Australia's $368 billion submarine deal – has it come too late to stop China?

Australia will have to wait at least 10 years for the AUKUS deal to deliver its nuclear-powered submarines.

It is highly unlikely you've managed to avoid mention of the daunting scenario of Australia going to war with China in recent weeks, with state media in Beijing blaming "a wave of war propaganda" from Australian media.

According to Nine Newspapers' recent series Red Alert, a war with China could be as little as three years away, with Beijing previously warning it will do what it takes to reunify democratic island state Taiwan with the mainland.

It's a narrative that then defence minister and now Liberal leader Peter Dutton raised eyebrows with as part of the Morrison cabinet as he warned the Australian public needed to be aware of the potential dangers we face.

And while the Coalition were accused of fear-mongering in a bid to win last year's election, it's clear Labor and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese are well aware of China's threat. On Tuesday Mr Albanese executed Australia's historic $368 billion submarine deal, 18 months on from AUKUS's conception amid growing fears of China's influence in the region.

Close ups of Anthony Albanese and Xi Jinping in suits.
Anthony Albanese has previously stressed while he wishes for Sino-Australian relations to improve, he is well aware of the threat China poses. Source: Getty

The deal has finally brought about some concrete steps Australia will take to acquire its new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. However the agreement has left us with as many questions as answers.

One major concern is whether Australia can cope with the magnitude of the project. Professor John Blaxland, from the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, says it will be a "tall order" for Australia to meet the employment requirements.

"Our university sector has been for the last 18 months doing some deep thinking about how we generate from scratch nuclear physicists, nuclear scientists, nuclear engineers. This is enormous," he told AAP.

He also has concerns over the US's ability to fit Australia into its already strained production line, which begs the question, will Australia have its state-of-the-art fleet when push comes to shove?

Australia's fleet of Virginia-class submarines is expected to arrive at the earliest 10 years from now. If all the hype of imminent war was to come to fruition, Australia could be scrambling when its most powerful ally, the US, which has vowed to protect Taiwan from China's military, calls for action.

A Virginia-class nuclear powered submarine surrounded by two boats off the coast of Florida.
Australia is due to acquire five Virginia-class nuclear powered submarines from the US by 2033. Source: Getty

AUKUS intent enough to dissuade China, expert says

However Wen-Ti Sung, sessional lecturer in Taiwan Studies at the Australian National University, told Yahoo News Australia merely announcing the AUKUS deal on Tuesday was serious food for thought for Beijing, and President Xi Jinping has indicated military conflict was not in his plans during the next five years.

"A Chinese invasion of Taiwan is a low likelihood event over the next few years," he said.

"Judging from Xi Jinping's address at China's National People's Congress, Beijing has shown no interest in launching military invasion of Taiwan during Xi's third term.

"China's intention is fluid of course and can be shaped by both objective military power and perceived subjective intent of Taiwan's friends. In that sense, AUKUS making another major step forward sends a strong signal about their intent to stay engaged in the region and helps dissuade Beijing from military adventurism, even if the concrete military acquisition won't happen until the 2030s."

Several Chinese soldiers train in snow.
The idea of war with China has been pushed to Australians for more than a year now. Source: Getty

However the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is not as convinced.

Senior analyst Malcom Davis told Bloomberg Australia is playing catch-up as China presses on with its sizeable military expansion as well as strategic operations in the disputed South China sea.

China has already showcased its prowess with a military muscle flex in the wake of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's controversial Taiwan visit last year.

“China is not the old China of 120 years ago, and we are not Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan — we will not allow any foreign force to bully, suppress or enslave us,” then Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at the time.

“Whoever wants to do so will be on a collision course with the Great Wall of steel forged by the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

'Boundaries being tested' in the region

David Chen of CENTRA Technology, which offers national security research and analysis, warned at the time the region has now entered "a risky period of testing boundaries and finding out who can achieve escalatory dominance across the diplomatic, military and economic domains".

For Davis, that period could boil over prior to the submarines' arrival.

“The nuclear subs would turn up too late to deal with the challenges we’re going to face this decade," he warned.

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