Two former prime ministers push back on AUKUS, but will it matter?

Two former prime ministers push back on AUKUS, but will it matter?
Paul Keating Australia

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating arrives at the National Memorial Service for Queen Elizabeth II at Parliament House on September 22, 2022 in Canberra, Australia. (Martin Ollman/Getty Images)

SYDNEY — Days after the official announcement for how Australia will get nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS agreement, two former prime ministers have come out against the plan — but they appear to be among the few opposed to the deal as currently constructed.

Paul Keating, a member of the same Labor party as current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, generated far and away the greatest controversy with his sharp criticisms of the leadership of his party. In an appearance at the National Press Club in Canberra, the former PM (1991-1996) called the AUKUS plan a “deeply pathetic” move by the party he once led, adding that it represents the “worst international decision” by a Labor government since it ordered conscription in World War I. He personally criticized Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defense Minister Richard Marles for their roles, saying they were “seriously unwise ministers.”

Wong said the former prime minister’s views “are well out of date now,” adding that “In substance and in tone they belong to another time.” Albanese played the party statesman, saying Keating was entitled to his opinion and had been a great treasurer and prime minister — in that order. But he also said Keating’s comments had “diminished him.” The leader of the opposition, Peter Dutton, was less politic, calling Keating’s comments “unhinged.”

Former PM Malcolm Turnbull, who has opposed AUKUS since its announcement, spoke at the Defense College in Canberra yesterday and maintained his argument that his Liberal Party’s plan to buy French conventionally-powered attack subs remained superior since it was cheaper, faster and didn’t raise what he called the risk of nuclear proliferation.

Turnbull, prime minister from 2015-2018, has joined with some non-proliferation experts to argue the use of highly enriched uranium by Virginia- and AUKUS-class subs might create a precedent that would allow some other country in the world to build nuclear submarines and shift HEU from the subs to use it for nuclear weapons. (The Non-Proliferation Treaty does not restrict either the building or operation of nuclear-powered boats.)

Turnbull was much more sanguine about other elements of the AUKUS plan. “In terms of the AUKUS submarine deal as announced; the rotation of US submarines through our naval base in Perth is welcome, but will come at a very high price as Australia will pay to build the base just as it will invest billions in the US shipyards where the Virginia-class submarines are built.

“Posting Australians on American submarines is also to be welcomed as is the plan for Australia to buy at least three and potentially five Virginia-Class submarines by the early 2030s. More than twenty of the Virginia class have been built — they are a proven capability,” he said, according to a copy of his remarks. He said the plan to build a modified version of the next generation British attack sub “has promise.”

Which is to say, Turnbull’s major concern is about the question of nuclear power.

The question of whether nuclear-powered submarines will contribute to nuclear proliferation has been a contentious point domestically in Australia, with members of the Green party — part of Albanese’s ruling coalition — flogging the topic in hearings. It is a big enough public issue that US President Joe Biden, in his Monday comments announcing the AUKUS details, underlined several times that this is not in violation of Australia’s nuclear non-proliferation agreements.

“And I want to be clear — I want to be clear to everyone from the outset, right off the bat, so there’s no confusion or misunderstanding on this critical point: These subs are powered — not nuclear-armed subs.  They’re nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed,” Biden said. “Australia is a proud non-nuclear weapons state and has committed to stay that way. These boats will not have any nuclear weapons of any kind on them.”

Australia, the UK and the United States have all been working with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for some time. The atomic agency issued a report in September 2022 saying it was “satisfied with the level of engagement” with the agency from all three AUKUS nations so far.

In a meeting with the agency’s board, its director general, Rafael Grossi, told them the three countries had met four times with the agency in technical meetings. “I welcome the AUKUS parties’ engagement with the Agency to date and expect this to continue in order that they deliver on their stated commitment to ensuring that the highest non-proliferation and safeguards standards are met,” he said at the time.

Grossi also issued a March 14 release committing his agency “to ensure that no proliferation risks will emanate from this project.”

Unsurprisingly, China also joined in on the criticism.

In a March 15 press conference, a spokesperson said  “China is gravely concerned about the IAEA Director General’s latest statement in relation to the AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation and firmly opposed to the US, the UK and Australia’s coercing the IAEA Secretariat into endorsement on the safeguards issues.”

Spokesman Wang Wenbin called the AUKUS commitments to work with the IAEA “nothing but a high-sounding rhetoric to deceive the world. “The AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation marks the first time in history for nuclear weapon states to transfer naval nuclear propulsion reactors and large amounts of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium to a non-nuclear weapon state. There is nothing in the current IAEA safeguards system that can ensure effective safeguards, and there is no guarantee that these nuclear materials will not be diverted by Australia to build nuclear weapons. Therefore, such cooperation poses serious nuclear proliferation risks, and is in contravention of the object and purpose of the NPT and deals a blow to the international non-proliferation regime.”

China has tried to lobby countries around the world and convince them to oppose the deal. Indonesia, which has positioned itself, as it did during the Cold War, as neither aligned with China nor the United States or any superpower bloc, did argue against “the transfer of nuclear materials and technology for military purposes from nuclear-weapon states to any non-nuclear weapon states” during the review last August of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In Australia, the government has made clear over the past few days that the formidable AUKUS price tag of $368 billion over 30 years probably won’t put any dent in the budget for the next four years. They will take the $6 billion for the cancelled French attack class submarines, and probably announce cuts to other defense programs once the Defence Strategic Review is released. That will help pay for expansion of the Western Australian sub base to accommodate increased American and British patrols by nuclear-powered attack subs, the most immediate costs.

“In a rational world, what you spend on defence is a function of the strategic threat, the strategic complexity that the country faces,” Defense Minister Richard Marles said in a television interview yesterday. “And right now we face a lot of strategic complexity and a lot of strategic threat and I can assure you as a government we are rational people. We will be announcing the Defense Strategic Review in a month’s time, there are some opportunities for savings within it.”

Justin Katz contributed to this story from Washington.