Rory Medcalf (Page 2 of 2)

Turning to U.S. – Australia relations. Some have said that Australia is presented with a choice: China or America. With many scholars and pundits predicting that China’s economy will surpass America’s in terms of output in the near future, and with China already being Australia’s largest trading partner, has Australia in fact already voted in an economic sense? Can Australia have a robust defense and national security relationship with America and a dynamic trade and economic relationship with the People’s Republic?

The claim that Australia needs to make a stark choice between the United States and China makes for a neat argument and a good catalyst to policy debate, but the reality is much more complicated in any situation other than a direct U.S.-China military confrontation, and we are certainly not there yet. If Australia can be said to have voted economically for China, given that it is indeed our largest export market, then the fact remains that Australia voted for America long ago in the strategic sense — the alliance began in 1951 and has been strengthened in recent years, including with President Obama’s 2011 announcement about the rotation of Marines through Darwin. In any case, I do not think that my country has made a simple China choice economically either. Australia’s investment relationship with the United States is far larger than with China, and in many sectors — iron ore may be the exception — Australia relies on a vibrant mix of trading partners, from Japan, South Korea and Europe, to India, Southeast Asia and the United States. To be sure, the relationship with China is multi-faceted, as it should be, including societal links. Chinese Australians make an enormous contribution to this country and along with Indians, are one of its largest and fastest growing communities. Furthermore, Australia can and should improve its already considerable defense and strategic dialogues with China. But thoroughgoing political trust between Canberra and Beijing is always going to be difficult, and I doubt that China’s key thinkers and leaders privately harbor any illusions that Australian can be pried away from an alliance with Washington that more than three quarters of Australian voters support.

There has also been a heated debate in Australian defense circles concerning a replacement for the Collins-class submarine program. Some have advocated a nuclear powered sub (leased or purchased from America or the UK), while others have argued for a European or domestically created submarine. What are your thoughts on this issue?

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It is no secret that Australian defense policy is drifting into a mess, with the bold force modernization promises from the previous Kevin Rudd Labor government in 2009 not being followed through upon under his successor, Labor Party Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Oddly, the Australian government this year retreated from its forward-leaning attitude on defense and cut defense spending to its lowest levels as a proportion of GDP since 1938, which I know sounds perhaps unduly ominous. This is in large part about achieving a budget surplus but it means that there is a large credibility problem about the government’s professed intention to retain the ambitious force structure from 2009 — which includes 12 new submarines. Currently Australia has six Collins-class submarines, the world’s largest diesel boats supposedly tailor-made for Australia’s vast maritime strategic environment while getting around the population’s aversion to almost all things nuclear.  In reality, these are technically troubled boats — there have been times that only one or two could be put to sea.

But replacing them is turning out to be an even bigger headache. Politically, there are those in government who would prefer a new domestically-created sub, either a “son of Collins’ or a new domestic design, supposedly to improve strategic self-reliance but also incidentally built in Adelaide for the jobs and votes. The estimated cost of this is reportedly enormous — a newly designed and built Australian model might cost upwards of U.S.$36 billion — whereas off-the-shelf or modified foreign designs could cost a fraction of that. And even if their range and capabilities were somewhat more modest, at least we’d have a certain confidence that they’d work. Most controversially, some voices, including in the conservative Opposition, have advocated leasing Virginia-class nuclear-powered subs from the United States instead. Of all these options, the completely home-grown project strikes me as the worst — unless Australia was serious about putting strategic autonomy above all other considerations including cost and political sensitivities. And if that was the case, then why not at least begin acquiring nuclear submarine know-how and putting that option on the table? In the near term, the most practical and realistic approach should be for Canberra to look at foreign diesel subs with an open mind. A creative step would be deepening a conversation with the Japanese about their impressive sub technology, which may no longer be completely an export no-go zone.

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