ANALYSIS

The AUKUS trilateral deal waited for one man: Donald Trump

Scott Morrison was proclaimed the Donald Trump-whisperer by some, but on an issue so fraught as nuclear subs? That hype was never believed by the steely-eyed. Picture: Getty Images
Scott Morrison was proclaimed the Donald Trump-whisperer by some, but on an issue so fraught as nuclear subs? That hype was never believed by the steely-eyed. Picture: Getty Images

The Morrison government's new trilateral technology sharing deal emerged on Wednesday night as suddenly as a silent nuclear submarine from the ocean floor.

For no less than 18-months it was planned in secret, according to the now-free-to-talk folk behind the deal of the century. The government's sovereign shipbuilding program with Naval Group was a disaster and it was becoming clear to all that conventional submarines were no solution to the Indo-Pacific crisis that was unfolding.

The destabilising of the region was happening at an incredible rate. Defence officials were alarmed. But ministerial-level relations with China had at that point not yet collapsed. There was so much further to fall.

Internal murmurings began in Australia - would it be possible to go nuclear? An extremely small working group began the slog to answer that question.

Australia has nuclear experts, but not a civil nuclear industry and not enough military nuclear knowledge to undertake that work from scratch. Not safely. The global history of nuclear development is littered with the kind of risks that the political masters of Australia's boutique military is infamous for avoiding. Submarine nuclear reactors would needed to be acquired, but the United States had refused to share the technology before.

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Dealing with the French was inflicting its own wounds on the government. It has offered an amicable separation from Naval Group. The Prime Minister will say nice things about what was submitted in the final review, no matter the private views of the parties, and has offered to pay "all reasonable costs" associated with them packing up and moving out as well as the contracted exit fees.

There was a bigger problem. A problem to Trump them all.

Former Defence minister Linda Reynolds kept a tight circle around her department's secret exploration of the nuclear option. Picture: Department of Defence

Former Defence minister Linda Reynolds kept a tight circle around her department's secret exploration of the nuclear option. Picture: Department of Defence

Linda Reynolds, then the defence minister, and Morrison were the only two Australian ministers with knowledge of the early secret work through 2020. Later Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne was read in as informal negotiations developed, but Australia couldn't turn a 'no' to a 'yes' as the go-ahead to approach then US president Donald Trump never came.

Morrison was proclaimed the Trump-whisperer by some, but on an issue so fraught as nuclear subs? That hype was never believed by the steely-eyed.

The latest reports of how concerned the Pentagon's top chief was with Trump's instability and access to the nuclear button appear to confirm the Australian fears.

In April, after Reynolds was dropped from the Defence portfolio and Joe Biden had reshaped US foreign policy priorities with a Indo-Pacific stability lens, Aussie-friendly officials now sat in key positions in the White House's national security team.

Australia seized the moment. Morrison's much publicised side-meeting with Joe Biden at the G7 Plus at Carbis Bay became a trilateral with the inclusion of Boris Johnson and the deal was struck.

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This story Donald Trump, the nuclear option and a secret plan that emerged from the deep first appeared on The Canberra Times.