Waleed Aly has grilled the finance minister over the newly-announced nuclear submarine deal, pointing out that Australia will be left with sub-par subs for the next 20 years.
The Project host called the deal to cooperate with the US and UK under the AUKUS alliance a ‘plan to make a plan’ and asked why Australia is ‘siding with a declining superpower’ over rising China.
Simon Birmingham was also probed about the billions of taxpayer dollars set to be wasted when Australia tears up its current naval agreement with France to build a $90billion fleet of conventional diesel-powered subs.
China quickly hit out at the deal, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denouncing ‘Cold War zero-sum thinking’ which he said ‘seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race.’
HMAS Rankin conducts helicopter transfers in Cockburn Sound, Western Australia in February
‘So we are willing to invest but this isn’t yet a formal agreement?’ Aly asked.
‘It’s a plan to have a plan and if it comes through the subs won’t arrive until 2040.
‘There is another reading of this that we have just explicitly sided with the declining superpower as opposed to the rising superpower and in the process ensured that we have sub standard submarines for the next 20 years?’
Mr Birmingham responded by saying Australia must side with ‘democratic nations’ before stating the naval deal is ‘not targeted at any one country’.
‘We’ve entered into this agreement with them (the US), the UK, because indeed we should always work together as countries who share values of democracy and values of freedom,’ he said.
‘But we share trust in the relationship and this is a firm commitment between the three countries for Australia to get the technology, the details, the designs, the skills, capabilities to be able to build these nuclear powered submarines and in doing so to give us the best possible subs’.
Why Australia needed a new deal with the UK and the US: Australia’s defence capabilities are dwarfed by those of China
Waleed Aly (left) grilled Simon Birmingham (right) over Australia’s newly-announced nuclear submarine deal
The move has been described as ‘China’s Worst Nightmare’ in a strategic bid to counter its influence in the region
Comedian Peter Helliar followed up by asking ‘if the estimated $2.4billion burnt for Attack Class French submarines that will never arrive is a good investment?’
The finance minister tried to fend off the question by saying Australia is making a good investment ‘for the future,’ adding that it would have been a ‘bad investment’ to continue with the French subs and shelling out a further $90billion.
‘The advice we have received in the last couple of years is that we can and need to do better – times change, circumstances change, technology changes,’ Mr Birmingham said.
‘The capability for us to sustain them without needing to have a domestic nuclear fuel cycle here in Australia is really the game changer that means we could make this change right now and it was the right change to make.’
Pictured: The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Waller (SSG 75) – a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine – seen in Sydney Harbour on November 2, 2016
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison pictured centre during a virtual press conference on Thursday morning with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden
French fury at Australia
The bid for nuclear-powered submarines will mean Australia will walk away from its controversial deal to spend up to $90billion buying French diesel-powered submarines made by French company Naval Group.
‘The world is a jungle,’ ex-ambassador to the US Gerard Araud tweeted on Thursday.
‘France has just been reminded this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia. C’est la vie.’
The French government later on Thursday said Australia’s decision to ditch the agreement was ‘contrary to the spirit of cooperation which prevailed’ between the two countries.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said the change in plan ‘marks an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret’.
Australia is looking to ramp up its naval capability to counter an increasingly belligerent and aggressive Beijing – although Scott Morrison and other senior government figures like Mr Birmingham have now explicitly said so.
AUKUS will also allow the three allies to share the latest technology in artificial intelligence, underwater systems and long-range strike capabilities in what should be a significant deterrent to to the authoritarian state.
The move towards a nuclear Australia has been described as ‘China’s Worst Nightmare’ in a strategic bid to counter its influence in the region – especially in the South China Sea.
‘Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region – the Indo-Pacific. This affects us all. The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures,’ Mr Morrison said.
‘To meet these challenges, to help deliver the security and stability our region needs, we must now take our partnership to a new level.
‘So AUKUS is born – a partnership where our technology, our scientists, our industry, our Defence Forces, are all working together to deliver a safer and more secure region that ultimately benefits all.’
Mr Morrison said the submarines would be developed over the next 18 months and built in Adelaide in co-operation with the US and the UK.
The vessels will also be quieter and more capable than Australia’s existing fleet and will ‘deter’ President Xi Jinping’s ambitions in the far East.
