Turnbull: AUKUS Subs Deal Is an ‘Own Goal’

“If you double-cross people, there is a price to pay,” said former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the controversial deal that jilted France. 

Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. 
October 6, 2021
Australia's then-outgoing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks at a press conference in Canberra on August 24, 2018.
Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's then-outgoing prime minister, speaks at a press conference in Canberra on Aug. 24, 2018.  Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

It only took hours for the Biden administration’s deal to build nuclear-powered submarines with Britain and Australia to create a diplomatic firestorm. France, whose contract to build diesel-electric submarines for Canberra was subsequently canceled, recalled its ambassadors from both Washington and Canberra. And now, the controversy is kicking up back in Australia.

Some of the harshest words for the trilateral submarine partnership, popularly known as AUKUS, are coming from a surprising source: former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who recently spoke out publicly against the move. He fears that his successor, Scott Morrison, has flat-out deceived the French, an emerging power in the Pacific, something that could have long-lasting consequences for Australian relations with Europe. (Turnbull’s criticism might not be too surprising: his government signed the deal to buy French submarines in 2016).

“The bottom line is, if you double-cross people, there is a price to pay. And what Morrison did was reprehensible,” Turnbull said in an interview.

Foreign Policy took the opportunity to talk to Turnbull about the controversial deal and its diplomatic fallout, Australia and its increasingly contentious relations with China, and Canberra’s growing role in the Pacific.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: How do you see Australia’s role in the world changing as a result of its inclusion in the AUKUS grouping and in the Quad?

Malcolm Turnbull: I think that as Australia’s economy has grown, we have greater economic strength than we had 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. My view is that, in this region, Australia has to engage with its neighbors, particularly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Japan and South Korea, of course, and India. But it’s got to engage with its neighbors and look at the region less as a series of spokes leading into Washington or Beijing but more as a mesh. And that’s why I’ve ensured that the Trans-Pacific Partnership continued after the Americans pulled out. I mean, that was no mean feat. I had to persuade then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to stick with it, which he ultimately did, and we were able to keep that alive. You cannot assume that every relationship you have is one that goes through Washington. That’s really important.

And this is why AUKUS, the decision on the submarines, is such a disappointment and, I think, a very big mistake.

The best course of action for us, and I believe for the United States, would have been for Australia to have stuck with the French agreement; built the first three submarines, perhaps as diesel-electric submarines; and then transitioned to nuclear propulsion because, of course, the Barracuda is a nuclear submarine that, at our request, the French agreed to have as a conventional diesel-electric propulsion system.

I would say Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is clearly more comfortable dealing with London and Washington, and that’s a mistake. The reality is, you can have both. AUKUS, apart from the submarines—you’ve got to ask, what is it? The reality is that the cooperation between Australia and the United States could not be closer. It is so close. It is seamless. The military strategic collaboration between the United States and the United Kingdom is as close as it can be between two different countries or, in this case, three different countries. So describing AUKUS as a new alliance is just not true. It’s not an alliance at all. The alliance we have with the United States is the Australia-New Zealand-United States Security Treaty. That’s a mutual defense pact. The alliance the Americans have with Britain is NATO.

You can always improve everything, but it would be by degrees—it’s not a big breakthrough. Whereas the partnership with France was a very significant move because what we were acquiring was a new partner in the Pacific. France is in the Pacific. It’s got 2 million citizens between the Indian and Pacific oceans, and the damage that has been done to that relationship is enormous. I mean, more for Australia than for the United States, but it’s very significant. And I just think it’s a big strategic mistake.

FP: Back on AUKUS…

MT: I am not a critic of AUKUS. I mean, AUKUS is fine, there’s nothing wrong with it. But if you take the submarines out of it, it is essentially an enhancement, an embellishment, of the arrangements we already have. Nobody has actually been able to say what is the stuff that we’ll be sharing with each other that we don’t share with each other already.

But the submarine decision, I think, is a real mistake. I think it’s a mistake from Australia’s point of view. Instead of having construction of a submarine beginning in 2023 and the first one in the water in 2032—and instead of having the ability to transition to nuclear power with LEU [low-enriched uranium], which is clearly preferable—we’re now in a situation where we have literally nothing except 18 months of discussion and no expectation of a new submarine before 2040.

The outcome of it has been that the U.S. administration has been embarrassed, as U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged in his statement from his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. The French have been legitimately appalled. The Europeans are appalled. It has undermined trust between the United States and Europe. It has smashed trust between Australia and France. I have to say, I think it has been an own goal.

FP: Given the “awkward birth” of AUKUS, as you termed it in a recent speech, what’s the worst-case scenario for Australia’s relationship with Europe coming out of this?

MT: Right, this week, Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan is in Paris for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development meeting. He cannot get a meeting with the French trade minister. The talks between Australia and Europe on a free trade agreement have been postponed. The Europeans have just put them back. France had been historically a protectionist country and had actually been a strong supporter of an EU-Australia free trade agreement. You’d be very optimistic to think that would continue. The French equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce won’t even meet with Tehan.

Let’s assume that nobody is going to look Morrison or another Australian leader or official in the eye and say, “You are an untrustworthy person. I’ll never have anything to do with you.” But the bottom line is, if you double-cross people, there is a price to pay. And what Morrison’s government did was reprehensible. It led the French to believe that all was chugging along at the same time as it was planning to dump them. It was acting in bad faith.

