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Ex-Prime Minister Rudd Discusses Consequences Of U.S.-Australian Sub Deal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So what are the implications of that nuclear submarine deal we mentioned that has upset France? Kevin Rudd is the former prime minister of Australia, which is buying nuclear submarines from the United States. He is also the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and is on the line from Australia. Welcome back.

KEVIN RUDD: Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Do you have any idea why it would be that neither your government nor the U.S. government nor the U.K. let France know this deal was happening?

RUDD: Let me put it this - to you delicately. I think there have been finer moments in the history of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian diplomacy. Leaving our French allies in the dark, frankly, was just dumb. And frankly, if there was a technical reason for changing the Australian submarine order from conventional boats to nuclear-powered boats, which is a big decision for this country, then surely the French, as a nuclear submarine country themselves, could have been also extended the opportunity to retender for what at present is a $90 billion price project. So the French have every right to be annoyed by what has happened. And I think this could have been handled infinitely better.

INSKEEP: And you don't know why they just didn't? I mean, did they just forget, or did they think it was smarter to do it this way, somehow?

RUDD: I presume that part of the politics of this was driven by - from the Australian end. Australia is getting close to a national election. And the conservative government of Australia at present is trying to muscle up and appear to be hairy chested on the question of China, taking an extraordinary decision, from a local perspective, to go from conventional submarines to nuclear-powered submarines, when this country doesn't have its own civil nuclear program is a very large leap into the dark. I presume they wish to have the element of surprise in it. And their principal objective domestically in Australia was to catch their political opponents offside. The Australian Labor Party, my party, is currently well ahead in the polls.

INSKEEP: I guess we should just clarify - the difference between a conventional submarine and a nuclear-powered submarine is how long it can stay underwater. A nuclear submarine can stay below and stay hidden for a much longer period. Can you just give us an idea of - what is the point? Why does Australia need that capability?

RUDD: Well, these are the questions which now surface in the public debate here as to why the sudden change. There are really three questions which come to the surface. One is a nuclear-powered submarine's supposed to be quieter. That's less detectable, in terms of what submariners would describe as the signature of a submarine. Now, the conventional wisdom in the past is that conventionally powered submarines are, in fact, quieter. But now that advice seems to be changing. But we don't have consensus on that. The second is how often you need to snorkel - that is, come to the surface - and become more detectable because of that. But the third is a question of interoperability, and that is, if you're going to have eight or 12 Australian nuclear-powered submarines, are you, in effect, turning them into a subunit of the United States Navy? Or is it going to be still an autonomous Royal Australian Navy? 'Cause we can't service nuclear-powered vessels ourselves 'cause we don't have a domestic nuclear program. These are the three big questions which need to be clarified from the Australian government.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's interesting. So Australia becomes, in a way, more dependent on the United States, which of course has a fully developed nuclear program and a lot of experience with nuclear subs. Let me ask about where all this is heading, though, because when we talk about Australia buying weapons and say it has something to do with countering China, you begin imagining some scenario where the United States, the U.K. and Australia would somehow all end up in a war against China, which, given that China has nuclear weapons, is almost unthinkable. Is that where this is headed or what people at least want to be prepared for?

RUDD: Well, it's - the core structural factor at work here, of course, as your question rightly points to, is the rise of China. And China, bit by bit - economically, militarily, strategically, technologically - is changing the nature of the balance of power between itself and the United States, in East Asia and in the West Pacific. That's been going on for decades. So the real question for the U.S. and its allies - its allies in Asia and its allies in Europe - is how then best to respond to it. Now, of course, there are two or three bits to that. One, of course, is to maintain or to sustain or to enhance that military balance of power, which has been slowly moving in China's direction for some time.

The second, however, is what I describe as the relative diplomatic footprint in this part of the world by the U.S. and China, where, frankly - in Southeast Asia - particularly during the Trump administration, the United States has been missing in action. But the big one is this. It's trade investment of the economy, where all the economies of East Asia and the West Pacific now have China as their No. 1 economic partner - and the United States no longer. So this goes to the question of, will the U.S. re-engage economically? Will the U.S., for example, reconsider its accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

RUDD: Questions such as that. If you're not in the economic game, then frankly, the general strategy towards China is problematic.

INSKEEP: Do Australians view China roughly as the United States does?

RUDD: I think Australians have, on balance, a more mixed view of China than I find in United States. I normally run our think tank in New York. I'm back in Australia for COVID reasons. But certainly, the changing balance of power in China's direction, the more assertive policy of Xi Jinping's administration over the last several years and the aspects of coercive commercial diplomacy against Australia...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

RUDD: ...Have really hardened Australian attitudes towards the People's Republic. At the same time, you've got to ask yourself this question, whether it's on submarine purchase or anything else. What is the most effective, as it were, national and allied strategy for dealing with China, not just militarily but economically and other domains as well?

INSKEEP: Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia - it's always a pleasure talking with you, sir. Thank you so much.

RUDD: Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: He's also president of the Asian Society Policy Institute.

(SOUNDBITE OF DECEPTIKON'S "INACCESSIBILITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.