CANBERRA, Australia >> Australia’s deal to acquire submarines powered by U.S. nuclear technology was aimed at protecting the United States from Chinese nuclear attack and had changed Australia-Sino relations, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said on Wednesday.
Keating, who led a center-left Labor Party government from 1991 until 1996, told the National Press Club that Australia’s current conservative government treated France “appallingly” in September when it canceled a 90 billion Australian dollar ($66 million) contract to build an Australian fleet of 12 diesel-electric submarines.
Instead, Australia will acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines utilizing U.S. technology under a new alliance with the United States and Britain.
Keating expected Australia’s submarines would be based on the U.S. Virginia-class design rather than the smaller British Astute-class version.
“Eight submarines against China, when we get the submarine in 20 years’ time, it’ll be like throwing a handful of toothpicks at a mountain,” Keating said.
Australia’s nuclear-propelled submarines would be designed to contain Chinese nuclear-armed submarines to shallow waters close to China’s coast, Keating said.
“In other words, to stop the Chinese having a second-strike nuclear capability against the United States,” Keating said. “This changes our relationship” with China.
Keating sits on an advisory board to the China Development Bank, a state-owned institution that raises money for large infrastructure projects. His critics have described him as an apologist for Beijing, which has had a frosty relationship with Australia in recent years.
Keating was a Cabinet minister then prime minister in a Labor government that built the first of Australia’s six Collins-class submarines, which were launched between 1990 and 2003.
France reacted angrily to Australia dumping the contract with majority state-owned Naval Group.
The French won the contract in 2016 with a plan for a conventionally-powered submarine based on a design for a nuclear-powered Shortfin Barracuda-class submarine.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government made the change because a conventional submarine would no longer meet Australia’s evolving security needs.
Keating said the French could have provided a more modern nuclear-powered submarine than the Virginia-class, which was based on 1990s technology.
“If we were unhappy about the fact that we were having trouble trying to stuff a diesel engine into the hull of a French nuclear submarine, why didn’t we at least inquire about their most modern nuclear submarine?” Keating asked.
Australian Ambassador to Washington, Arthur Sinodinos, this week told the Hudson Institute, a conservative U.S. think tank, that the new submarines would enable Australia to “project power” but should not be seen as a threat to China, The Australian newspaper reported on Wednesday.