of the 2050s, providing no credible answers despite breaking its existing diesel-powered submarine deal with France.
This raises a red flag: if submarine nuclear reactor technology and weapons-grade uranium are shared with Australia, it will breach the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Australia is a signatory as a non-nuclear power. The deal has been made to contain China, making Australia a front-line state against China, with the South China Sea and the Taiwanese Strait being the key contested oceanic regions.
Positioning U.S. naval ships, including nuclear submarines armed with nuclear weapons, put pressure on most Southeast Asian countries that would like to stay out of such a U.S. versus China contest.
Although the U.S.’s motivation for drafting Australia as a front-line state against China is understandable, what is difficult to understand is Australia’s gain from such an alignment. China is the biggest importer of Australian goods and its biggest supplier. If Australia is worried about the safety of its trade through the South China Sea from Chinese attacks, the bulk of this trade is with China. Furthermore, even though India has issues with China, it is not signing up with the U.S. in a military alliance.
The deal raises concerns as even the five Virginia-class nuclear submarines Australia may get are subject to U.S. congressional approval. The other eight are a good 20-40 years away; therefore, it is unclear what the world would look like that far down the line.