The prime minster stressed Australia is not going to acquire nuclear weapons or use nuclear power to help fuel the national power grid.
Australia has at least 40 per cent of the world’s uranium supplies and the new submarine deal could pave the way for the country to embrace nuclear power to drastically reduce carbon emissions.
Controversial figure: Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian previously worked at embassies in Washington and Islamabad and made a name for himself with controversial tweets
China has inflamed tensions in the South China Sea in recent years by expanding its claimed territory, to the objection of its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Mr Lijian responded to the news on Thursday calling the trilateral group ‘extremely irresponsible’.
‘China always believes that any regional mechanism must go with the trend of the times for peace and development, and should be conducive to mutual trust and cooperation between regional countries,’ he said a media conference.
‘They should not target any third party or harm the party’s interests by forming an exclusive and closed small group.
‘The relevant countries should abandon the absolute Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical concept, respect regional people’s aspirations and do more things conducive to regional peace and stability and development.’
Beijing’s Wolf Warrior diplomat also took the opportunity to blame Australia for the recent tensions between the two countries.
‘The most urgent task now is for Australia to face up to the reasons for the frustration of the relationship between the two countries and think carefully about whether to treat China as a partner or a threat,’ he said.
Officials are increasingly concerned at the way China is laying claim to the South China Sea, ignoring other nations territorial claims (pictured, Chinese troops marching during a military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing)
Why is Australia building nuclear-powered submarines?
Why nuclear submarines?
Nuclear submarines are powered by nuclear reactors which produce heat that creates high-pressured steam to spin turbines and power the boat’s propeller.
They can run for about 20 years before needing to refuel, meaning food supplies are the only limit on time at sea.
The boats are also very quiet, making it harder for enemies to detect them and can travel at top speed – about 40kmh – for longer than diesel-powered subs.
The first nuclear submarines were put to sea by the United States in the 1950s. They are now also in use by Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and India.
A senior US defence official told reporters in Washington DC: ‘This will give Australia the capability for their submarines to basically deploy for a longer period, they’re quieter, they’re much more capable.
‘They will allow us to sustain and to improve deterrence across the Indo-Pacific.’
Zack Cooper, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, said nuclear submarines would hugely boost Australia’s military capability.
‘They are going to be much, much more capable in the large, expansive ocean that is Australia has to deal with,’ he told the ABC.
Will Australia have nuclear weapons?
Scott Morrison made it clear that the nuclear-power submarines will not have nuclear missiles on board.
Australia has never produced nuclear weapons and signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 which prevents non-nuclear states which don’t already have them from developing nuclear weapons.
Mr Morrison also said the Australia has no plans to build nuclear power stations which are widely used around the world.
‘But let me be clear, Australia is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability,’ he said.
‘And we will continue to meet all our nuclear non-proliferation obligations.’
Are they safe?
The nuclear reactors are shielded from the rest of the submarine in a separate section to protect the crew from dangerous radiation.
The US has an excellent safety record with its nuclear-powered fleet although early Russian subs suffered a few accidents which caused 20 servicemen to die from radiation exposure between 1960 and 1985.
At the end of their 20-year lifetimes, the contaminated parts of nuclear reactors need to be disposed deep underground in special waste storage cells.
Anti-nuclear campaigners say any leaks of radioactive waste could lead to an environmental disaster.
Greens leader Adam Bandt called the submarines ‘floating Chernobyls’ in reference to the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in the Soviet Union.
Australia needs to replace its six ageing Collins-class submarines.
In 2016 it signed a deal with French Company Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric attack subs – but the parties were in dispute over the amount of building that would be done in Australia.
That deal has now been torn up in favour of nuclear powered subs aided by the US and UK who will provide the technology to Australia.
The West is becoming increasingly concerned about the growing assertiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific region where it has made huge territorial claims in the South and East China seas, clashed with Indian troops and repeatedly flown planes over Taiwan.
Mr Morrison wants Australia to have serious defence capability to deter China from encroaching in the Pacific and long-range nuclear submarines are just the ticket.
China has vastly built up its military in the past few years and now possesses six Shang-class nuclear powered attack submarines, equipped with torpedoes and cruise missiles.