One measure of the potential impact of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security agreement unveiled last week is the outrage it has generated in China.
While that country’s name was never mentioned during the virtual trilateral summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, the Beijing government has assumed that the deal targets China and is designed to contain its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Chinese concerns are valid. The new agreement seeks to better deter, and if need be, defend against revisionist powers in this region. If that describes Chinese behavior, then it is a target. Indeed, AUKUS could be the most important restructuring of regional security architecture in half a century. That potential can only be realized, however, if the AUKUS triumvirate expands their vision to include other powers.
The most prominent feature of the new alignment is the agreement for the U.S. to provide Australia with nuclear-propulsion technology for its next generation of submarines. This is a big deal. The technology, which will allow those boats to go farther, faster and longer more stealthily, is one of the U.S.’s “crown jewels,” and has only been shared with the United Kingdom. The new submarines will now be able to patrol the South China Sea and as far north as Taiwan, which could shift the military calculus in the event of a contingency in either area.
Submarines — and associated munitions — are only part of the deal. The three leaders described their arrangement as “an enhanced trilateral security partnership,” which will also include artificial intelligence, quantum technology and cyber. Cooperation on technology is a common theme in U.S. diplomacy, but this could go well beyond that. It promises to make a structural improvement to regional security: deepening Britain’s engagement and significantly strengthening Australia’s defense capability.
That is why China is so upset. China’s foreign ministry has called the new arrangement “extremely irresponsible,” and said that it “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, aggravated the arms race and hurt international nonproliferation efforts.” That is an exaggeration. Its impact on nonproliferation should be negligible. The technology being transferred is only for powering the submarine and Australia insists that it will honor its nonproliferation obligations and the U.S. has said that it will, too.
Nonproliferation experts worry, however, that countries without Canberra’s spotless record might use the nuclear energy rationale as cover for the development of nuclear weapons, as occurred in North Korea and seems to be the case in Iran. They can only succeed in that effort if China decides to turn a blind eye to their misbehavior out of pique.
China’s anger might drive it to take actions that increase regional tensions or create instability. The relationship with Australia has grown increasingly contentious as Beijing has punished Canberra for criticism of China on issues ranging from a lack of transparency about the origins of the COVID-19 virus to charges of interference in its domestic affairs; economic coercion in the form of duties on Australian exports to China has followed.
Most alarming to China is Australia’s refusal to back down, of which AUKUS is only the most recent example. Beijing is likely to do something to make it clear to other countries that defiance will incur considerable costs.
Pressure against Taiwan is also likely to increase. Beijing is very sensitive to any development that would strengthen the defense of the island and could frustrate Beijing’s desire for reunification. China will likely send out more aircraft and vessels to show it is not intimidated and that Taipei should not get any ideas.
This attitude and the ensuing show of resolve could increase regional tensions. Regional governments are worried that Beijing will be more sensitive to any signs of potential defiance. There is also some concern that Washington could be emboldened as well and its demands upon them might also grow. In short, their room for maneuver is shrinking.
Japan has responded positively to the initiative. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has expressed Japan’s support for AUKUS and well it should. It is a sign of renewed U.S. commitment to the region and it deepens Britain’s engagement as well. Most importantly, it improves Australian defense capability, which in turn strengthens deterrence.
As a stand-alone initiative, AUKUS is to be applauded. But it is the prospect of coordination with other regional efforts that is most encouraging. The AUKUS announcement was followed by the U.S.-Australia Ministerial Consultations, their “two-plus-two” meeting, which reinforced and improved that alliance. AUKUS should also coordinate with “Quad” efforts — the summit for which was also held this week — to maximize efficiency.
This thickening of the weave of security relationships goes beyond cooperation among U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific. The inclusion of India, not an ally, and the U.K., which is from beyond the region, are signs of a new creativity in thinking about regional security. The decision to release the nuclear technology is a sign that conditions have changed and old assumptions must be reassessed.
More should follow. Roles and responsibilities should be reconfigured. New relationships forged. Japan should be making its case, for example, for greater coordination with, and eventual inclusion in, the Five Eyes intelligence sharing accord. This will require that Japan do much more to protect such sensitive information. Changes are afoot. AUKUS is proof.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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