FROM the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to Singapore’s Straits Times to ABC Australia, everywhere you look in the news around the Pacific, the same story leads: Submarines.  As fellow columnist Hugh White of the Lowy Institute observed, “It is rare for Australian defence policy to make headlines around the world.  It is even rarer for it to keep making headlines for weeks.”  Readers have asked why the Australian submarine deal is such big news.  So that you don’t get caught off guard in the next breakroom conversation, here is the “what” and “why” of the submarine story.

With tension mounting in the Pacific region, Australian political leaders decided to expand their military defense capability.  After weighing their resources and needs, and shopping the international market for potential suppliers, the Australians agreed to purchase twelve diesel-powered submarines from France.  They believed this would secure their island borders and increase their presence in the anti-Chinese coalition, more of a partner and less of an “also in the room.” The French deal was plagued by problems from the beginning which we will not itemize here.  Suffice it to say, the Australians wondered if a better deal was available. 

Approximately one month ago, in a joint press conference of the United States, U.K. and Australia, the world was told that the French deal was cancelled and the Australians had ordered eight nuclear-powered submarines from the United States instead.  A seismic shift had occurred and a political tsunami unleashed.  Why?

France. The French are understandably upset at having lost the contract, which would have pumped tens of billions of desperately needed dollars into the economy.  They feel betrayed not only by the Australians but also by the British, who knew of the negotiations and looked on with approval, and the United States, who is seen as the home wrecker.  It is not often that these kinds of deals are made between countries.  France had high hopes for jump-starting its post-Covid economy with the arrangement.

Europe. With the recent withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, nicknamed Brexit, Europe has increasingly resented the exclusivity of the English-speaking club.  This move looks like the latest example of the English nations dealing among themselves and snubbing the rest of the world.  Tensions will likely by high between the so-called Aukus (Australia, U.K., U.S.) countries and their allies.  Americans are taking food out of French mouths.  What should be the proper response to this insult?

United Kingdom. Now that the European Union chapter has passed, the British look to reinvent themselves.  Strengthening ties with the United States and reasserting themselves in the Indo-Pacific are two ways they hope to move forward.  Although they do not stand to benefit directly from the submarine deal, the British know that any such arrangement can only strengthen their position internationally, especially against the Russians and Chinese.

United States. American policy makers see the Pacific as the site of future confrontation with China and even Russia.  Strengthening ties with key partners and enhancing their capabilities makes sense.  An Australia equipped with modern nuclear-powered submarines is a stronger ally than one using outdated and vulnerable diesel-powered models.  From the point of view of Washington, this deal was a win-win.  As for the French, the two countries have never gotten along anyway.  There was little to lose and quite a bit to gain by taking this opportunity.

Australia. Saved for last because it is the most important and the most complex, scrapping the French deal in favor of the American one was not easy.  First, the Australians knew it would likely sour their relations with not only the French but other Europeans, just when things were starting to look up.  That had to be considered.  Second, becoming the first non-nuclear nation to operate nuclear-powered vessels is no small matter.  In fact, legalists wonder if the deal violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Third, fielding some of the world’s most advanced vessels catapults Australia from the second rank of power to the first but that comes with costs.  Are Australians prepared for that kind of commitment?

There are many questions and few answers.  The Aukus submarine deal will keep columnists busy for quite some time.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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