SYDNEY — Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating on Wednesday launched a blistering attack on his nation’s plan to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the United States to modernize its fleet, saying “it must be the worst deal in all history.”
Speaking at a National Press Club event, Keating said the submarines wouldn't serve a useful military purpose.
The condemnation came as China intensified complaints that the sub deal threatens global accords against nuclear non-proliferation, and as the head of the international nuclear watchdog organization was in Washington to consult with the White House on the deal.
“The only way the Chinese could threaten Australia or attack it is on land. That is, they bring an armada of troop ships with a massive army to occupy us,” Keating said. “This is not possible for the Chinese to do.”
He added that Australia would sink any such Chinese armada with planes and missiles.
“The idea that we need American submarines to protect us,” Keating said. “If we buy eight, three are at sea. Three are going to protect us from the might of China. Really? I mean, the rubbish of it. The rubbish.”
Australia's deal — announced Monday in San Diego by U.S. President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — came amid growing concern about China’s military buildup and influence in the Indo-Pacific. Biden emphasized that the submarines wouldn't carry nuclear weapons of any kind.
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said the deal was necessary to counter the biggest conventional military buildup in the region since World War II.
“We have to take the step of developing the capability to operate a nuclear-powered submarine so that we can hand over a much more self-reliant nation to our children and to our grandchildren," Marles said.
China said Tuesday the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom were traveling “further down the wrong and dangerous path for their own geopolitical self-interest” in inking the deal, which has been given the acronym AUKUS.
China renewed its objections at length on Wednesday, accusing the three countries of “coercing” the International Atomic Energy Agency into endorsing the deal. All member states of the IAEA should work to find a solution to the “safeguards issues” and “maintain international peace and security,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing.
Arms control experts in the West also have expressed concern, saying the U.S., Australian and British sub deal could open the door for other nuclear-armed countries to pursue nuclear transfers to third-party countries, and could set a precedent that would make it harder for international regulators to guard against the illegal trafficking and use of nuclear material.
Rafael Grossi, director general of IAEA, rejected China's accusation. “Nobody coerces me. Nobody coerces the IAEA,” he told reporters Wednesday in Washington, where he was due to meet with senior National Security Council members on the nuclear-powered sub deal.
Grossi insisted his agency would hold the AUKUS allies and any other nation that attempts a similar nuclear transfer to tough and lasting standards of design, monitoring, inspection and transparency to try to make sure nuclear non-proliferation accords were being observed.
As part of the effort to ensure the nuclear material in the sub engines doesn't go astray after it leaves U.S. control, the power units are to be welded shut. It's a first for the IAEA to deal with, and inspectors will insist on guaranteeing that ships return to ports with as much nuclear material in the welded units as they left with, Grossi told reporters.
“We are going to put together a solid system to try to have all the guarantees” that there is no risk that the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines violates international barriers against more countries acquiring nuclear weapons capability, he said. “If we cannot do that, we would never agree.”
Keating served as prime minister for more than four years in the 1990s. He was from the Labor Party, the same party as Albanese.
Keating said the submarine deal was the worst international decision by the Labor Party in more than 100 years, when it unsuccessfully tried to introduce conscription during World War I.
He also mocked the cost of the deal, which Australian officials have estimated at between 268 billion and 368 billion Australian dollars ($178-$245 billion) over three decades. Australian officials say the deal will create 20,000 jobs.
“For $360 billion, we’re going to get eight submarines,” Keating said. “It must be the worst deal in all history.”
At the Press Club event, Keating was questioned about whether his own ties to China had influenced his views.
He said he had no commercial interests in China and had stopped serving on a bank board five years ago.
“I was on the China Development Bank board for 13 years, and 10 years as chairman,” Keating said, adding that his fee, or honorarium, was $5,000 a year.
Keating also lashed out at some journalists at the event, telling one reporter her question “is so dumb, it’s hardly worth an answer” and another that “you should hang your head in shame” over his newspaper's recent coverage of China's perceived threat to Australia.
“For the record, Mr. Keating, we’re very proud of our journalism and we think that it has made an important contribution to the national debate,” responded the second journalist, Matthew Knott from The Sydney Morning Herald.
Ellen Knickmeyer contributed from Washington.