It’s hard to appreciate how big a deal the agreement that the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom announced last week, known as AUKUS, really is.
If it works as advertised, the “enhanced trilateral security partnership” will be a turning point for the Indo-Pacific, the beginning of a deep, structural modernization of regional security.
One measure of its significance is the response. Anger is palpable. China, the unspoken, but unmistakable target, is incandescent. But it isn’t the only government with issues about the deal. While they are mostly supportive of the agreement, U.S. allies and partners also quietly voice some unease. Here are two sides of the argument.
AUKUS is awesome
While attention has focused on the provision of nuclear-propulsion systems for Australia’s next generation of submarines — a technology that the U.S has only provided to one other ally, the U.K. at the height of the Cold War — the new agreement is much more than that. Procurement of nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy is merely the start of a robust trilateral project that will include artificial intelligence, quantum technology and cyber.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the new partnership is about “connecting America’s existing allies and partners in new ways.” It is a significant down payment on the region and the alliance by Washington and the first tangible proof that U.S. talk about a laser-like focus on the Indo-Pacific isn’t empty rhetoric.
Australia is making a real vote of confidence in the U.S. What Prime Minister Scott Morrison calls “the forever partnership” is what an Australian historian called “the biggest strategic gamble in Australian history.” Without question, the deal provides Australia with a qualitative improvement in capability. Nuclear-powered subs can patrol longer, faster, farther and more stealthily than conventionally-powered models.
Some Australians are worried about Canberra’s decision to go all-in with the U.S. Allen Gyngell, former director general of Australia’s Office of National Assessments, warns that Australia will need the U.S. not just for the new technology, but also to operate the new boats. He concluded that the capability the new subs “provide is only available to us if we cede a degree — quite a high degree in this case — of Australian sovereignty.”
It is a vote of confidence in the U.K. and proof that its security partners take its global ambitions seriously. It more deeply embeds Britain in regional security issues, a commitment that London is taking equally seriously: The Royal Navy recently announced that it will station two new patrol vessels in the Indo-Pacific region for “at least the next five years.” As a senior U.S. official explained on background, the deal will “link Europe and particularly Great Britain more closely with our strategic pursuits in the region as a whole.”
Perhaps most important, the deal strengthens deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. Nuclear-powered attack subs are a big deal. Not only will they give Australia the ability to operate throughout the theater — as far north as Taiwan and throughout the South China Sea — but they are truly lethal weapons. In addition to the subs, Australia will get new munitions such as precision strike weapons, Tomahawk cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles. As strategist Alexander Neill told the Financial Times, the move integrates “friends and allies into your battlespace and posing a deterrence to the likes of China through force multiplication. That’s what AUKUS is.”
AUKUS is awkward
China is furious. While the country was never mentioned during the announcement and senior U.S. officials insist “this partnership is not aimed or about any one country,” Beijing is convinced it is the target. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called the agreement “extremely irresponsible,” adding that AUKUS “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, aggravated the arms race and hurt international nonproliferation efforts.” The nationalist tabloid Global Times warned Australia that it had become a “running dog” of the U.S. and “should prepare for the worst.”
In Paris, anger was also palpable. The decision to end the contract with a French company to provide a new fleet of submarines to Canberra — a deal worth some $66 billion (90.7 billion Australian dollars) in boats and likely that much again in servicing — was widely called “a stab in the back,” and the French government recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. The sense of betrayal was especially profound since French President Emmanuel Macron had applauded the “return” of the U.S. at the Group of Seven in June. Reporting from Paris now compares the Biden administration unfavorably with its predecessor.
French protests are a bit shrill. Australia claims France knew that Canberra had “deep and loud concerns” about the contract. It was over budget, behind schedule and the subs were likely to be obsolete by the time they were in the water. Still, the call for a redesign is odd: France offered conventionally-powered versions of a nuclear submarine because Australia originally said it didn’t want nuclear models.
There is a tendency to discount French claims of U.S. perfidy because it aligns with Paris’ promotion of strategic autonomy for Europe. Still, there was irritation in Brussels as the AUKUS announcement came just hours before the European Union unveiled its new Indo-Pacific strategy. European strategic autonomy isn’t necessarily a bad thing and if European governments boost defense spending as a result of this episode, then it may be a net plus.
In Asia, too, public reaction is positive — pleasure at signs of U.S. commitment, the new deterrent and defense capabilities — but there are also whispered concerns. In Japan, there is some irritation at being left out of this new arrangement and a little pique that this technology wasn’t on the table a few years ago when Japan looked to have won the sub contract but was elbowed aside by France at the last minute.
Grumbling is a little louder in South Korea, where nuclear-powered submarines have long been on defense planners’ wish lists. President Moon Jae-in promised to acquire them and has not gotten much encouragement from its ally in Washington. If this is truly a “one-off” transfer as U.S. officials insist, then Seoul is likely to get more upset.
Defense specialists in Seoul also worry that AUKUS portends a harder line against China and their government will face renewed pressure to come down harder against Beijing. Southeast Asian experts shared that concern. One expert applauded the announcement but wished that Japan was part of the group to fix the image of a new “Caucasian club” in Asia.
Then there is the nonproliferation crowd. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists that his country “is not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or establish a civil nuclear capability, and we will continue to meet all our nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” The U.S. has promised that there is no bend or break in its commitment to nonproliferation either. Still, there is worry that the deal sets a dangerous precedent: The propulsion technology runs on highly enriched uranium — the same material that the world has been adamant that Iran must not have. Not only will Western objections to Iranian enrichment lose their force, but China will now be much less inclined to sanction Tehran if it decides to proceed.
China’s intense reaction is a portent. While the new alignment is a response to Beijing’s aggressiveness, there is no expectation of any moderation in Chinese behavior. Australia must brace for still more pressure, as must Taiwan; there will be even greater sensitivity to any change in Taipei’s status or treatment.
Another possible shift, resulting from AUKUS optics, is a revamping of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing mechanism. Five Eyes has adjusted in recent years, going beyond its original intelligence-centered mandate, but there is pressure to further restructure the arrangement; Japan in particular has pushed to engage if not join. Cultural issues have been one obstacle but charges of a new “Anglosphere” following the launch of AUKUS could prompt more inclusivity to defuse that complaint in Asia. That would herald the genuine transformation of regional security, a process that might just be under way with the birth of AUKUS.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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