Defence expert says AUKUS deal amounts to promise to follow US into war with China

A top Canberra defence expert has lashed Australia’s multi-billion dollar AUKUS submarine project as amounting to a promise to follow the US into a war against China.

The Australian National University’s Hugh White, an emeritus professor of strategic studies, unleashed a quite extraordinary criticism of Australia’s nuclear submarine plan in a podcast episode aired on Sunday.

Australia has committed to pursue the acquisition of the nuclear-powered vessels under the trilateral AUKUS security pact involving the US and UK, with the “optimal pathway” announced by Anthony Albanese last week.

The endeavour confirmed by the Prime Minister alongside UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden in San Diego on Tuesday will cost Australian taxpayers a mammoth $268bn to $368bn over the next 30 years.

Professor White, a former deputy secretary of the Defence Department, said Australia was not only going to “hand over some serious dollars” to the US but also pay with “a promise” to enter any future conflict with China.

“This is a very serious transformation of the nature of our alliance with the United States,” Professor White said in an interview recorded for the ANU’s politics podcast Democracy Sausage.

“The US don’t really care about our submarine capability — they care deeply about tying Australia into their containment strategy against China.”

Australia plans to purchase between three and five US-made Virginia-class nuclear submarines as a stopgap measure before eight AUKUS-class nuclear submarines based on a British design are built in Adelaide, with the first to be completed by 2042.

Professor White said he couldn’t see why the US would sell its own submarines – of which they have fewer than they need – unless it was absolutely sure Australia’s submarines would be available to it in the event of a major conflict in Asia.

He said a war between America and China over Taiwan would be “World War III” and have a “very good chance” of being a nuclear conflict.

“Australia’s experience of war shaped by the fact that we’ve tended to be on the winning side, but there is no reason to expect America to win in a war with China over Taiwan,” he warned.

He suggested there was also a high chance the AUKUS deal could fall over under a future American administration and a worsening strategic environment.

Last week’s AUKUS announcement has triggered questions about how an already under-strain budget will handle the associated cost and reignited concerns about how Australia can ensure it maintains sovereign capability of the vessels it acquires under the pact.

Camera IconPrime Minister Anthony Albanese’s announcement of the AUKUS details has been met with both criticism and praise. NCA NewsWire / David Geraghty Credit: NCA NewsWire

Professor White said there were cheaper, quicker, less risky and less demanding ways for Australia to get the submarines it needed, labelling the AUKUS plan a waste of money that “doesn’t make sense”.

“There’s going to be no actual net increase in the number of submarines available until well into the 2040s, even if it goes to plan – which it probably won’t,” he said.

It isn’t the first time Professor White has publicly criticised the AUKUS security agreement since it was signed by the Morrison government in 2021.

He penned an article for The Saturday Paper just last week titled “The AUKUS submarines will never happen”.

The publication of that article coincided with Paul Keating’s incendiary appearance at the National Press Club in which he savaged the AUKUS pact as the “worst deal” in history.

Mr Keating — who was the Labor prime minister from 1991 to 1996 — also personally attacked Mr Albanese, cabinet members such as Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, and journalists who asked him questions on Wednesday.

Speaking on the ANU’s podcast, Professor White stopped short of endorsing Mr Keating’s language but said he shared his concerns about AUKUS.

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