Anthony Albanese says it is likely he would have pursued the Aukus agreement had Labor been in power during the Morrison era because the bonds between the three nations are enduring, and defence officials would have supplied the same advice.
The upbeat assessment during an interview with the Guardian’s Australian Politics podcast pits Albanese against Paul Keating, who has urged Labor to walk away from the controversial agreement with the US and Britain. Keating argues the plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines will see Australia’s strategic sovereignty “outsourced to another state” – a critique echoed by the former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Aukus was championed by Scott Morrison, who had claimed in the run-up to the election that “only this government would have initiated” it. Labor endorsed the arrangement in opposition despite concern from several neighbours in the region, including Indonesia and Malaysia, that it would help fuel a regional arms race.
Asked whether he would have initiated the pact had he been Australia’s prime minister at the time, Albanese said the question was “hypothetical” but there was “nothing terribly surprising” about deepening cooperation given the historical ties.
The prime minister said Aukus was about more than nuclear submarines. “It’s about our defence arrangements, it is about interoperability,” Albanese said. He said it was a pact between nations, not politicians.
Albanese intimated Labor would have landed in the same place. “Aukus is an arrangement between nations who are friends [and] whoever was in government would have had similar … defence department, defence personnel and foreign affairs advice and that’s why our relationship with both those nations has been pretty consistent over a considerable period of time, regardless of who has been in office at any particular time.”
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The prime minister said he intended to visit the Biden administration in the US this year before attending the Apec summit in San Fransisco, and Joe Biden would also visit Australia as part of the Quad leaders meeting.
In the lead-up to the government’s response to the defence strategic review headed by the former defence chief Angus Houston and the former defence minister Stephen Smith, Albanese signalled Labor would bed down Aukus and boost spending on defence.
He warned that Australians now lived in an “insecure world”. “Brute force” in Europe and escalating strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific meant the government had to think more seriously about boosting Australia’s capacity to defend itself.
Enhanced sovereign capability was also fundamental to deterring aggression. “We need to put in place measures that increase peace and security in our region,” the prime minister said.
“We are working through the Aukus arrangements with the United Kingdom and the United States, but we are also looking at our capacity in general here as well. One of the lessons of the pandemic is, in general, we need to be more self-reliant. We need to be less vulnerable to international shocks … it might be a cyber issue, it might be a supply chain issue, or it might be military conflict.”
Albanese said it was imperative to have the “right assets” in the right locations to respond rapidly in the event of a conflict. But the prime minister did not rule out scrapping or scaling back existing defence projects to fund emerging priorities.
He also stepped around a question about whether Labor was intent on boosting national self-defence because the US was no longer a reliable ally due to its domestic political instability. He also declined to reveal the interim solutions Labor is canvassing to boost Australia’s defence capability given that the long lead times associated with acquiring nuclear-powered submarines may create a significant capability gap.
Aukus will be one of the main items on the agenda when the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, and the defence minister, Richard Marles, meet their British counterparts in Portsmouth on Thursday.
Marles will then fly on to the US for a meeting with the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, as part of preparations for the three countries to announce next month how Australia plans to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines.
Some US congressional figures have raised concerns about America’s own domestic production capacities and whether it would lose from helping build submarines for Australia in the short to medium term.
The Australian government has maintained that the project will only succeed if the production capabilities of all three Aukus countries are increased. But Marles last week refused to rule out the possibility that Australia’s first nuclear-powered submarines could be built offshore before production in South Australia can ramp up.
As those talks reach a crunch point, Wong used a keynote speech in London this week to declare that Australia’s investment in its military capabilities was “essential for deterring conflict and maintaining a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific”.
But she cautioned that this was only one part of Australia’s strategy and called for a continued focus on diplomacy, economic openness and upholding rules. She also emphasised the government’s efforts to deepen ties with Pacific and south-east Asian countries.
Additional reporting by Daniel Hurst. The full interview on the Australian Politics podcast will be available on Saturday