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31 August 2022

With Grant Wyeth

Marles’ submarine hunt

Australia’s defence minister, Richard Marles, has made a brief visit to Europe this week, meeting with his counterparts in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. In the UK he toured several shipyards, with an eye on deciding whether Australia should choose British or American nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS deal – the eighteen-month consultation period of which will conclude in March 2023.

There are signs that the process remains fraught. A recent report to the United States Congress highlighted that the US has fallen behind in its efforts to build sixty new submarines for its own navy – with cost blowouts, a shortage of spare parts and concerns about the overall capability of its shipbuilding facilities. The submarines should be built in Australia, according to the AUKUS agreement, but Australia will rely heavily on expertise and components from either the US or the UK.

In May, the UK revealed plans to construct four new nuclear-powered submarines, signalling a prioritisation of its expertise and capabilities for its own naval ambitions. While the objective of AUKUS is not simply to obtain a new set of boats but to also develop Australia’s shipbuilding capabilities, the sharing of knowledge from its allies will require time and effort they may not have.

Alongside this, Australia needs to clear significant hurdles involving the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty, including concerns from its neighbour in Indonesia. The prospect of Australia having no operational submarines between 2035 and 2040 looks likely. Huge investments are never without their difficulties, but Australia may have rushed into an agreement that has, up to now, caused nothing but headaches.

Pakistan aid

Pakistan is facing a humanitarian crisis, with severe floods so far causing the deaths of more than 1000 people and affecting 30 million others, including three million people displaced. Raging rivers have washed away roads, buildings and bridges, and large swaths of agricultural land are under water, leading to potential food insecurity. There is also the threat of waterborne diseases.

Pakistan lacks the capabilities to handle the situation by itself. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has pleaded for international assistance, and there will be an expectation that Australia contributes, both financially and with its expertise. This would not solely be a demonstration of Australia’s responsibility as a global citizen but will also confirm its interest in building stronger relations with South Asia. 

While Australia’s relationship with India has become more intimate, ties with Pakistan have been backsliding. In 2020 Canberra ended all bilateral aid to Islamabad, and the aid budget this financial year allocated only $8.7 million to NGOs and multilateral organisations in Pakistan. Ostensibly these cuts were to redirect assistance to Australia’s priorities in the Pacific, but could also be seen as punishment for Pakistan’s continued support for terrorist groups and undermining of the previous government in Afghanistan.

Bilateral aid may be subject to geopolitical calculations, but emergency relief shouldn’t be. Canberra should by now understand that climate change-related aid will be a consistent expense for Australia and needs to be factored into its budgets.

Replacing Russian energy

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Germany has been accused of inadvertently financing Russia’s war. In the first 100 days of the conflict, Germany paid $12.5 billion to Russia for energy supplies, a figure that dwarfs its current assistance to Ukraine.

Germany has realised that it needs to end its reliance on Russian energy, but this is proving difficult.  Last week, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, visited Canada seeking a new supply of natural gas. Yet the trip looks to have been fruitless.

Canada is the world’s sixth-largest producer of natural gas, but all of its exports go to the United States via pipelines and it has no terminals that can liquify gas for export via ship. There is a terminal under construction in British Columbia, but this is on Canada’s Pacific coast and is of little help to Germany. Canada’s strict environmental conditions as well as its powerful provincial governments that disdain cooperating with each other, let alone Ottawa, make building pipelines from the gas-rich west to the Atlantic coast all but impossible.

However, increased Canadian gas in the American market would free up greater American supplies for Germany. It is in the market aggregate that Australia is also seeking opportunities. Although most Australian gas goes to Asia, Canberra is hoping to capitalise on European demand for new energy suppliers by approving ten new sites for oil and gas exploration. In the race to replace Russian energy, the race to replace fossil fuels is being overlooked.



From the current issue

A free extract from “Testing Ground” by Allan Gyngell

“South-East Asia is the hyphen in the Indo-Pacific. Shaped by the great river systems of the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and the Salween, the subcontinental bulk of the mainland states of Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fractures into the archipelagos and islands of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Linking the Indian and Pacific oceans, the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits are critical to the security of China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and, because of its alliance commitments, the United States. Its 650 million people constitute a combined economy of around US$3 trillion.” continue reading


Weekly round-up

Foreign policy and the Albanese government’s first 100 days

“In its first frenetic days, the Albanese government took the opportunity to reset some key relationships. Now it’s all about steadily building these relationships and the capability to enable Australia to pursue its national interests in the long-term.” Melissa Conley Tyler,the conversation

China hasn’t reached the peak of its power

“Current income and defence spending trajectories suggest that China will have more resources to compete militarily with the United States over the next ten years than it has had over the last twenty … far from a narrow window to achieve their geopolitical ambitions, then, China’s leaders have space to bide their time.” Oriana Skylar Mastro & Derek Scissors,foreign affairs

Penny Wong needs to deal Beijing out of PNG [$]

“Australia needs to be watching closely what China might be planning for PNG’s southern coast … We should give the people of Daru, upwards of 15,000, the same level of basic services that are enjoyed by Australian citizens on Thursday Island and other residents of the Torres Strait.” Jeffrey Wall & Anthony Bergin,the australian


The Albanese government and the Pacific – now for the hard part

“With democratic practice and accountability (an open media, free and fair elections, the rule of law, independent judiciaries) weakening in several countries, the government may need to confront the extent to which values matter in our relationships in the region.” James Batley,asialink insights

Indonesia needs the tech training Australia and its Quad partners can provide

“Vocational training at scale would demonstrate that Australia, and hopefully the other Quad members, are interested in practical cooperation based on what countries in our region need. Australia and its allies and partners shouldn’t leave the task of plugging the region’s skills shortages to China and its tech titans.” Dirk van der Kley, Benjamin Herscovitch & Gatra Priyandita,the strategist (aspi)

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