I’ve only spoken to a few people in the Biden administration, but my impression is that there is quite a bit of embarrassment and regret in Washington about this. Because if you look at it from an American point of view, if you want to have an Australian submarine fleet that had, you know, more capability—at least in terms of endurance, particularly in shallow waters in littoral areas—there are advantages for diesel-electric boats. A diesel-electric boat that is running underwater on batteries is actually harder to detect than a nuclear-powered submarine because with a nuke, the reactors are always running. The advantage of nuclear-powered submarines is that they can go longer, faster, underwater.

I think from an American point of view, we could have maintained a good, trusting relationship with France. We could have potentially had French-designed, LEU-fueled nuclear-propulsion boats. That would have ticked every box. At the moment, we’ve got the prospect 20 years from now of having American-designed submarines or British-designed submarines but with American naval nuclear propulsion, using weapons-grade uranium. You’ve got to remember that Morrison has said there will be no nuclear industry in Australia. And he said this capability will be sovereign. So what he’s basically saying is the nuclear reactor is like a sealed battery that you plug into the boat and you don’t have to touch it for 35 years. That’s just not right. The British and American navies have had long experience with naval nuclear propulsion; both are nuclear weapons states that have got large civil nuclear industries. It’s a very different context.

So this is what we’ve got: a much bigger capability gap than we had before. We’ve got an affronted France and, by extension, Europe. There has been a lot of damage done to trust. And we’ve got the prospect—and that’s all—of a solution with the United States that is, I think, very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with no nuclear industry in Australia or Australian sovereignty over the capability. Because that’s the other thing: If you’ve got submarines that are effectively leased or, you know, maintained and sustained by the U.S. Navy, then they’re not really Australian boats, are they?

FP: You talked about the capability gap. Your Collins-class submarines will retire by 2030, right? And nuclear submarines would arrive in 2040, maybe? I’m curious how you see Australia surviving that gap.

MT: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone has got an answer to that yet. There has been talk about releasing American submarines, but the problem is that, do you think the U.S. Congress is going to be attracted to taking a Virginia-class submarine out of service from the U.S. Navy and Australia effectively operating it? I could see the United States saying, “Yeah, we’re very happy to have Australian crew embedded on Virginia-class submarines from a training point of view.” But, just, there’s no way that would give us sovereign capability. So I would say we’ve got a serious problem with the retirement of the Collins-class submarines. And I can’t see what the answer to that is. I’m afraid at the moment, if that’s a result of the awkward submarine deal—that is, increasing Australia’s submarine capability gap—I don’t see how that was in anybody’s interest.

FP: It sounds as if you’re concerned this is just not going to fly politically in Australia for very long.

MT: My concern is that it just won’t happen. That we’ll end up with nothing.

FP: And the question is, how can you rectify it?

MT: Look, it’s very hard to explain. Morrison was my treasurer. I know him very well. This looks as if it’s all political, you know, media-focused, wanting to have a big announcement. But, gee, AUKUS was given plaudits for about a week, and then people started to reflect on the reality of it. I didn’t say anything about it because Morrison was going overseas, and I don’t like to say things that are going to be critical of the prime minister when he’s out of the country. So I waited until he returned. And then I gave a 30-minute speech, which was very detailed.

People have said, “Oh, you know, Malcolm doesn’t like Morrison,” or whatever, but nobody has said the speech is wrong. You can’t deny that the French were deceived. That’s clear. That was actually the strategy. Morrison decided to string the French along while he was planning an alternative. So he dumped the French on Sept. 15. Our defense and foreign ministers and their counterparts in France had a meeting on Aug. 30 and in the communique emphasized the importance of the submarine partnership. It’s just mind-blowing. It’s so deceitful.

FP: Australia seems to be turning away from the economic ties it has had with China and toward going more all-in with Washington. Why is this happening so suddenly?

MT: I think our position with China has been largely reactive. China has sought to coerce Australia. And some of it is so blatant, it’s almost comic-book material, like the list of 14 demands that the Chinese Embassy issued, for instance, which included muzzling our press and, you know, all sorts of things—it was just ridiculous. It has been so counterproductive. It obviously is designed to cater to domestic public opinion in China, but it has been utterly counterproductive both here and in the region.

FP: You just mentioned Chinese coercion in Australia and political interference. Do you see Chinese political interference in Australia as overhyped?

MT: Look, I think these issues always tend to get overhyped, right? But just because something is being hyped doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It’s like with Huawei. I mean, I’ve never made an allegation that Huawei is involved in espionage or has been a vehicle for espionage, ever. My point was hedging risk. We were really identifying a loaded gun rather than a smoking gun.

What I’ve described is that the way we have to deal with China in the West is with boundaries of trust. We all have boundaries of trust. There are things that, you know, we’ve just met, we’re having a nice chat, but you’re not going to tell me things. You would tell your best friend or your work colleague or your wife or whatever. So we all have boundaries of trust. And so what we have to recognize is that there are some areas where we are going to hedge and where we can work collaboratively—and where we cannot, we will not work collaboratively. And this is in obviously sensitive sectors, telecommunications being a good example. But there are many other areas where we can. The Chinese government’s indignation about this is, really—it can’t be genuine.

I’ve often said this, that all of this indignation that pours out of Beijing and this anger and so forth is all instrumental. Trust is something that takes a long time to build up but can be wrecked very quickly. And again, it’s no different in personal relationships. You know, you get to know someone. You take a long time to trust them, and then they double-cross you, and you go, “Oh, I was mistaken, that’s it,” and do not have anything more to do with that guy.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch