Australia won’t lose its sovereignty under the Aukus deal, according to Joe Biden’s top Indo-Pacific adviser, Kurt Campbell, who has sought to clarify his prediction of a “melding” of Australian, US and UK military forces.
Campbell also said the US president had raised Beijing’s trade strikes against Australian export sectors in his recent virtual meeting with China’s president, Xi Jinping, as an example of actions on the world stage that were “backfiring”.
Campbell, a top adviser to Biden as the coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the US National Security Council, is seen as a key figure in the formation of the Aukus deal security partnership, which was unveiled with much fanfare in September.
He told a Lowy Institute conference on Wednesday the Australian plan to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines was an “enormous challenge” given that Australia “has no nuclear industry per se”.
The 18-month study period would find out whether there were any “road blocks that were insurmountable”, but the leaders of Australia, the US and the UK would not have announced the deal they did not think it was an achievable goal, Campbell said.
The former Australian prime minister Paul Keating has questioned whether the plans would diminish Australia’s strategic autonomy – a concern also raised by the Labor opposition, which has sought assurances from the Morrison government.
Keating told a National Press Club event last month that if Australia were to buy American Virginia class submarines, “they’ll simply be part of the United States force directed by the United States”.
The former PM blasted both major Australian political parties for backing Aukus, with Keating arguing the plan was all about hawkish national security advisers who “can’t wait to get the staplers back on to the Americans”.
Those concerns were heightened when, in recent remarks, Campbell predicted Aukus would lead to “almost a melding of our services”.
“We will have more British sailors serving on our naval vessels, Australians and the like on more of our forward-deployed assets in Australia,” Campbell told the US Institute of Peace two weeks ago.
“This leads to a deeper interconnection and, almost a melding in the new respects of our services and working together on common purpose that we couldn’t have dreamed about five or 10 years ago.”
Campbell moved to clarify those comments when he addressed an Australian audience on Wednesday and was asked what he meant by melding and its implications for Australia’s freedom to make its own decisions.
“Look, I’ve followed the Australian debate carefully,” Campbell told a Lowy Institute conference, The Indo-Pacific Operating System.
“I fully understand how important sovereignty and independence is for Australia. So I don’t want to leave any sense that somehow that would be lost.”
Campbell said the Aukus arrangement was “meant to be additive and create new capacities”.
“I think what I’m suggesting is that Australian sailors will have the opportunity to serve on American vessels and vice versa. I think you can expect American submarines to port more commonly in Australian ports,” Campbell said.
“I think we’re going to operate and share perspectives much more than we’ve done in the past.”
Campbell made the point that “we’re already close allies”. He predicted the overall capacities and training would become “much more common as we go forward”.
“And for Australia to learn and to become, and to master of nuclear technology of the kind that is presented in submarines will require the deepest, most profound kinds of engagements with submariners in the United States and Great Britain, who work on nuclear submarines,” he said.
“That’s going to be extraordinarily important. And it ultimately is going to lead to a kind of strategic intimacy that we think is going to be very important in the time ahead.”
Campbell, a former architect of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, carefully avoided weighing into Australia’s domestic political debate regarding Taiwan.
The Australian defence minister, Peter Dutton, has said it would inconceivable that Australia would not join its top security ally if the US joined a conflict to defend Taiwan – prompting accusations from the opposition that the conservative figure was amping up national security as an election tactic.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said Dutton was out of step with the long-held US policy of strategic ambiguity – crucial to upholding the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.
Campbell did not respond directly to Dutton and Wong’s interventions, but said he wanted to underscore that US policy “has not changed” and was ensuring Taiwan had “the appropriate defensive articles to be able to deter aggression”.
“You will have seen in the last several months, a number of countries speaking out more directly, including Japan, including Australia, Great Britain and others,” Campbell said.
“The maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is in the strategic interests of all concerned. And that this is not just a narrow matter but a broader issue that has to be consulted and engaged more directly.”
Campbell said it was “a very delicate matter” but the US would be purposeful, determined and clear in its messaging so that “we can maintain peace and stability and to secure the status quo in the future”.
Earlier this week, Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs told the Guardian it was sincerely grateful for recent comments by Dutton and the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison. On Friday, though, the Chinese embassy in Canberra accused Dutton of fanning conflict and division.
Campbell said over time he believed China would re-engage with Australia, but on Australia’s terms. He said Beijing’s preference “would have been to break Australia, to drive Australia to its knees” but that was not the way it would play out.
He said Biden had raised the trade actions against Australia in the conversation with Xi, because of “our assessment is that maybe some of the feedback loop in China is not working as effectively as it was in the past” – meaning frank advice is not getting to Xi.
“And frankly, what better way to reach the leader – who may be a bit isolated at the top – than have a direct conversation with his No 1 counterpart.”