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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

US military commander has ‘no idea’ how Australia’s Aukus submarines would be used in any Taiwan Strait dispute

A US military commander says he has “no idea” how Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines will be used in the Taiwan Strait, despite a top state department official predicting “enormous implications” for “cross-Strait circumstances”.

Lt Gen Stephen Sklenka, the deputy commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, played down the potential for Australia to be drawn into a devastating war in the region against the Australian government’s wishes.

“At least from the military perspective, there is no expectation of anybody participating in any conflict with us, because those decisions are national sovereign decisions,” Sklenka said during a visit to Australia.

“We don’t dictate that to other countries.”

The deputy US secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, one of the architects of Aukus, said last month the security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US could “change the nature of the way each of our three countries operate together”.

Campbell said Aukus had “the potential to have submarines from a number of countries operating in close coordination that could deliver conventional ordnance from long distances”, adding: “Those have enormous implications in a variety of scenarios, including in cross-Strait circumstances.”

Sklenka, who works with Australia and other allies in the region as a leader of the US Indo-Pacific Command, was asked on Thursday what role he envisaged for Aukus submarines in the Taiwan Strait.

“Look, Secretary Campbell is a policy guy and I’m not,” Sklenka told the National Press Club in Canberra.

“I have no idea. I can’t answer that.”

Pressed on whether the Indo-Pacific Command had factored the submarines into its long-term planning, Sklenka said it was “too far down the path” but Australia and the US “do share planning actions”.

“Recently, we have done a lot more with Australia,” he said.

Australia plans to buy at least three Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines from the US in the 2030s, before a new class of Australian-built submarine – SSN-Aukus – enters into service from the 2040s.

Sklenka said the US and its allies must “take seriously Chairman Xi Jinping’s directive to his own forces to be prepared to invade Taiwan by 2027”. But Sklenka denied the Aukus submarines would therefore be too late.

“Not if he doesn’t fight in 2027,” Sklenka said of the Chinese president.

“I don’t think conflict is inevitable – I really don’t – but I’m a military guy and if you’re an American you’re paying me not to live on hope. You’re paying me to be ready.”

The Australian government has repeatedly said it has made no pre-commitment to the US to join a conflict over the status of Taiwan, a self-governed democracy of 24 million people that Beijing regards as an inherent part of Chinese territory and has not ruled out taking by force.

As part of the staged Aukus plan, the US and the UK will increase rotational visits of their own nuclear-powered submarines to the HMAS Stirling base in Western Australia from 2027.

Sklenka said a second element of the plan – collaboration on advanced defence technologies – had “the potential to expand to include new partners”. That meant that “the beneficiaries of Aukus will extend far beyond the three formal members”.

Japan is seen as the first potential Aukus pillar 2 partner, but South Korea, New Zealand and Canada have also expressed interest.

The Chinese government has argued Aukus would only add to regional tensions.

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