Diplomacy dialled up to 11: Australia saddles up with US as Indo-Pacific heads for cold war

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<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Ever flexible, ever the pragmatist, Scott Morrison started thinking about his new “forever partnership” with the United States and Britain 18 months ago while Australia was still tied to a $90bn contract with France to build submarines.

Australia looked to America because of a practical consideration. If the Morrison government was going to jettison the troubled French proposal, and countenance the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, the US possessed the technology that would suit Australia’s purposes.

Officials say US technology removes the need to switch out reactors during their operating life. If the reactor lasts as long as the submarine, then Australia would not need to develop a domestic nuclear industry. That step-change, like magic, cleared a political obstacle in a nation that bans nuclear power.

Related: ‘Cold war mentality’: China criticises US-UK-Australia submarine pact

Even though Morrison started mulling Australia’s options 18 months ago, he did not flag his thinking with Donald Trump.

Morrison once prided himself on having a functional relationship with an erratic and dangerous president that many world leaders were at pains to avoid. But when it came to this, Australia waited until Joe Biden ended the Trumpocalypse.

Just for a thought experiment – imagine how unveiling a nuclear-powered submarine deal with Trump (as opposed to Biden) would have played for Australia’s prime minister domestically, months out from an election.

Just imagine how that would have gone. The short version is not well.

Implicit in this thought experiment is a critically important point about the permanence of “forever partnerships” that I’ll return to shortly. But for now, let’s continue to unspool the backstory.

Morrison worked up the concept with his friend Boris Johnson. We are told the proposal advanced into the US political system in April. By June, there was that famous trilateral meeting at the G7 between Morrison, Johnson and Biden at Carbis Bay.

This was mysterious at the time – why did Boris crash Scott’s first ever face-to-face with Joe? Why did everyone apart from Biden look awkward in the official photo? Cue hot takes and earnest tea leaf reading. Thursday solved that mystery. That preliminary discussion in Cornwall firmed over the ensuing few months into the conceptual framework that would become Aukus.

After the G7, Morrison travelled on to Paris and had a conversation with Emmanuel Macron. Australian officials insist the government has dealt with the French in good faith throughout. But it is unclear just how candid Australia’s prime minister has been.

Obviously Australia has been engaged in old-fashioned two-timing. Morrison needed the original deal with France’s Naval Group to remain on life support until the exact moment Australia was ready to kill it (at a cost to Australian taxpayers of $2.4bn and counting). Are those conditions really conducive to candour? The official version in Australia is of course the French are disappointed, but everyone here is a grown up. We all know the stakes. C’est la vie. And so on.

Once Aukus the partnership was safely locked in, Morrison set about sharing the news. His first call was to Jacinda Ardern. Given the fraught history of nuclear issues in New Zealand and the Pacific, one can imagine the spectrum of feelings. There were calls to Japan and India and to regional partners. Labor was also briefed.

The government backbench didn’t get a look in until Thursday morning.

Hours after the deal had been proclaimed to the world on live television, Morrison fronted his party room via teleconference. Thursday’s party room briefing was scheduled, then delayed, and then it foundered because of technical difficulties – although I gather, before the link dropped out, the prime minister acknowledged there would have been colleagues who might have appreciated more candour.

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It was a similar story on the Labor side. After a shadow cabinet discussion, Anthony Albanese signalled publicly Labor was broadly on board before the question went to caucus. Albanese has been one of the leading anti-nuclear voices in progressive politics for a couple of decades. We feel a long way from Simon Crean opposing the Iraq war.

Now we’ve covered mechanics, we need to consider the implications.

They are profound.

This is more than a submarine deal, yet another Australian government starting the clock on yet another multibillion-dollar defence procurement screwup.

In strategic terms, this is crossing a Rubicon.

This is performative diplomacy dialled up to 11.

The backdrop to this agreement is obvious. Escalating militarisation in the Indo-Pacific has thrust the region into a new cold war, and rather than trying to ride that out, or hedge our bets, Australia has saddled up with the United States. China’s hegemonic provocations which imperil US interests in this region have forced this choice.

Related: Australia nuclear submarine deal: Aukus defence pact with US and UK means $90bn contract with France will be scrapped

Australia’s choice to ride out the coming century in the company of like-minded liberal democracies rather than seeking transactional accommodations with sharp-elbowed autocracies is hardly a new or surprising alignment, obviously. This is a choice Australia would always make.

But the assertive projection of a strategic call always has consequences.

As well as any fallout in the region, this is also a blank-cheque agreement.

Literally.

Australia has signed up to build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines between now and 2040, but we have no idea how much that will cost.

If there’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation hiding in a secret filing cabinet in the Defence Department, the government has zero interest in sharing it. Whomever wins the next election will get back to us in 18 months. And added to this is the cost of the divorce with the Naval Group.

Then there’s the nuclear question.

It is, frankly, ludicrous to suggest that Australia can maintain sophisticated nuclear submarines over their operating life without support from a highly skilled domestic nuclear industry. This contention beggars belief.

Given we have crossed this threshold, either because Australia wants to – or believes we have to – it is negligent for the Coalition to rule out developing sovereign nuclear capability.

Officials say the current Aukus proposal is we build submarines, and import the reactors that power them. But if Australia does not develop sovereign nuclear capacity, we are a client state of the US and Britain.

Thursday’s decision has been sold as a boost to Australia’s defence capability. But the absence of indigenous capacity actually renders us vulnerable, dangling precariously at the end of a supply chain.

I can only assume Morrison is intent on softening up the Australian public in bite-size chunks, because in the real world, where assets with lethal capability get built and maintained, this proposal makes no sense.

The final implication we need to consider is about “forever partnerships”.

Just the obvious point. They are forever, particularly when they involve integrated defence systems.

Morrison didn’t expedite this arrangement with the US while Trump was in office. This seems a sound judgment. Will Australia pursue it if Trump returns at the next presidential election?

Nuclear-powered submarines is a domestic political threshold that can probably be crossed with a benign-looking Biden as commander-in-chief, flanked by a beaming Boris.

But given the cancerous polarisation in the US, given the country presents to the world as an open wound, is there any guarantee that an adult can maintain a tight grip on the White House, and steer a strategy that will avoid a confrontation with catastrophic consequences?

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