ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter
Opinion

Australia's nuclear submarine deal is a serious worry for China

Decision to partner with U.S. and U.K. will have major knock-on effects

| Australia
Attack submarine USS Tucson is underway during an exercise: the type of design Canberra will choose will likely mirror the U.S. Los Angeles-class boats.   © U.S. Navy/Reuters

Admiral James Stavridis was 16th Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and 12th Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He spent the bulk of his operational career in the Pacific, and is author of "2034: A Novel of the Next World War."

The sudden decision by Australia to switch from purchasing 12 French-made diesel submarines to buying eight vastly more capable -- and much more expensive -- nuclear-powered attack boats from the U.S., has signaled a dramatic shift in Asia's geopolitical and military balance of power.

The decision will accelerate tensions between China and Australia; create a nagging sense of grievance on the part of France; increase European desires for military and political independence from the U.S.; and -- over time -- potentially cause India and possibly Japan -- to consider a nuclear-powered subsurface fleet.

For Australia, the decision -- while expensive and politically costly with Europe generally and in particular with France -- is fairly straightforward for three reasons.

The first is the vast distances of the Pacific. Not only can nuclear subs travel indefinitely submerged, but the long distances from Australia to operational waters mean that nuclear-powered boats simply make more sense.

Additionally, the chance to participate in the highest-end nuclear propulsion technology available today with the U.S. and the U.K., alongside the additional ultrahigh level warfighting capability that will be provided, is a quantum leap over what the French had on offer.

Finally, and most importantly, the decision aligns the Aussies squarely with the U.S. geopolitically, with the added bonus of operating with increased deployments of the U.K.'s new aircraft carriers to the Western Pacific. It is also a long-term operational bet on the Five Eyes intelligence network comprising the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The precise design of the Australian subs is still being developed, but it will likely mirror the U.S. Los Angeles-class boats, which are extremely quiet, packed with both long-range land attack Tomahawk missiles and lethal undersea torpedoes.

These are very deep diving boats, that are extremely reliable operationally. And with eight of them ultimately flying the Australian flag, the subsurface flotilla will have the ability to interdict China's technologically inferior and mostly diesel-powered submarines; protect allied sea lanes of communication to and from Australia; and operate seamlessly with U.S. and British nuclear submarines and carrier strike groups.

France is genuinely angry, and the decision will haunt Australian-French-U. S. relations for some time to come. President Emmanuel Macron -- never a NATO fan, and long skeptical of the U.S. as a partner -- is conflating it with the flawed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, making the understandable case that Washington cannot be trusted.

Emmanuel Macron is conflating the sudden decision by Australia with the flawed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, making the understandable case that Washington cannot be trusted.   © AP

Macron maintains that France too is a "Pacific power" by virtue of its various island territories with well over a million French citizens in the various French possessions. Indeed, Europe more broadly is annoyed by the decision as it is part of a growing tendency for English-speaking nations to operate independently under their long-established Five Eyes intelligence protocol and expand various free trade agreements.

It will cause Europe to be slower in signing up with American desires to confront China in the Pacific over everything from Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea to rejecting fifth-generation, or 5G, networks provided by Huawei Technologies.

The view from Beijing is predictably angry. The Chinese are warning of a significant naval arms race -- a bit disingenuously given that their shipbuilding programs, including nuclear-powered vessels, are the largest in the world at the moment -- and threatening consequences against Australia, for whom China is its largest trading partner.

One particularly interesting aspect of the entire affair is how this will be received in Tokyo and New Delhi. The Indians have several nuclear-powered submarines, but none with remotely the capability of the next-generation Australian boats. And the Japanese, of course, have nuclear power ashore but not on their military vessels.

Both nations are increasingly comfortable operating in the so-called Quad that aligns them with both the U.S. and Australia. With the U.S. and Australia operating top-of-the-line nuclear attack boats, both the other partners may decide to maintain interoperability, and parity, by making their next generation of undersea vessels nuclear powered.

This would also infuriate the Chinese, as they would perceive themselves as being hemmed in on the entire maritime sea space extending Japan in the north, to Australia in the south, the U.S. to the east, and India to its west.

Particularly as China seeks to consolidate its claims of territoriality in the South China Sea, the rise of such a powerful naval force in alignment against it would be deeply worrisome. Fortunately for the Chinese, it will be difficult for either the Indians -- due to costs and technology barriers -- and the Japanese -- due to cultural and constitutionals concerns -- to overcome the challenges involved in going nuclear.

This is a success for the U.S. and Australia; a loss for Europe and France; and a serious worry for China. Whether the idea of nuclear-powered submarines spreads even further will be a key determinant of how heated a naval arms race in the Pacific will become.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world
.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends October 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more