Richard Marles' new AUKUS defence procurement laws: Sovereignty or subordination?

December 5, 2023
PM Anthony Albanese, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announce AUKUS in March in San Diego.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese likes to use the word “sovereignty” in public statements and briefings. But the net of dependency and control by Washington is being tightened.

Washington is keen on accessing rare commodities (nickel, cobalt, lithium), the proposed nuclear-propelled AUKUS submarine fleet and increasing its military capacity here, including stationing nuclear-capable B-52 bombers in the Northern Territory.

Now, new proposals make technological access to Australia’s defence industry by AUKUS partners (the United States and Britain) even easier.

The intention is to restrict the supply of military and dual-use technology from Australia to other countries while privileging the concerns of the US and Britain.

Australia is in lock-step.

The issue of reforming US export controls, governed by US International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR), was always going to be a feature of any technology transfer, notably regarding nuclear-propulsion.

But even before AUKUS, Canberra and Washington had pondered the issue of industrial integration and sharing technology via the Defense Cooperation Treaty of 2012 and Australia’s addition to the National Technology and Industrial Base in 2017.

This enterprise risks being complicated further by the latest export reforms.

A November 30 media release from defence minister Richard Marles justifies the changes, saying “billions of dollars in investment” will be released. Bureaucratic red tape will be slashed for the defence industry and AUKUS partners.

“Under the legislation introduced today, Australia’s existing trade controls will be expanded to regulate the supply of controlled items and provision of services in the Defence and Strategic Goods List, ensuring our cutting-edge military technologies are protected.”

Central to this is the introduction of a national exemption that will cover trade of defence goods and technologies with the US and Britain, thereby “establishing a licence-free environment for Australian industry, research and science”.

The broader object is privileged access by, and a relinquishing of control to, the Marles’ paymasters in Washington.

It’s all about those white elephants of the sea: the nuclear-powered submarines.

As Pat Conroy, Minister for Defence Industry, stated: “This legislation is an important step in the Albanese Government’s strategy for acquiring the state-of-the-art nuclear-powered submarines that will be key to protecting Australians and our nation’s interests.”

Conroy, Marles and company are offering Australia’s defence base to the US State Department and the Pentagon.

With a mixture of sobriety and alarm, a number of experts have voiced their concerns about the implications of the new regulations.

Bill Greenwalt, a drafter of the legal framework for US defence procurement, is unequivocal in his criticism of the US and the willingness of Australian officials to capitulate.

“After years of US State Department prodding, it appears that Australia signed up to the principles and specifics of the failed US export control system,” Greenwalt told the ABC.

“Whenever it cooperates with the US, it will surrender any sovereign capability it develops to the United States control and bureaucracy.”

The singular feature of these arrangements, Greenwalt said, is that Australia “got nothing except the hope that the US will remove process barriers that will allow the US to essentially steal and control Australian technology faster”.

In an email to Breaking Defense, a website sponsored by weapons manufacturer Northropp Grumman, Greenwalt was even more excoriating of Australia.

“It appears that the Australians adopted the US export control system lock, stock and barrel and everything I wrote about in my USSC [US Studies Center] piece in the 8 deadly sins of ITAR section will now apply to Australian innovation. I think they just put themselves back 50 years.”

The paper in question, co-authored with Tom Corben, identifies those sins that risk impairing the success of AUKUS: “An outdated mindset; Universality and non-materiality; Extraterritoriality; Anti-discrimination; Transactional process compliance; Knowledge taint; Non-reciprocity; and Unwarranted predictability.”

Decoding such vulgar middle-management speech, US imperium remains fixated, as Greenwalt and Corben write, with “an outdated superpower mindset” discouragingly inhibiting to its allies.

What constitutes a “defence article” within such export controls is left to the discretion of the executive.

The archaic application of extraterritoriality means that recipient countries of US technology must request permission from the US State Department if re-exporting to another end-user is required for any designated defence item.

The failure to reform such strictures and the insistence that Australia make its own specific adjustments, alarms Chennupati Jagadish, president of the Australian Academy of Science.

The new regulations may encourage unfettered collaboration between the US and Britain, he said, “but I would require an approved permit prior to collaborating with other foreign nationals. Without it, my collaborations could see me jailed.”

His conclusion: “It expands Australia’s backyard to include the US and UK, but it raises the fence.”

Or, more accurately, it incorporates Australia as a pliable satellite in an Anglo-American arrangement, whose defence arrangements are controlled by Washington.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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