AUKUS deal about more than subs, Australia’s ambassador says

Australia’s decision to dismiss France in favor of a nuclear submarine deal with the U.S. and Britain may have generated the most headlines recently, but the new Anglophone partnership known as AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) is about much more than any particular weapon system, Canberra’s ambassador to the United States said this week.

Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos told the Defense Writers Group that the main intent of AUKUS is to help generate a “global, rules-based order” as the geostrategic focus shifts to the Indo-Pacific region. He said the “big story” of the latter part of the 20th century and the start of the 21st has been the rise of China as a global economic and military superpower.

“If [AUKUS] has the effect of convincing other countries in the region to cooperate and be part of the rules-based order, then it had the right sort of effect,” he told defense reporters Wednesday in Washington. “Our aspiration is for China to be very much a part of that order.”

Mr. Sinodinos said AUKUS is “country agnostic” but acknowledged it is no coincidence that Australia committed itself last year to increased defense spending, now trending toward 2.5% of gross domestic product, and acquiring new military capabilities as Beijing dramatically increases its global presence.

“Our strategic circumstances have changed,” he said. “We cannot do this on our own. The Americans are saying the same thing: They can’t do it on their own. If we work together, it is a force multiplier.”

The three partners will share technology on several issues such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity operations and machine learning, Mr. Sinodinos said.

He said he would like more opportunities for Australia to be involved in the early stages of weapons systems, as it was with the rollout of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

“That’s the best way to understand the technology and how it can be used,” the Australian diplomat said. “That’s also the best way to maximize the benefit — not just militarily, but industrially.”

Australia will work with the U.S. and the U.K. over the next 18 months to determine the best way to develop nuclear-powered submarines. The process will include discussions about the design and construction. Like those in the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy, the submarines will be powered by highly enriched uranium, the ambassador said.

One thing is certain: Canberra is focused on developing a domestic submarine construction industry rather than buying leftovers from Washington or London.

“We want to build a mature design, not spend the next few years redesigning submarines,” Mr. Sinodinos said.

Australia will refurbish its Collins-class diesel-powered submarines to use until its nuclear fleet is ready for operations, he said.

Australia will be better able to support military partners if it has its own defense-focused industrial base, he said. The AUKUS deal will allow the nations to augment the total number of submarines in the region rather than shift them from one country to another.

Australia will rely on the same types of highly enriched uranium reactors as those in the U.S. and British nuclear submarine fleets. Canberra doesn’t want to appear to be developing a nuclear power industry, Mr. Sinodinos said.

“We’re going for nuclear propulsion. We’re not acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said. “Once the reactors are in there, they stay there. They give you increased endurance with greater range.”

AUKUS is not a defense pact, but it complements other valuable arrangements among partner nations, such as the “Five Eyes” military intelligence cooperative with New Zealand, the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

“We’re an independent country. We make our sovereign decisions based on national interests,” the diplomat said. “It is overwhelmingly in our national interests to be part of organizations [like AUKUS].”

Although AUKUS is a critical development to ensure a “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific region, Mr. Sinodinos said, there isn’t a “magic bullet” to solve all ills. He is encouraged that European countries are increasingly interested in playing more prominent roles in the Pacific.

“They realize that what happens in the Indo-Pacific has a big impact on their interests,” he said. “The world is so interconnected. It is now going to a new level.”

Mr. Sinodinos didn’t want to indicate whether other countries could be added to the AUKUS partnership, but he said Australia will continue to work with its neighbors on a variety of issues including military agreements.

“India is really stepping up. There is a lot of potential for cooperation with [them], particularly around economic and technical issues,” he said. “We see a great thirst in India for doing more.”