In a big boost to Australia’s naval shipbuilding sector, the government will invest up to US$4.3 billion in Western Australia’s first large-vessel drydock, enabling the construction and sustainment of large naval vessels on the country’s west coast. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Henderson shipyards project in Western Australia was a central pillar to maintaining sovereign capabilities and that it would “turbocharge” the country’s naval shipbuilding sector. 

The Henderson shipyards project would match Australia’s other drydock in Sydney and will likely service Australian and allied naval vessels as well as commercial craft. It is envisioned to create 2,000 jobs upon completion, and 500 while it is being built.

State-owned Australian Naval Infrastructure will oversee the design and construction of this strategic project, with work to start in 2023 and initial operations to start in 2028.

The project would also complement other key West Australian naval facilities, such as HMAS Stirling and Fleet Base West. In particular, the Henderson shipyards project builds on the Morrison government’s previous $1.5 billion infrastructure project at HMAS Stirling to ensure the Australian Navy’s future basing and maintenance requirements can be sustained. 

In addition to these projects and facilities, Australia also announced plans to build a submarine base on its east coast for its planned nuclear-powered submarines. However, the idea of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines seems too ambitious for some, who are concerned about maintaining command and control should the US lease a US Virginia class sub to Australia.

The vague terms in technology, costs and labor sharing within AUKUS, plus opposition to nuclear power in Australia and its lack of infrastructure to support nuclear submarines, leaves many questions unanswered.

These developments are spurred in part by Australia’s growing apprehension towards China and finding a role for itself in the Quad Alliance with the US, India and Japan. This apprehension stems from China’s perceived threat to democratic values and its rapid military modernization. 

In terms of democratic values, Australia has been at odds with China over human rights and disinformation campaigns that aim to influence Australian politics in China’s favor.

Australia has suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in response to China’s draconian National Security Law, decried disinformation and bribery schemes aimed at influencing Australian politics in China’s favor, and called for a transparent and independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, much to the displeasure of China. 

In response to these moves, in 2021 China implemented sanctions on barley and wine exports, while throwing up barriers to several other products including timber, lobsters and coal.

HMAS Sydney at Garden Island, the RAN Fleet Base East in Sydney. Photo: WikiCommons 

However, it can be argued that these sanctions were largely ineffective and may have only emboldened Australia to reduce its economic reliance on China. China has placed tariffs on relatively low-end food and natural products, which Australia’s economy heavily relies on for export.

Australia’s Henderson shipyard project may be one of its moves to enter high-tech industries that are less vulnerable to the type of sanctions China has placed on its resource and food exports. 

From a military perspective, Australia is concerned about the implications should Taiwan fall under China’s control. Once Taiwan falls under China’s control, China will have open access to the Pacific Ocean, which Australia sees as a significant threat.

Taiwan could serve as a staging area for China’s long-range bombers, ballistic missiles and submarines to attack US forces based in Guam, Australia and Hawaii, which may be the reason Australia is responding forcefully with military modernization, one aspect of which is naval shipbuilding and basing. 

From a Quad standpoint, these developments may be part of Australia finding practical roles within the framework of the emerging alliance.

Australia is on the divide between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and as such has developed deep defense relations with India. Although Australia and India have been in robust dialogue, bilateral defense cooperation is still relatively limited, especially in the practical sphere.

As such, the Henderson shipyards, along with HMAS Stirling and Fleet Base West, can provide the industrial base for Australia to engage India more actively in maritime cooperation and naval exercises, providing shipbuilding and maintenance capabilities for both Australian and Indian Navy vessels.

This can pave the way for further institutionalization of India-Australia ties within the framework of the Quad, improve interoperability between the two countries, deepen technological cooperation and broaden relations between the two major maritime powers.