Australia PM defends Aukus submarine deal against critics

(From left) Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese, US President Joe Biden, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Aukus summit. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Thursday defended the country’s A$368 billion (S$330 billion) plan to acquire nuclear submarines, after two former leaders criticised the deal over its cost, complexity and potential sovereignty issues.

Unveiled on Monday in San Diego, the multi-decade Aukus project will see Australia purchase US Virginia-class submarines before joint British and Australian production and operation of a new submarine class, SSN-Aukus.

After criticism from Mr Malcolm Turnbull and Mr Paul Keating, both former prime ministers, Mr Albanese said that the deal was necessary, given the build-up of Chinese military power in the region, which he called the largest since World War II.

“China has changed its posture and its positioning in world affairs since the 1990s... that’s the truth of the matter,” he said.

Mr Turnbull said on Thursday that the Aukus project would take longer and cost more than an alternative plan to buy conventional French submarines, “recklessly” scrapped in 2021.

“We’ve been caught up in this hoopla where anyone who expresses any concerns about it is accused of being, or implied they are lacking in, patriotism,” Mr Turnbull said.

Mr Keating, a former prime minister under the ruling Labor Party, on Wednesday called Aukus the worst foreign policy mistake by the party since a failed bid to introduce conscription in World War I.

The security pact has bipartisan support in Parliament, with criticism mostly confined to academics, former politicians and minor parties.

Opting for nuclear submarines in the US-Britain alliance over conventional alternatives would leave Australia with fewer submarines while constraining the country’s ability to operate independently of the United States, Mr Keating said.

“Anthony Albanese screwed into place the last shackle in the long chain the United States has laid out to contain China,” he said.

Some analysts have argued that nuclear submarines are preferable because their superior range and stealth will help protect Australia’s trade routes from Chinese aggression. REUTERS

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