The long-term goal of the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States is a “seamless” defense and technology industry across the three countries, Canberra’s new ambassador in Washington, Kevin Rudd, said on Tuesday.
In his first public remarks since assuming the role, the former Australian prime minister said one of his first tasks would be to help shepherd legislation through Congress to enable the March 13 deal for the United States to sell nuclear submarines to Australia.
“Our critical tasks during the course of 2023 is to work with our friends in the administration and the United States Congress to support the passage of the key elements of the enabling legislation,” Rudd said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This is not just a piece of admin detail,” he added. “You’re looking at four or five pieces of legislation, and each with attendant congressional committee oversight. This is a complex process.”
Beijing has criticized the AUKUS pact and Australia’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines from the United States, saying the countries were going down “a wrong and dangerous path.”
But Canberra says the nuclear submarines, which can travel three times as fast as conventional submarines and stay at sea for much longer without refueling, are essential to protect vital sea lanes.
Negotiations leading to the March 13 deal were at times messy, with Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and chairman of the Senate Armed Services, initially opposing the sale of submarines to Australia amid massive backlogs across U.S. shipbuilding yards.
In the end, the United States agreed to sell up to five older-generation nuclear submarines to Canberra in the coming years while the Australian, U.S. and U.K. governments develop Australia’s capacity to build its own submarines by the 2040s.
But Rudd told the CSIS event that was only the first step. He said the bigger question for AUKUS would be integration.
“How do we move towards the creation, soon, of a seamless Australia-U.S.-U.K. defense, science and technology industry?” he asked, adding that success in integration of the industries “could be even more revolutionary than the submarine project in itself.”
It would provide, he added, the ability to turn plans, such as submarine deals, into reality “not 15 years, but five years, four years and three years, to remain competitive and therefore deterrent.”
Rudd, who was prime minister from 2007 to 2010 and again in 2013, said his instructions from Canberra now were to “work like hell to build guardrails in the relationship between the U.S. and China,” over Taiwan and the South China Sea to avoid “war by accident.”
But he also said Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong wanted Australia to work with the United States to “enhance deterrence” to “cause the Central Military Commission in China to think twice” about any military action.
Rudd said Chinese President Xi Jinping made clear his main strategy was to use “the gravitational pull of the Chinese economy” as leverage, which he said was only interrupted by COVID.
“Even though growth has now slowed in China, Chinese strategy is fairly clear, which is to make China the indispensable market that it had begun to become,” Rudd said. “It’s directed to countries around the world in the Global South, and in Europe, and beyond.”
Rudd said the U.S. policy of “derisking” its supply chains away from China – without completely “decoupling” the economies – was a natural reaction to that geopolitical strategy, even if Australia, as an island nation reliant on trade, still preferred free-trade policies.
Wong, the Australian foreign minister, used in a speech in Washington in December to call on the United States, which pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, to return to a focus on trade as it seeks to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Rudd said Australia still wanted the United States to return to the trade pact – reworked as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership under Japan’s leadership – but was realistic about domestic pressures on U.S. administrations.
“We understand what’s happened in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. We understand the rise of industrial policy in this country,” Rudd said. “Our job is to work within the grain of U.S. strategic policy settings and to maximize openness.”
“Look, this is an old relationship,” he said. “We’ve been knocking around with each other for the last 100 years or more, and in any relationship, there are going to be times when you agree or disagree, but you decide to make the relationship work.”
Edited by Malcolm Foster.