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On Sept. 15, only weeks after the United States completed its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia declared the establishment of an enhanced trilateral security partnership — AUKUS.

“We will promote deeper information and technology sharing,” they said in a statement. “We will foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. And in particular, we will significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities.”

As the first major initiative under the pact, the U.K. and the U.S. agreed to cooperate on Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

Nuclear submarines are made up of the most sensitive technologies, and Washington had previously shared nuclear propulsion technology only with London, prompting many to voice concerns over the move which could lead to nuclear proliferation or regional military buildup.

The deal also came as a shock to France, whose agreement to develop and build nonnuclear submarines for Australia was scrapped unilaterally, as well as to Japan and other allies and partners of the U.S. who were effectively left in the dark.

While there will be various hurdles ahead as they start an 18-month process to decide on the details of the project, we have to recognize the declaration of AUKUS as their determination to fight a “new Cold War” with China.

Japan must overcome this incongruity and get actively involved in new frameworks in the Indo-Pacific region including AUKUS, taking into account its strategic significance.

Submarine warfare

There are two types of nuclear-powered submarines — ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and general-purpose attack submarines (SSNs) that load torpedoes and cruise missiles. The Royal Australian Navy plans to possess SSNs.

SSBNs provide assured second-strike capability and their deterrence is considered a last resort in the strategic nuclear force.

Meanwhile, SSNs cover a wide range of tasks. According to the U.S. Navy’s fact files, attack submarines “are designed to seek and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships; project power ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Special Operation Forces (SOF); carry out Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions; support battle group operations; and engage in mine warfare.”

During the Cold War standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, where the Soviet Union was trying to establish SSBN sanctuaries, had been the main battlefield for submarine warfare.

What AUKUS is aiming for now is the South China Sea, where China is making territorial claims based on its so-called nine-dash line and continuing a military buildup on its artificial islands.

China is implementing a strategy of blocking U.S. military intervention in order to secure its “core interests,” such as reunification with Taiwan and sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which it calls Diaoyu.

Through its anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) strategy within the so-called first island chain, Beijing is getting close to obtaining an advantageous regional military balance, being on an equal footing with the U.S. military in terms of conventional forces in addition to an overwhelming number of intermediate-range missiles.

Moreover, regarding strategic nuclear forces in which the U.S. has qualitative and quantitative advantages, China is deviating from its minimal nuclear deterrence strategy and rushing to build up its forces, fielding more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

The Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island facing the South China Sea is most likely to host the next-generation Type 096-class SSBN armed with JL-3, the country’s most advanced SLBM that can strike targets on the U.S. mainland.

China believes that developing high-power-density nuclear propulsion technology for its navy is key to naval and submarine warfare.

“If Russia agreed to lend China technical support in designing a high-power-density reactor for naval applications, such as a floating power station or a submarine, this process could be much faster,” wrote Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, in a Foreign Policy article.

“And if the Australians believe this to be the case, that may be one factor behind their own SSN decision,” Erickson said.

The Royal Australian Navy's Collins-class submarine HMAS Waller leaves Sydney Harbor in May 2020. | REUTERS
The Royal Australian Navy’s Collins-class submarine HMAS Waller leaves Sydney Harbor in May 2020. | REUTERS

Erickson described it as “one of the most game-changing military technology deals for decades” as Canberra faces strategically seismic threats from Beijing.

Nuclear-powered submarines are overwhelmingly superior to conventional submarines in terms of stealth, speed, endurance and the amount of weapons and ammunition they can carry.

They can stay submerged for many months, only surfacing to allow the crew to take breaks and load supplies.

Demands made by Australia to France for the new conventional attack submarines, including their ranges, weapons storage capacity and control systems, were specifications which are supposed to be met by nuclear submarines, Yoji Koda, former fleet commander of the Maritime Self-Defence Force, told Nikkei Business weekly magazine.

Concerns about delays, cost overruns and suitability had been aired for years regarding the project that was signed in 2016.

Australia-China rift

Meanwhile, Australia-China relations had been deteriorating, after the Australian government in 2018 banned Huawei Technologies Co. from participating in building the nation’s 5G network.

The confrontations escalated even further last year as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for a global inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. China, which strongly rebuffed the move, imposed trade sanctions on a range of Australian products, including blocking imports and imposing hefty tariffs.

Australia’s Lowy Institute, which released in June the results of an annual poll on Australian attitudes to the world, said that Australian people’s trust toward China has plunged to new lows.

“The targeted campaign of economic coercion has very much hardened the resolve of Australian politicians and the public alike,” Natasha Kassam, head of polling at the institute, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Such resolve in Australia must have led to the creation of AUKUS and the shift to nuclear-powered submarines.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force's submarine Taigei is unveiled in Kobe in October 2020. Japan failed to win a contract to build submarines for Australia in 2016. | KYODO
The Maritime Self-Defense Force’s submarine Taigei is unveiled in Kobe in October 2020. Japan failed to win a contract to build submarines for Australia in 2016. | KYODO

There are no ifs in history, but even if Japan had been the one to win the Australian navy contract with its proposal to build a Soryu-class submarine, Australia would likely have canceled the deal.

