Australians have found out the hard way that there is a price to pay for having six defence ministers in eight years in a volatile time in a changing region. The rise of China, and the increasing assertion of Xi Jinping as its president-for-life, have coincided with a period of conflict and indecision at the top of the Australian government that has cost far more than the $2.4 billion spent on submarines that will never be built.
There is no easy way to measure the cost in lost time and confused strategy but there is no doubt the damage is real – and confirmed by the very need for what Prime Minister Scott Morrison calls a “forever partnership” with the United States and Britain to build nuclear submarines.
Seven years after Australia opened talks with Japan to buy a fleet of conventional submarines, the federal government wants nuclear submarines but does not know which ones. It will need at least 18 months to consider the options.
It will be 2023, a decade after Tony Abbott took the Coalition to power and began the quest for a new fleet, before the government makes its choice. Australia will receive the first vessel well into the 2030s and around two to four years after the conventional ones were meant to arrive. It is hard to think of a more expensive strategic indecision.
Abbott highlighted the changing views in a Coalition government that has had three leaders in three terms. He pursued the Japanese agreement, shifted to fielding bids between the Japanese, German and French and then later regretted not choosing nuclear in the first place. When Abbott called for nuclear submarines in 2017 he was rebuked by Marise Payne, the government’s third defence minister and now, as Foreign Minister, a champion of the new strategy.
Morrison presents the pact as the result of changes overseas. First, he points to the advent of nuclear submarines that Australia can maintain without needing a civil nuclear energy program. Second, he names the willingness of the US to share technology Australia has wanted for decades.
There is also a third factor Morrison does not name: the increasing aggression from China, including its militarisation of the South China Sea. The government, and most others, did not see this coming when Xi addressed our Parliament in November 2014.