Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb”, famously quoted the Hindu text the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer knew he had unleashed a weapon that could destroy humanity itself.
Australia has now crossed that threshold into the nuclear world. We won’t be deploying nuclear weapons, but we will be operating nuclear-powered vessels of war.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said we have entered a new era. He’s right. We will now join only six other nations with nuclear-powered submarines.
The battle lines for security in the Indo-Pacific are being clearly drawn. On one side is the US and its allies, on the other China. Australia no longer pretends it doesn’t have to choose between Washington and Beijing. We are all in with the US, and the risk is a catastrophic conflict. In fact, we are preparing for it.
Time for an independent path?
The US alliance has been the bedrock of Australia’s security. But is that still the case? Former prime minister Paul Keating doesn’t think so.
Reacting to the submarine announcement, Keating said it was a “further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty”. The US couldn’t beat the Taliban, he said — how could it win a war with China?
Keating asked if it is time Australia pursued an independent path.
Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison and Joe Biden pose for a photo.
Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison and Joe Biden at the G7 summit in Cornwall earlier this year. (Supplied: Australian Government)
It is a critical question as the world ponders the durability of America. Not for nothing has this been dubbed the “post-American world”.
America does not drive the global economy, China does. China will usurp the US outright as the world’s biggest economy by the end of the decade.
Yes, America is still the most powerful military and outspends China on defence. But Beijing is preparing for a different war — a regional conflict that China believes it could fight and win. It has a strategy to neutralise US sea power and drag America into a fight on China’s terms and territory.
The other players
It isn’t just China. Russia retains the second biggest nuclear arsenal on the planet. Along with China, Washington nominates Moscow as its biggest security threat.
Russia and China have drawn closer. And President Vladimir Putin has reasserted Russian power on his borders and into the Middle East.
Despite bolstering the so-called Quad — America, Australia, Japan and India — pushing back against China’s regional ambitions, Japan and India are still hedging. India remains close to Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modhi talks about their “enduring partnership”.
Russia has traditionally been India’s biggest weapons supplier. Apart from the Quad, India and Japan have pursued a “trilateral” relationship with Russia.
Nations will pursue their interests in their own ways. Old-style Cold War blocs don’t fit so comfortably into a multipolar world.
Nuclear submarine decision’s geopolitical impacts
The Trident Nuclear Submarine, HMS Victorious, on patrol off the west coast of Scotland
The geostrategic wrestle between Washington and Beijing is one for the ages and Australia is now to play an even bigger role, writes Andrew Probyn.
China and Russia have conducted joint military exercises with Iran. China has close ties with North Korea and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed nations.
In Europe, nations are adopting a more selective and cautious approach to China. The European Union seeks to be what’s been described as a “third pillar” in the world, offsetting the US-China rivalry.
The think tank Chatham House, in a report earlier this year, said: “While the Biden administration has signalled it is keen to work with allies in ‘dealing’ with China, the EU has demonstrated a limited willingness to do so.”
There are obvious economic reasons. China has now overtaken the US as the EU’s biggest trade partner.
Chatham House said the EU is pursuing a risky and unattainable strategy leaving European nations vulnerable to both US and Chinese pressure. Still, it underlines the challenges of any US coordinated push back against China.
The challenge of a global power
Isolating or containing China is going to be much more problematic than it was with the former Soviet Union. Talk of a Cold War 2.0 is off the mark. Beijing is much more entwined with a globalised world than was Moscow.
The bamboo curtain is less clearly defined than the old iron curtain. And China is extending its economic and investment reach through the Belt and Road Initiative — a 21st century “new Silk Road” spanning seventy countries. It has been estimated to boost global GDP by .