2 July 2022

Why Australia’s nuclear submarine deal raises questions for Christians

The Australian government plan to have eight submarines built under AUKUS deals. Picture: iStock

By Derek McDougall 

28 December 2021

In September, the Australian government announced an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” with the United Kingdom and United States. 

Plans for eight nuclear submarines under the “AUKUS” deal drew the most public attention.  

But the deal has broader implications. In considering our stance as Christians we must ask whether it constitutes loving our neighbour, both at home and throughout the world. 

A theological perspective 

AUKUS raises questions about the obligations we as Christians have to the political community in which we live. Christians claim a higher loyalty – to God – while giving a conditional loyalty to the state.  

But this conditional loyalty does not mean that Christians passively accept what the state through its own processes determines. We should actively strive to influence the state to promote the common good. 

So, we must ask what stance we should adopt about the state’s protection. 

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Christian perspectives on this issue over the centuries have extended from the “just war” doctrine to different versions of pacifism. Generally, the focus is on the circumstances that would warrant the state invoking its defences to protect interests judged as fundamental. Having a force sufficient to deter likely “threats” is part of the context.  

In relation to AUKUS, a key question is how Australia should respond to China’s increasing assertiveness. What kind of security policy should the state follow?  

AUKUS points to the strengthening of security links with the US and UK. At the same time, it assumes that a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines should play a central role in protecting Australian security. Is either of these assumptions wise, whether from a Christian perspective or some other perspective? 

Much of the theological discussion has focused on Christian attitudes to the state in a general way, but Christians are also part of the human community at a global or world level.  

AUKUS should lead us to think theologically about the global human community, rather than simply focusing on Australia. If Christians have obligations to the state in which they live, does this also apply to the global human community? Here we can observe that the world is very fragmented. “Community” is often an aspiration rather than a reality. 

It is no doubt more difficult to engage with the global human community than it is with the state in which one lives. Despite this, the same strictures apply from a Christian perspective.  

We must ask, “What can Christians do to make that community more just and peaceful?” 

One possibility is to work through our state to promote policies that will contribute to the desired effect at global level. Christians can also link with each other across national boundaries, and through global civil society. 

Hence, when considering AUKUS, as Christians we should consider not just the implications for Australia, but for our region, and indeed for the whole world. 

An ethical perspective 

Christians invoke “love your neighbour” as a guide to ethical behaviour. So, what does “love your neighbour” mean when it comes to AUKUS?  

From an Australian perspective, is this new arrangement likely to enhance our national security?  

I would argue that AUKUS detracts from Australian security rather than enhancing it. Despite Australia’s long standing security cooperation with both the US and the UK, announcing an enhanced trilateral security partnership ups the ante around tensions with China. It signals even more strongly than before that Australia views itself as an adversary to China.  

The proposed nuclear-powered submarines are also much more offensive in scope than the French designed conventional submarines would have been, given that they can range as far as the Chinese coast. 

AUKUS means a diminution in Australia’s strategic autonomy, at least in relation to China. The proposed submarine fleet implies greater integration with US strategy around China. 

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The submarine deal detracts from the “security with Asia” narrative that had developed over recent decades. Its emphasis on “great and powerful friends” is backward looking. Australia has also damaged its relationship with France, a country that was also significant to Australia diversifying its international relationships. 

Domestically, the cost of the proposed purchase also raises big questions. Unless Australia increases its defence spending, this commitment will involve reduced spending on other elements of the Australian defence forces. Or, if the government expands defence spending, this could mean reduced funding for areas such as social welfare, education, health and transport.  

As Christians we also have a commitment to enhance peace and justice.  

AUKUS adds to international tensions, potentially fuelling an arms race. While one could argue that China has long been expanding its own defences, this development will give it further incentive to do so. And, other Asian countries, such as Indonesia, might feel that they should act similarly. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations with their notion of “ASEAN centrality” feel sidelined by AUKUS. 

In the South Pacific AUKUS diminishes Australia’s relationship with New Zealand, given the latter’s anti-nuclear stance. It also highlights differences with the Pacific island countries over nuclear issues. These countries would prefer a much stronger commitment by Australia on climate action. 

Globally, AUKUS has implications both strategically, and for nuclear proliferation.  

It may contribute to Sino-US tensions, and affects Europe’s international orientation. Given France’s leading role in the European Union, AUKUS is likely to encourage the development of European strategic autonomy, including in relation to China. Paradoxically then, AUKUS might contribute to the emergence of a more pluralistic world, with several power centres. Diversification in this respect might be helpful for world peace. 

On the issue of nuclear proliferation, the proposed acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS takes advantage of a loophole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Such a situation is not subject to the safeguards and inspection regime conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in relation to civilian nuclear energy. While Australia might not acquire nuclear weapons through the NPT loophole, other powers might not feel so constrained.  

The prophetic vision of turning “swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4) rings through human history, calling us to struggle for peace and justice. AUKUS raises these issues once again. 

Christians need to determine where they stand and what they will do.  

Derek McDougall is Professorial Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. He is also a member of the Uniting Church Victorian and Tasmanian synod Ethics Committee. 

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