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Australia Is Getting Nuclear-Powered Submarines (And China Hates It)

US Navy Attack Submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
US Navy Attack Submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

China has a lot to say about Australia‘s plan to get nuclear-powered attack submarines under last year’s AUKUS agreement. Why are they so upset? China has reacted strongly to Australia’s intention to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS agreement with the US and UK. Since the announcement in September, Beijing has taken a stance of lofty and profound opposition to this development, labelling it provocative, destabilising, betraying Australia’s slavish adherence to America’s strategic posture of containing China’s rise, weakening the barriers to the further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific and hinting that Australia likely intends to be among the first new nuclear-weapon states in the region.

Beijing’s reaction was hardly surprising. Even against the background of the sharp deterioration a number of years earlier of Australia–China relations, resulting in an effective political and economic estrangement, the AUKUS pact was an utterly stunning development. The manner of its announcement only enhanced the sensation of shock and crisis. Indeed, the region as a whole was shocked, with even many of Australia’s better friends finding it difficult to be more than ambivalent about its merits.

The nuclear-powered submarine, even when equipped exclusively with conventional weaponry, is indisputably among the most formidable weapons systems ever devised. In Australia, the political and public appetite to take a serious look at acquiring nuclear weapons remains negligible. In fact, on earlier occasions when Australia sniffed at developing and building its own nuclear-powered submarines, a deterring consideration was that it would involve a significant boost to our indigenous nuclear competence and take us meaningfully closer to nuclear weapons. The AUKUS arrangement precludes that, but it doesn’t seem to have diminished the force of the concern that our action could unsettle a valuable status quo.

There’s also not a lot of evidence that the Australian government is fully cognisant of the wider ramifications of this transformative development. For example, we don’t seem to even dare to speculate about the full costs of acquiring this capability and dealing with the distorting effects on other dimensions of the Australian Defence Force. Similarly, as I argued in this forum last year, a state that fields a military capability of such strategic consequence must, in its own core interests, commit to matching intelligence and diplomatic capabilities that are also costly to develop and to sustain.

All that being said, AUKUS did not come out of the blue. AUKUS, and, for that matter, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, qualify as external checks and balances on the international behaviour of other states. Such external checks and balances are difficult to establish, not least because they are inherently relatively blunt and abrasive. Broadly speaking, participating states go to the trouble and risk of devising external checks only when their concerns about the absence of internal constraints on the behaviour of a third party have accumulated and become acute.

China stands on the cusp of an extended era in which it will rank among the world’s two or three most influential states. As it looks out over the coming years and decades, it should think carefully about how influence—or soft power—is most effectively generated and deployed, and at how it can be squandered. The Chinese Communist Party should consider the effects of the relentless barrage of surprises it imposes on third parties because it so jealously protects the secrecy of all its deliberations to ensure that no one affected by its decisions has prior knowledge of them or any feel for the balance of considerations leading up to them.

Such knowledge is the fuel of diplomacy, the source of understanding. Beijing, however, appears wedded to sending the clearest possible message that it is determined to permanently handicap the rest of the international community while scolding its members for indulging in ‘zero-sum’ and ‘Cold War’ thinking.

To be more specific, the CCP might begin to wonder, as an intellectual exercise, about the psychological effects on other states of experiencing the abrupt and frantic construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea in 2014–15 or the deployment of several hundred short- and medium-range ballistic missiles across the straits from Taiwan or the sudden commitment in 2021–22 to increase its force of nuclear-capable, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles several-fold.

Each of these developments is having and will have profoundly important strategic consequences, but on each occasion the CCP did not have to deal with so much as a whisper from any source within China—not from the National People’s Congress, the media, academia, the legal fraternity, or simply concerned citizens. The international community has little choice but to conduct its affairs and to frame its posture towards China in the knowledge that Beijing is able and disposed to unleash even the most consequential or alarming developments without warning.

The scale and pace of strategic change in the Indo-Pacific is in itself a major challenge to stability and peace. Add to this the stark asymmetries in systems of governance among the major powers, and the associated propensity to resort to external arrangements to compensate for the virtual absence of internal checks and balances on Beijing’s aspirations, and you have a worrisome, almost inherently unstable, regional dynamic.

Since all the players are wedded to their systems of governance, we need to think urgently about a forum or a process for confidential, unvarnished dialogue that is regular and compulsory, perhaps on the lines of the US–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue that lapsed in 2016. Indeed, the smaller and middle powers of the Indo-Pacific should insist on it.

Ron Huisken is an adjunct associate professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. This first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist. 

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Ron Huisken is an adjunct associate professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.