The AUKUS defence pact will fail unless the US, UK and Australia manage to effectively share advanced military technology to counter the threat from China, the Australian High Commissioner to the UK warned today.

Speaking at the London Defence Conference, the Hon. Stephen Smith insisted that collaboration on hypersonic technology, intelligent submersibles and AI (“pillar two”) was even more important than increasing nuclear-powered submarine capabilities in the Indo-Pacific (“pillar one”).

“If pillar two fails, then AUKUS fails,” he said.

The session, chaired by New Labour grandee Lord Mandelson, focussed on the viability and strategic ambitions of the 2019 defence pact, which involves equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines as a deterrent against an increasingly aggressive China.

Smith added: “If AUKUS is to be a genuine trilateral strategic partnership, there needs to be that seemlessness of technology, and that’s one of the things we’re working very hard on and making progress on.”

Dr Nicola Leveringhaus, a senior lecturer at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, echoed Smith’s remarks, noting that China is taking the security pact seriously: “For China, AUKUS is a serious military concern that complicates its strategic manoeuvrability across the Indo-Pacific.

“It complicates diplomatic and political reach that China has – at very high levels – tried to cultivate with its partners in [the region].

“AUKUS submarines won’t be game-changers, but with pillar two, it really does start to change the balance between us and China.”

AUKUS is forecast to cost up to $368bn between now and the mid-2050s, and Australia has committed to spend $9bn on the project over the next four years.

Pressed by Lord Mandelson on whether the vast cost of AUKUS would eventually cause public support in Australia to wane, Smith said: “There are always political risks that one needs to manage. But at the moment we have strong bi-partisan support for the programme. If you start this great national endeavour, you cannot stop.”  

Watch the 2023 London Defence Conference live here.

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