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HomeWorldQ&A: Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines and ASEAN’s reaction

Q&A: Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines and ASEAN’s reaction


Australia has made its largest investment in military capability since World War II, signing an agreement with the United States to purchase three nuclear-powered Virginia-class attack submarines and two more ships if needed over the next decade.

Described as the “biggest leap” in Australian history in military modernisation, Canberra will join only six other countries in the world to have such weapons in their inventory by purchasing nuclear-powered submarines.

Agreed under the AUKUS defense pact with the US and UK, Australia’s desire to have submarines powered by nuclear propulsion technology is inspired by one country: China.

China’s meteoric rise as an economic power and, increasingly, a military titan in the Asia-Pacific region has sparked great concern in Canberra, London and Washington.

Beijing immediately denounced the deal for revealing the “Cold War mentality” of the three AUKUS members, which would “damage regional peace and stability”.

Several countries in Southeast Asia — where Beijing has laid claim to nearly all of the South China Sea — have expressed concern over the impact of the deal.

Malaysia said this week it appreciated the need for countries to strengthen their defense capabilities and stressed “the importance of all parties within and beyond this security partnership to fully respect existing laws regarding the operation of nuclear-powered submarines in regional waters and to comply”. .

To understand how Southeast Asian countries might react to the move, Al Jazeera spoke to Carlyle A Thayer, Professor Emeritus at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Thayer, a Southeast Asia specialist and Vietnam expert, says some countries may be secretly relieved about the agreement given China’s increasingly assertive approach to its maritime claims.

Al Jazeera: Do you expect a reaction from members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from the US?

Thayer: ASEAN as an organization will not take a position on this. They have a fundamental principle of non-intervention in internal affairs… But during this process, two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, have expressed concerns about proliferation.

Now, the Australian submarines will not be nuclear-armed, they will be nuclear-powered, but Indonesia is making the argument that this has opened the door for other countries to acquire nuclear-powered ships and therefore there could be proliferation.

The ship’s propulsion has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and some of our critics don’t understand that.

To put things in perspective, our Chief of Navy points out that China launches more ships each year than there are in the entire Royal Australian Navy. And China is rapidly expanding its nuclear-powered and armed ballistic submarines – both ballistic missile and attack submarines – so that will be the dominant feature in the region long before that (Australia is acquiring submarines).

I think that countries like Vietnam, who are concerned about China, will say nothing and will be happy privately, because any force that balances and limits China is in their interest. But it is not in their interest to openly take sides.

A country like Cambodia is hard to read. It took such a strong stance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but then it was chairing ASEAN and trying to win some favor with the US…

Myanmar will not tip the balance. It is excluded from ASEAN meetings. Singapore is not going to complain. They will be very happy. They will be the one who is already on the side of that. Philippines in the same way with the Marcos government.

So the bottom line – and I take sides – is that China’s rapid build-up, from an Australian point of view, is the cause of our counter-reaction and procurement of nuclear-powered submarines.

(Al Jazeera)

Al Jazeera: Then may I ask why Indonesia and Malaysia have made public their positions on the nuclear-powered submarines? Is that a strategic move on their part?

Thayer: I think it’s a long-term commitment to non-alignment. And there’s an underlying feeling in these countries (that) this is going to provoke China and start a war and we’re going to be caught in the middle of it. So they see this as a tipping point and that you can reassure China by not buying nuclear-powered submarines.

In Australia, we look at China as a bully. And a bully keeps insisting. You have to get up and do something.

Indonesia has, as it were, that non-bound anti-nuclear aversion in its DNA. And we’ve done our best, Australia, to talk to them and our Prime Minister has already started – he started with Indian Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi – to reach out to key leaders in the region to inform them of the (submarine) announcement and where it goes. But this is 2023 and you are looking decades ahead before this becomes a reality.

We have conventional submarines and they are approaching the end of their life in this decade and we need to do something to avoid a capacity gap.

As Australia finds out, we don’t have a nuclear industry. We don’t have nuclear engineers, so we have to piggyback on the American submarines.

INTERACTIVE- Submarines by country
(Al Jazeera)

Al Jazeera: You made a very interesting point that China has a huge navy and a large number of already nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered submarines. Still, China says Australia’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines is provocative. Do you think China could win an information war in the ASEAN region by convincing the public that Australia is doing something provocative?

Thayer: There will be fighting. But, as I mentioned, I think there is a remaining group of countries – Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, but not necessarily in that order – that will block any consensus within ASEAN to oppose the acquisition of Australian-powered submarines when they show up.

So I go back to the original point: ASEAN itself as an organization will simply be left out. It has an ASEAN view of the Indo-Pacific, which basically tells both superpowers… “we’re not going to take sides”.

China is trying to quadruple its ballistic missile capabilities – I think the head of the national intelligence community in the US recently said so. So what we have with Russia pulling out of the START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaty is the superpowers developing nuclear weapons without the checks that the Soviet Union and the US did after the confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis when they both had a took a step back.

I think (former leader of the Soviet Union Nikita) Khrushchev or someone else said that you win a nuclear war by eating ashes – there is no victory. So you have to control it.

So the war, the information war, to address that point, for those countries that are claimant states in the South China Sea — and that includes Malaysia and Indonesia — are already sidelined because of China’s aggressive actions. And, you know, when Indonesia and Vietnam finally finally signed a treaty demarcating the maritime border — they had long ago done that for the continental shelf — China responded by putting its largest coastguard vessel in Indonesian waters.

So China will have the problem of being aggressive on the South China Sea and then turning around and asking for help against the provocative Australians.

I’m afraid we’re seeing more turbulence than ever before: from the rhetoric of (Chinese President) Xi Jinping and from his foreign minister… and we now have a US Congress that has a committee to call out all the bad about China. and that just ramps up the rhetoric in the United States, even to the point of some extremists in the Republican Party, I would say, not wanting to give Ukraine guns because it distracts from China.

We are not helping our region with that. ASEAN would be better, concerned countries would be better placed to put pressure on all sides, including China, to meet and talk to each other – as the Soviets and the United States did, and they worked it out.

During the Cold War, the Soviets were in international waters off San Diego and American ships were off Vladivostok, and they watched each other and they didn’t go to war.

Al Jazeera: What is the public perception of this deal in Australia? Is the purchase of the submarines seen as a natural technological advancement or as the trajectory for a possible confrontation with China one day?

Thayer: Most importantly, this was all initiated by the previous government. So we have an unparalleled dichotomy on a foreign policy issue of great importance. The largest defense acquisition since World War II. So the debate here right now, and the concerns, is cost.

It just came out… the whole thing over 30 years would cost 368 billion Australian dollars ($247 billion). But it’s going to create 20,000 jobs in those 30 years… So it’s kind of a mixed reaction because of the cost and the uncertainty

But the opposition can’t really criticize because they started it.

The costs are huge, but the benefits are those jobs… so it’s generally positive.


Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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