That is because the latest decision reflects a serious sense of crisis among the U.S., the U.K. and Australia with the threats of China’s A2AD and nuclear deterrence strategies, as well as a historic shift in the global security structure towards a new Cold War against China.

Based on this structural change, the three countries, although each facing complex and difficult issues at home, made a strategic judgment to work together to deal with China, even if it meant putting aside relations with other allies.

On the other hand, distrust regarding AUKUS — dubbed by Koda as the “Asia branch” of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance comprising the U.S., the U.K. Australia, Canada and New Zealand — lingers among allies and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations who were left out of the decision-making process.

Japan should also carefully consider how to face AUKUS in relation to other regional frameworks including the so-called Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, the “Quad” alliance of Japan, the U.S., India and Australia, and the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Japan must take note of at least three points in doing so.

Freedom of navigation

First, the AUKUS submarine deal will contribute greatly to freedom and stability of navigation in the shipping routes between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean — vitally important sea lanes for Japan.

Maintaining and strengthening superiority on and under the sea by Australian SSNs will increase trust towards the extended U.S. nuclear deterrence. Cruise missiles carried in the submarines will complement American power projection capability and help create a more favorable military balance for the U.S. even in terms of conventional forces.

With Australia possessing the ability to operate SSNs, the U.S. and the U.K. will have a forward deployment base and a maintenance and supply function for their nuclear submarines in the Southern Hemisphere in the western Pacific.

HMAS Stirling, a Royal Australian Navy base which hosts all of the six Collins-class submarines that the navy owns, stands on Garden Island near Perth on the nation’s west coast, a place of strategic importance located near the Indian Ocean, the Lombok Strait and the Philippine Sea.

British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and its strike group, dispatched to the western Pacific earlier this year, made its first port call in Japan in September. And it was reported a month earlier that an Astute-class nuclear submarine accompanying the strike group spotted Chinese submarines attempting to secretly shadow the aircraft carrier during its voyage in the South China Sea.

In the future, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia can boost the presence of their nuclear submarines, using Stirling as a base.

Secondly, we should be aware that the U.S. cannot fight alone against China, which is on course to top the U.S. in gross domestic product and to being on an equal footing with the U.S. militarily as well.

As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out, U.S. “squandering” in the 30 years after the end of the Cold War forced multilateralism and an alliance-first foreign policy in principle to give way to America-first unilateralism in practice.

With U.S. foreign policy giving emphasis to both great-power competition and short-term domestic priorities, it has become difficult for its allies to foresee what Washington’s policies will be, Haass said.

This is why U.S. allies have distrust regarding the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the establishment of AUKUS.

“Other states will determine their own actions, especially when it comes to balancing or accommodating China, based in no small part on how dependable and active they believe the United States will be as a partner,” Haass wrote in a Foreign Affairs article.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was completed at the end of August. The establishment of AUKUS was announced just weeks later. | LANCE CPL. NICHOLAS GUEVARA / U.S. MARINE CORPS / VIA REUTERS
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was completed at the end of August. The establishment of AUKUS was announced just weeks later. | LANCE CPL. NICHOLAS GUEVARA / U.S. MARINE CORPS / VIA REUTERS

U.S. allies should also move away from unilaterally depending on Washington and work actively to support U.S.-led democratic alliances.

Japan in particular holds an important position, being geographically and strategically located at the forefront of the new Cold War and gaining the trust of India, a Quad member, and ASEAN states.

Japan must play the role of connecting those countries in the region with AUKUS.

In order to change the military balance which is tilting in favor of China, it is also necessary to raise the interoperability between the Self-Defense Forces and U.S. forces to integrated operability.

Japan and AUKUS

Thirdly, we should acknowledge that AUKUS is a comprehensive and inclusive framework aimed at promoting information and technology sharing, as well as integrating defense-related science, technology and industrial bases.

In addition to the momentous decision for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines, the agreement nominates cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies for trilateral cooperation.

As their areas of cooperation correspond with those under the U.S.-Japan Competitiveness and Resilience Partnership agreed in April, Japan is in a position to get involved in AUKUS in the context of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

A comprehensive approach that includes not only military but also diplomacy, information and economy is necessary in creating a strategy to counter China. This means cooperating on development and joint protection of strategic military technologies and innovative dual-use technologies will become a significant economic security issue for the Japan-U.S. alliance in the future.

AUKUS opened a door to upgrading deterrence against China in the western Pacific.

The U.S. allies are expected to play a greater role in integrated deterrence pursued by Washington.

Japan, while making use of its strength in diplomacy and technological development, should be prepared to boost its own defense capabilities as well as integrated operability with the U.S. military.

Multilayered regional security frameworks including AUKUS are waiting for the Japan-U.S. alliance to evolve even further.

Sadamasa Oue is a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo, and a former Air Self-Defense Force lieutenant general. API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.

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