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Why Australia is spending billions to modernise its submarine fleet

Amid fears over a menacing China and an isolationist United States, Australia is making a monumental commitment to renew and upgrade its submarine fleet.

Last year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became – briefly – the richest person in modern history when his personal wealth hit US$150 billion ($230 billion). He’s slipped a little since, but his July 2018 worth was about equal to the global value of fast-food king McDonald’s.

It’s also the amount Australia intends to spend renewing and operating just one weapon type in its defence arsenal – submarines.

There are two overwhelming, intertwined reasons for the monumental commitment: a more menacing China and the uncertainty that Australia’s protector, an increasingly isolationist US, can be relied on.

When Rear Admiral Greg Sammut, head of the Australian navy’s submarine programme, gave the updated costs of building and operating the fleet of 12 new submarines to MPs at the end of November – up by A$21 billion on just a year before – nobody objected. That’s despite the first of the French-designed vessels not being expected to enter service before 2032.

And nobody seriously believes the costs won’t rise – least of all the navy.

The fact that it will spend tens of billions more on submarines than the entire annual A$192 billion cost of welfare and social security in Australia tells much about the depth of unease. At the core is Australia’s anxiety over the ambitions and intentions of China, its largest trading partner and the nation almost single-handedly responsible for Australia’s 28 years of uninterrupted economic growth.

Proponents of the submarines (the vessels will replace six ageing Collins-class subs) argue their stealth, range and armaments will deter would-be aggressors because of the uncertainty they create. The would-be aggressor? Most likely China, but few politicians wish to say so because almost a third of Australia’s export receipts (A$123.3 billion) are earned in the Celestial Kingdom, mostly from iron ore, coal, food and wine. And, as Australia discovered in February when its coal exports began piling up on China’s wharves awaiting extra “environmental inspections”, offending Beijing carries costs.

Canberra had by then banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from its new 5G cellular network and passed laws to curb foreign (read Chinese) interference in Australia’s politics and to prosecute acts of espionage.

November brought fresh evidence suggestive of China’s stepped-up efforts to exert influence: attempts by Beijing agents to get a Chinese Communist Party candidate elected to the Australian Parliament, with the informant who tipped off Australia’s security agencies found dead in a Melbourne hotel room; and a defecting Chinese government spy claiming to have a trove of information about his government’s espionage activities, including in Australia.

Duncan Lewis, the just-retired head of Australia’s domestic spy agency, Asio, in a startling interview last month, said China was seeking to “take over” Australia’s political system through its “insidious” foreign-interference operations.

Lewis, once head of Australia’s Special Forces, and a former ambassador to Belgium, the EU and Nato and Secretary of the Defence Department, spoke to Peter Hartcher, the Sydney Morning Herald’s veteran foreign-affairs specialist who has just published an acclaimed 20,000-word essay on China and Australia.

One of its theories is that Australia is the harbinger for the Chinese Communist Party’s grab for influence across nations. As Hartcher writes, it was first proposed by China expert John Garnaut, whose classified work for the Australian government on the extent of Beijing’s interference led to the new laws cracking down on foreign meddling.

“Australia is the canary in the coal mine of Chinese Communist Party interference,” wrote Garnaut. “Nobody knows what happens when a mid-sized, open multicultural nation stands its ground against a rising authoritarian superpower that accounts for one in every three of its export dollars.”

Unpredictability is the new certainty for Australia’s relationship with its most important trading partner.

And the costs are rising fast.

This article was first published in the December 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.