Australia could be cut off from the world and suffer crippling fuel shortages if the country was unable to protect itself from a sea blockade
In an address to parliament on Thursday, Richard Marles hit back at critics of the AUKUS deal, including former prime minister Paul Keating, arguing it was integral to both security and trade.
With 99 per cent of Australia’s trade passing by sea, Mr Marles said the nation’s shipping routes required protection.
“We are highly dependent on global trade … That has brought tremendous benefits, reducing the cost of commodities and products and expanding opportunities for Australian industry, jobs and growth.
“But with that connectedness comes a reliance on maintaining that access.”
The government last week unveiled the long-awaited details of the AUKUS pact.
Under the agreement, expected to cost upwards of $386bn, Australia will build a new fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines by 2055.
A shipping blockade would cut off almost all of Australia’s trade. Mr Marles added Australia could risk being cut off from fuel supplies if such an event took place.
“One doesn’t have to think hard to see what the impact would be if just this one trade route was disrupted by an adversary,” he said.
The argument Australia must protect the sea lanes represents a key shift in the nation’s Defence policy under AUKUS, which had previously centred around defending the mainland.
Mr Marles did not name China but stressed the vessels were required to maintain regional stability.
“At the heart of Australia’s strategic intent behind acquiring a nuclear-powered submarine capability is to make our contribution to the collective security of our region and to the maintenance of the global rules-based order, which is so fundamental to Australia‘s future,” he said.
“Clearly our future nuclear-powered submarines will be highly capable in conflict.
“Any adversary who wishes us harm by disrupting our connection with the world will be given pause for thought.”
The Defence Minister’s parliamentary statement comes after backbenchers Libby Coker and Michelle Ananda-Rajah questioned the cost and sovereignty implications of the deal.
Both MPs later reaffirmed their support for the agreement in statements.
On Monday, Fremantle MP Josh Wilson used an adjournment speech to air concerns about acquiring the vessels and Australia’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.
He also raised doubts about having to store the high-level waste the submarines would generate – noting Australia had yet to begin “proper process” for the storage of intermediate-level waste.
“While I support the work of the government, I’m not completely convinced that nuclear-propelled submarines are the only or best answer to our strategic needs,” Mr Wilson told parliament.
In his address, Mr Marles assured there was still time to iron out the kinks.
“This is a complex task, but we have time to get it right,” he told the Huse.
“To be clear, we will not have to dispose of the first reactor from our nuclear-powered submarines until the 2050s.”
The government will outline a process in which it will identify a Defence location to store and dispose of the nuclear waste within the next 12 months.