Submarines won’t compel Australia to join a Taiwan conflict: Marles

The Australian government will have complete control over the Virginia-class submarines it plans to buy from the United States with Defence Minister Richard Marles rejecting any suggestion a deal has been done with America that the boats would be used in a war over Taiwan.

Marles, speaking on ABC’s on Sunday, said it was “plain wrong” to suggest the submarines, due to be acquired through the 2030s, were bought on the understanding they could be used for anything but Australia’s national interest.

Defence Minister Richard Marles says the US-built Virginia-class submarines will be under direct Australian control.

Alex Ellinghausen

Under the $368 billion AUKUS submarine project agreement announced last week US and British nuclear-powered submarines will make increased visits to Australia, allowing local submariners to become more familiar with the technology.

These boats will remain under the control of the British and American governments.

From 2033, Australia is due to obtain the first of its own Virginia-class submarines from the United States. A second Virginia-class should arrive in 2036 and another in 2039.

In the 2040s, Australia will build a new type of submarine, the SSN AUKUS, based on an updated version of the current British Astute-class submarine and featuring American parts.

Marles said the notion the United States would draw on the Australian submarines in the event of a war over Taiwan was wrong, and denied Australia gave the US any commitment it would join a conflict as part of the deal.

“The answer to that is of course not. Of course not. And nor was one sought. I’ve listened to that conjecture from a number of commentators. It is plain wrong,” he said.

“What Australia would do or not in respect of any future conflict will be a matter to be considered at that time by the government of the day.”

Marles also reiterated the government’s control of all its nuclear-powered submarines amid claims – including from former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull – that Australia was ceding sovereign control over its defence capabilities.

“I want to make it really clear that the moment that there is a flag on the first of those Virginia-class submarines in the early 2030s is the moment that that submarine will be under the complete control of the Australian government of the day and again, no-one would have expected that to be any different,” he said.

“The submarines that we operate will be operated by Australians and be capable of being entirely operated by Australians.

“It is possible, given that there is that arrangement, that you might have Americans on board, but the command and the control of that submarine in the future will be done by Australians.”

The federal government has committed to storing all the high-level radioactive waste that will be generated from the 2050s onwards by the fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

Marles insisted the commitment to store the waste on current or future Defence land was limited to fuel for naval propulsion and therefore consistent with the Labor Party’s national policy platform, despite the document ruling out the development of any stage of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia.

“This is a big commitment that we’ve made that forms part of being the responsible steward that we need to become, not just in terms of disposing of the waste, but the handling of the nuclear material right through the life of it,” Marles said.

“We are not talking about establishing a civil nuclear industry, nor are we talking about opening Australia as a repository for nuclear waste from other countries.”

The AUKUS program assumes the government will not begin the disposal of nuclear waste generated by the submarines until the 2050s, when the reactor from the first of the boats will be due to be decommissioned.

The government said it will announce within the next year a process to choose a site to store nuclear waste from the submarines.

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