AUKUS puts the stamp on three overriding geopolitical verities in the emerging regional and global order.
First, it signifies the firming belief by the leading Anglosphere democracies that China as a formidable comprehensive national power has displaced a severely diminished Russia as the principal strategic competitor. Second, it acknowledges that the strategic rivalry has pivoted from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Third, nuclear propulsion for the navy will signify the greatest projection of Australian military power into the Indo-Pacific region. The ramifications of these developments will reverberate for decades.
AUKUS is both an acknowledgment of and a concession to the loss of U.S. strategic primacy. Under the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. policy goal was to prevent any power from being able to dominate its own region. That is now well and truly history.
Suddenly the Biden administration’s stated justification for the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan — to be able to better focus on the strategic rivalry and trade competition with China — becomes more credible and takes on new meaning. China and other interested bystanders around the Indo-Pacific will once again have to quickly re-calibrate assessments of the U.S. ability and will to remain a powerful presence and actor in the region.
AUKUS caught even seasoned military observers and security analysts by surprise. It involves wide security, defense industry, hi-tech, cyber- and digital-warfare issues that tie Australia in a “forever partnership” with the U.S. It is both a strategic bet on a fundamental reorientation of American attention and resources from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific as the real theater of geopolitical contest in the emerging but as yet inchoate global order. And it is also a step-change in Australia’s military capability that augments the other two allies’ remote controlled military footprints in this region.
AUKUS relocates post-Brexit “Global Britain” in the Indo-Pacific as the beating heart of the emerging global order with economic dynamism, international trade and the diplomatic center of gravity all pivoting from the North Atlantic to this region. Wolfgang Munchau describes AUKUS as “an implicit geopolitical disaster for the EU” that had treated the U.K. “as a strategic adversary.”
London has broken free to become a player in the variable geometry of the new international order while the EU remains stuck with its 27-member veto-paralyzed foreign affairs council. Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer writes that the Anglo-American decision to help Australia develop nuclear powered submarines is a substantial contribution “to the stability of a balanced Indo-Pacific region.”
But China is likely to view AUKUS through a Taiwan prism. What if a provoked and angry China decides to reconquer Taiwan before its strategic equation worsens any further?
Even without the bomb, the nuclearization of the Australian Navy could create ripples of unease in neighboring Southeast Asian countries and spark a regional race for nuclear naval propulsion. The 15- to 20-year time horizon gives a window of opportunity to countries like Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to work through the implications of Australia’s upgraded naval defense capability and ponder the possibilities for their own security needs against the foreseeable threats in that time frame.
Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa warns that AUKUS represents an escalation in regional “stealth underwater capability” and “adds to the perception of an Indo-Pacific lacking nuclear stability and prone to costly miscalculation.” Along with the revitalization of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue forum (“Quad”), AUKUS is a sharp reminder to ASEAN “of the cost of its dithering and indecision on the complex and fast evolving geopolitical environment.” He calls on ASEAN “to reassert its relevance.”
The development will also leave Japan as the odd one out in the Quad that brings together the four regional democracies of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. in an informal maritime grouping. With benign origins in the impromptu coordination among the four navies in the humanitarian disaster relief operations after the great Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, despite hiccups along the way, the Quad has been revitalized and gained increasing content in recent times with combined exercises and institutionalized discussions. Will Japan be tempted to emulate Australia to embrace nuclear propulsion for its submarines? Will the relationship between the Quad, AUKUS and bilateral U.S.–Japan and U.S.–South Korean security treaties meld into a mutually reinforcing set of diplomatic-military arrangements, a bit like the E.U.-NATO partnership?
Nuclear analysts are divided in their immediate reactions to the announcement.
This is the first instance of a nuclear weapon state (NWS) as defined by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) assisting a non-NWS with the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. Sharon Squassoni, a former senior official with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, warns that “Expanding the club of states that use highly-enriched uranium to fuel submarines would be a mistake for many reasons.”
In contrast to the U.K.-U.S. submarines, French nuclear-powered submarines use low-enriched uranium (below 20%) and leasing them would have represented an upgrade of the current contract without cancellation, avoided upsetting France and roiling the NATO alliance, and lessened proliferation concerns.
The NPT permits nonexplosive military uses of nuclear material, subject to standard safeguards measures that are suspended while the material is in military use but re-apply as soon as the military use has ended. In the meantime, the nonexplosive use obligation remains in force.
Australia will seek an arrangement to keep the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) informed about the material and ensure its eventual return to safeguards. The British and U.S. ships use around 95% highly enriched uranium (HEU). This is weapons-grade. But because it will be used for nonweapon related naval propulsion, significant quantities of HEU would be outside the IAEA safeguards system, making it difficult to certify that all Australian nuclear material remains for peaceful activities. Critics of the deal like Tariq Rauf, a retired senior IAEA official, are worried less about Australia than about the precedent this sets for opening a “Pandora’s Box of proliferation” for other more problematic countries.
Gareth Evans, Downer’s predecessor as foreign minister, emphasizes that the AUKUS announcement absolutely ruled out any interest in nuclear weapon capability or even production of fissile material by Australia. The pact should be read as nothing more than “building more credible Australian defense capability for many decades ahead” to reflect its particular geography. Meanwhile Australia could use the next 10 to 15 years to lead efforts to establish an internationally-accepted verification standard for all military reactor fuel.
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.
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