HOW would the English friar of razor fame slice and dice Scott Morrison’s foundering submarine project? Forget that the United States and Australia should have been discussing nuclear-powered subs years ago and that the catch-up being played after the French fiasco is akin to the fabled covid victims on ventilators pleading for a ‘vaccine.’ While the escalating ‘gray-zone warfare’ being used to intimidate Taiwan isn’t new, its magnitude this month can be seen as Beijing’s response to shots of resolve put across its bow by the five powers of AUKUS and the Quad in recent weeks. The only surprising thing about China’s conduct is that it contradicts Napoleon’s maxim about interrupting an enemy when he’s making a mistake. Despite the meta-catastrophe of Joe Biden, pandemic and Afghanistan, the China containment pact is more unified than ever. This telegraphs a vulnerability in Xi Jinping that Bonaparte should have lamented all the way home from Moscow: ego. This is a cold war, then, between impatience and insincerity.
Australia cannot possibly build eight nuclear submarines or continue relying on six diesel-electrics. Do we therefore outsource the AUKUS venture to America and lease an intermediate fleet? If the rationale for nuclearised boats is China’s hemispheric thuggery now, what real use are submarines that might be launched in the 2040s? Given the lead-time involved even in leasing ad hoc in-betweeners, the truth is we’re weak as a naval power and will be for many years to come. The insipidity, in turn, is a new trap in its own right. Not everything has to be about the present. There will be wars and rumours of wars long after China v. Taiwan. To avoid being as unprepared in 2051 as it is in 2021, Australia has to commit to rearmament anyway – however unknown the unknowns.
Regarding the known unknowns, Greg Sheridan deserves a lot of credit for his razor work on bunk in a quest for clarity. Last week, he canvassed several rightist “elder statesmen” of strategic policy on AUKUS. They welcomed nuclearisation but scotched the dream of an Adelaidean building bee. As the reviewer of a new book on Occam argues, simplicity has its limits. AUKUS might eventually deliver but only if it gets a lot more complicated. Unfortunately, it can deliver nothing to Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, who wants Australian help to counteract a possible Chinese invasion today. According to Newspoll, the Prime Minister’s victory over anti-nuclear daftness is emphatic. That will resound long-term but only if future Labor governments and the Luddites holding them to ransom stay the course. That’s an Ayers Rock if but an even bigger one hasn’t been addressed by either Sheridan or his round table:
Molan supports nuclear submarines but asks this astringent question: “What good is it having an eye-pleasing defence industry in 20 years time if we lose the next war? The operational need must trump the industry need.”
Molan tells Inquirer: “The PM’s prediction on getting the nuclear submarines in one or two decades means we will fight the (hypothetical) China war, itself variously predicted within three to 10 years, with the Collins. The nukes are a worthwhile long-term strategic objective, but they are not the one answer to our national security needs. The next 18 months will be key. Can the PM find more subs sooner?”
And here is the killer line, though phrased politely as a question: “Can we perhaps build some subs overseas to begin with, then in Adelaide?”
As an acquisitions critique, well and good, but there are two absurdities here that point to the true essence of the problem in Australia’s defence posture (or posturing) vis-a-vis China. First, “we” – meaning Australia – are not going to declare, wage, win, lose or draw any war except as an ally of the United States and probably three or four other major world powers. A few submarines are not going to make an enormous difference either way. I doubt historians of the 2120s will sheet home the blame for a lost world war to Scott Morrison’s inability to “find more subs.”
Second, if a war against China is as inevitable as Jim Molan says it is – and the government seems to think it is – why not make the necessary changes to the Defence Act 1903 to enable compulsory military service? Everybody knows why. It is politically unthinkable. Australia has no appetite for mass casualties to defend Taiwan. It has none for the minor casualties of the flu. At the root of our military unpreparedness is a culture of ‘safety,’ pacifism and moral subjectivism three quarters of a century in the making. Submarines being no more a projection of abiding martial will than an SAS turnstile at Tarin Kowt, this indifference makes AUKUS per se a parlour game. President Xi knows this and obviously dreams of writing himself into Chinese lore as the great re-unifier – preferably, without firing a shot. The world is very impressed but perhaps more than it should be. Xi’s hubris won’t protect his green, pretty soldiers if it all goes wrong.
Occam v. Sun Tzu. What a chess match that would have been.