There was a moment in federal parliament this week when the seriousness of the looming Aukus announcement seemed to dawn on the defence minister, Richard Marles.
“It is difficult to overstate the step that, as a nation, we are about to take,” Marles, in the acting prime minister’s chair, solemnly told the chamber on Thursday.
“Australia will become just the seventh country to have the ability to operate a nuclear-powered submarine. We have never operated a military capability at this level before.”
The statement may not have been intended to raise doubts about whether Australia is up to the task – but it does happen to underline the extremely complex undertaking the country is about to pursue.
These challenges include building up a predicted workforce of 10,000 or more to develop Australia’s nuclear expertise and safely build, operate, maintain and regulate the new submarines.
After 18 months of planning among Australia, the US and the UK, the three countries’ leaders are set to finally announce the details of the so-called “optimal pathway” for Australia to have “at least” eight nuclear-powered submarines. This is expected in San Diego on Monday local time, Tuesday morning Canberra time.
But we have had some clues about the outlines of the deal, thanks to leaks out of the US and the UK. It seems Australia could acquire up to five Virginia class submarines from the US by the mid 2030s before adopting a British design as a more permanent solution.
For now, many questions remain unanswered. It’s unclear how much it will cost, how we’ll pay for it, when construction in South Australia will begin and what plans we have in the meantime to invite US and UK submarines to visit Australia for extended periods.
But it is worth noting that the Australian government – while not confirming any of the details in advance – felt it was necessary to pre-emptively reassure partners in south-east Asia and the Pacific of the motivations for proceeding with the submarine acquisition.
Indonesia and Malaysia were likely front of mind when Marles said that even though the submarines would have the capability to operate at war, “the true intent” was to defend the rules-based order across the region.
“So I want to say at this moment to our neighbours and to our friends around the world that as Australia invests in its defence, as we acquire this nuclear-powered submarine capability, we do so as part of making our contribution to the peace and the stability of our region and of the world,” Marles told parliament on Thursday.
In any case, the dribs and drabs of details were enough to spark a fresh round of criticism from Beijing. Reinforcing its longstanding position, the Chinese foreign ministry said later on Thursday: “We urge the US, the UK and Australia to abandon the cold war mentality and zero-sum games, honour international obligations in good faith and do more things that are conducive to regional peace and stability.”
For all of the Albanese Labor government’s attempts to “stabilise” the relationship with China, the overarching defence and national security settings remain largely bipartisan.
Labor has dialled down the volume of the government’s public commentary and has put serious effort into re-engaging diplomatically with Australia’s largest trading partner – and this has borne some fruit. But Labor is on common ground with the Coalition in worrying about the scale and intentions of China’s own military buildup. It has reaffirmed concerns about the militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea. Australia also continues to oppose any unilateral change to the status quo around Taiwan, a self-governed democracy of 24 million people that China sees as a wayward province and has not ruled out taking it by force.
Comments by China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, this week would only have added to those concerns in Canberra. Qin poured scorn on Joe Biden’s push to agree on “guardrails” to ensure competition between the great powers did not spiral into war. (The Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has repeatedly encouraged Beijing to take up this US offer, saying all countries must play their part to “avert catastrophic conflict”.)
At a press event, Qin read from a copy of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China to declare that Taiwan was “part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China” and that it was “the inviolable duty of all Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan, to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland”.
Describing Taiwan as “the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations”, Qin warned the US against taking “a reckless gamble with the stakes being the fundamental interests of the two peoples and even the future of humanity”.
“If the United States does not hit the brake but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation. Who will bear the catastrophic consequences?”
Kevin Rudd, Australia’s soon-to-be-ambassador to the US, will be active in pushing the guardrails concept when he arrives in Washington DC. He was clear this week that Australian strategic thinking was driven by a key question: “How do we deter our friends in China from taking premeditated military action against Taiwan, which will then be a fundamental destabilisation of the strategic status quo?”
The Australian government has argued there is no contradiction between its desire to acquire the best defence assets possible (as part of maintaining a “strategic equilibrium” in the Indo-Pacific) and its continued push for a less rocky relationship with China. But it’s quite the needle to thread.
And for all the focus on the precise detail to come, Aukus will clearly be seen overall as Australia drawing even