Indian Prime Minister Modi says Quad “will now remain an important pillar of stability in the region”.
Second is AUKUS, announced last week. Not a treaty, it describes itself as a partnership. The submarine’s part of the event got the headlines but is really an elaborate piece of totemism – although the new partnership will eventually produce a real nuclear submarine to Australia, it will not be for another 20 years according to the Morrison government.
The United States and Britain’s willingness to share their sensitive nuclear power technology with Australia is a totem of trust rather than a contract to deliver a capability.
Which is the point from Rory Medcalf, head of ANU’s National Security College: “This new triple-close alliance is based on ability, converging interest and, above all, trust.”
More relevant for the next 20 years than any submarine are all other things. The event is “nothing more than a merger of military, industrial and scientific capabilities” between the three maritime Anglophones. It explicitly cites, among other things, quantum, cyber, artificial intelligence and guided missile technology.
Xi’s 2012 admissions figures did not foresee this type of balancing act from other nations.
Even major European nations have become increasingly concerned about Beijing’s plans to dominate global commons.
The United Kingdom, Germany and France have increased their maritime patrols through the South China Sea this year to signal their interest in maintaining an open and stable Indo-Pacific region.
Unfortunately, the AUKUS partners have succeeded in promoting France in the process of forming its new coalition. Canberra’s termination of the contract with France’s naval group to supply 12 diesel electric submarines caused the material damage, but it was the way to do it that really burned French pride. Paris called it “a stab in the back” by Canberra, Washington and London.
This was not just boofheaded diplomacy. It leaves Australia without a supply contract for any new submarines anywhere, and in fact jeopardizes critical opportunities in Australia’s existing six submarines.
How? Because the six Collins classes that will be Australia’s only submarine capacity for the next 20 years rely on French companies for key components. The main engines in the Collins class are manufactured by Juemont and their gears are manufactured by Schneider Electric, both French companies. These components were designed and built especially for the Australian subs – you can not buy them from the shelf at Bunnings.
The Morrison government says it will extend the life of these subs by the 2040s. To do so, they need the support of Juemont and Schneider. If Paris vetoes this, Australia will be even more vulnerable than it is now.
Morrison says the decision to dump the French contract was about the greater capacity of the US and UK nuclear alternatives. But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says he called his Australian counterpart, Marise Payne, on 23 June and specifically asked whether Australia would prefer the French subs to be nuclear-powered rather than diesel?
The original submarine model built by France’s naval group is nuclear-powered; it converted them to diesel at Canberra’s request. In fact, it would be easier and faster to supply Australia with nuclear-powered French subs, according to a source with technical knowledge. Le Drian says he never received an answer. No wonder Paris is furious.
The government’s offensive efforts to inform Indonesia also caused concern in Jakarta. A phone call the night before a major strategic announcement is token etiquette, not a serious attempt to inform and assure a critical neighbor. Southeast Asia is still the most vulnerable crucible of strategic concern for Australia and must be given priority in coalition building, not an afterthought.
Harvard’s Stephen Walt pointed out that “the broad outlines of an effective balancing coalition are becoming increasingly clear” in the Indo-Pacific. But Australia must also get the finer lines right.
It was incompetent to alienate a capable partner, France, and inflict self-harm in the process, as well as worrying Indonesia, on the way to embracing other partners. The goal is to increase the number of nations working with Australia, not gain new ones by losing existing ones.
Peter Hartcher is an international editor.