Penny Wong warns Australia's new submarine deal must not come at expense of aid efforts

Labor's foreign affairs spokeswoman has cautioned against military development undermining investment efforts in the Indo-Pacific.

Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong during Question Time in the Senate.

Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong during Question Time in the Senate. Source: AAP

Labor's foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong has warned Australia’s moves to acquire nuclear-powered submarines must not come at the cost of aid and development efforts in the region.

In a speech to the United States Studies Centre on Thursday, Senator Wong cautioned against a focus on military capability undermining other investment efforts in the Indo-Pacific.

"Submarines might help protect the region, but on their own they won’t build the region we want,” she said.

“Our strategic ambitions must be matched by equally ambitious efforts to respond to the region’s needs.”

She added that while submarines would help “national defence” they would not of themselves address concerns in the region such as “economic coercion” in the face of a “more assertive” China. 

“This of course requires a bigger investment in our diplomacy, including in our economic engagement and development program,” she said.

Senator Wong's comments came as the diplomatic fallout from the cancelled French submarine deal continues to circle Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to the United States.  

The Opposition has given its conditional support for the nuclear-powered submarines secured through a new defence pact with the United States and the United Kingdom, known as AUKUS. 

But it has also accused the federal government of mishandling the diplomacy around the decision to scrap a $90 billion contract with French company Naval Group.

The new deal would see Australia become reliant on nuclear-powered technology from the United States and the United Kingdom to manufacture the submarines. 

Senator Wong said the government’s plan raised “valid questions about Australia’s sovereign capability”.

"How does the Morrison-Joyce Government assure Australians that we can act alone when need be?" she said.

"That we have the autonomy to defend ourselves, however and whenever we need to."

Labor’s conditions for the proposal include that there is no domestic civil nuclear industry developed or nuclear weapons acquired and that Australia abides by its non-proliferation obligations. 

Senator Wong wants the government to bring Labor "into the tent" and embrace a bipartisan consultation mechanism on the submarine program.

But Mr Morrison has accused the Opposition of wanting to have a bet each way on the proposal.

"I don't have each way bets on national security," he told reporters in Washington DC.

"If the Labor party wants to have an each way bet on national security then obviously the Australian people need to know that." 

Some South-East Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea, have shared their unease about the submarine plan, concerned it could fuel broader tensions across the region. 

South Korea's Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York he hoped the decision "won't disturb the situation in the region." 

"We just hope that the decision will contribute to peace and stability in the region," he said.

Senator Wong said not enough work had been done to reassure the region ahead of time of Australia's non-proliferation obligations.

"The anxiety expressed in some of the reactions to the AUKUS announcement suggests that more preparatory work could have been done," she said. "Quite rightly, the region doesn't want a nuclear arms race."

Mr Morrison has ruled out the nuclear-propelled submarines being armed with nuclear weapons.

The Prime Minister has expressed regret for France’s disappointment over the decision to scuttle the submarine deal.

He has also revealed attempts to speak directly with French President Emmanuel Macron have been rebuffed. 

Published 23 September 2021 at 1:43pm, updated 23 September 2021 at 2:14pm
By Tom Stayner
Source: SBS News