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The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia recently formed a new trilateral security partnership, known as AUKUS, under which Washington and London will provide Canberra with nuclear submarine technology.

The Sept. 15 announcement caught the rest of the world by surprise, since the negotiations had been kept strictly secret.

It was also no surprise that the new partnership sparked outrage from France, as it signaled the cancellation by Australia of its 2016 contract with France for 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.

Yet, it may be too early to discuss what Australia’s future nuclear submarines may bring, because the AUKUS agreement, as it now stands, is merely an expression of the three countries’ intention to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. Details will be fleshed out over the next 18 months.

Even if everything goes smoothly, we have no idea when “at least eight nuclear-powered submarines,” as the Australian government says, may be delivered to the country and be fully operational. The first boat is likely to be delivered around 2040.

Before then, Australia, in cooperation with the U.S. and the U.K., needs to go through the process of designing the new submarines, developing infrastructure to construct them, actually building them, training personnel to operate them and creating maintenance and command structures.

Australia’s deal with France to build 12 conventional submarines, which was scrapped following the establishment of AUKUS, had been plagued by delays and cost overruns for years.

But it is too optimistic to think that the new project under AUKUS will proceed smoothly as planned. Although the U.S. and U.K. governments have shown a strong commitment to realize the project, the real challenge is yet to come.

Perception gap

“This is a fundamental decision” made by Australia, a senior official in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said in describing the agreement. “It binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations.”

The American side believes that the transfer of technology as sensitive as nuclear submarines cannot be done merely as technical cooperation. It assumes that Australia is willing to operate the submarines in a highly integrated manner with the U.S. and eventually fight together. Seen from the U.S., it is about increasing the capability of its camp against China.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison hailed the pact as the start of a “forever partnership.”

On the other hand, some experts argue that the agreement is only about technological cooperation for nuclear submarines and does not represent a new commitment, such as Australia agreeing to fight together with the U.S. over Taiwan.

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said AUKUS is “not a defense alliance or a security pact” and doesn’t represent a shift in his country’s defense strategy.

Such a comment highlights a gap in perception between Washington and Canberra.

However, it is also true that Australia has taken part in all major campaigns fought by the U.K. up to the 1950s and the U.S. thereafter.

As Biden said when announcing the establishment of AUKUS, the three nations and their “brave fighting forces have stood shoulder-to-shoulder for literally more than 100 years.”

Concerns over Australia being entangled in U.S.-led conflicts have been a topic of intellectual discussions, but in reality, the degree of Australia’s preparedness to fight with the U.S. is extraordinarily high.

What this means is that AUKUS is not there to strengthen the trilateral relationship. It would be more appropriate to say that the parties can share nuclear submarine technology because they are already close allies. The special relationship has made AUKUS possible, not the other way round.

Pivotal player

While the U.S. has agreed to provide Australia with nuclear submarine technology, it is believed that Washington is unlikely to offer its Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine as a package, but only the nuclear-reactor propulsion system.

It is also believed that the U.S. does not have surplus capacity to build submarines.

The USS Hawaii, a Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine, is berthed at a dock at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in August 2014. | REUTERS
The USS Hawaii, a Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine, is berthed at a dock at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in August 2014. | REUTERS

Therefore, the U.K. will have an important role to play in Australia’s design and construction of the nuclear submarines. The U.K. is not taking part in AUKUS as a mere figurehead.

At the same time, AUKUS can be seen as a tool to tie the U.K. to the Indo-Pacific region, making the nation’s involvement in the region stronger, more multifaceted and permanent.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson advocates “Global Britain” and is increasingly tilting towards the Indo-Pacific region, having recently deployed a carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, an aircraft carrier, to the area.

Although AUKUS may not have been part of the initial plan, the new tripartite partnership will reinforce this trend.

Britain’s own nuclear-powered attack submarines are likely to have a more persistent presence in the Indo-Pacific region in the future, using Australia as a base.

As for Europe’s involvement in Indo-Pacific security, the key challenge will be to repair ties between AUKUS members and France, which was blindsided by the announcement.

But France’s involvement in the region is a part of its national duty to defend its territories and people in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.

AUKUS will not change this, and France’s cooperation with the U.S. military, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, will continue to be of vital importance.

Japan’s ambivalence

For Japan, which maintains close security relations with all AUKUS members, strengthening the regional deterrence posture vis-a-vis China is certainly welcome news.

Then-Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi welcomed AUKUS “in the sense of strengthening (the three countries’) engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.” Notably, however, Motegi did not directly mention the nuclear submarine project per se.

This is where Japan’s ambivalence lies with respect to AUKUS, as nuclear submarines are an extremely sensitive issue for Japan for three reasons.

Firstly, in the wake of the AUKUS announcement, more discussions have opened up on whether Japan should possess its own nuclear submarines. But it is highly unlikely that consensus will emerge any time soon, considering the role Japan is expected to play, geographical conditions, defense budget constraints and domestic politics.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is skeptical of Japan’s need to possess nuclear submarines.

Secondly, even if Japan wished to own nuclear submarines, it is far from certain whether the U.S. would accept this. A senior official in the Biden administration described the technology as “extremely sensitive” and said the White House viewed the agreement with Australia “as a one-off” exception.

The U.S. is said to offer the technology only to “forever friends,” and it is not a coincidence that the U.S., the U.K. and Australia make up the core group of the Five Eyes — an intelligence sharing mechanism that also includes Canada and New Zealand.

Thirdly, even if Japan managed to possess nuclear submarines with assistance from the U.S., it is unclear to what extent Japan would be prepared to operate them jointly with the U.S.

Australia is expected to operate its submarines in a highly integrated manner with the United States. As a result, Japan’s role in U.S. eyes could decline, at least in relative terms, regarding submarine operations in the western Pacific.

AUKUS poses a question of how much further Japan can deepen its military integration with the U.S.

An emerging regional order

When considering the future of Indo-Pacific regional order, we cannot ignore the structural contradictions of AUKUS.

The grouping is aimed at boosting trilateral collaboration and deeper integration across cutting-edge defense technologies including cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. But Australia is not necessarily a technological superpower.

France had planned to supply Australia with a fleet of submarines, and has expressed consternation at the news of the AUKUS grouping and Canberra's cancellation of the contract. | AFP-JIJI
France had planned to supply Australia with a fleet of submarines, and has expressed consternation at the news of the AUKUS grouping and Canberra’s cancellation of the contract. | AFP-JIJI

If that is the countries’ main goal, it would have been better to include nations having advanced technology, such as Japan, in the partnership.

Yet, as long as AUKUS remains predominantly a framework around nuclear-submarine cooperation, its membership will inherently be restrictive.

Furthermore, AUKUS can be seen as yet another grouping around the concept of an “Anglosphere.” It must be the most trusted lineup for the purpose of safeguarding nuclear submarine technology and ensuring effectiveness and efficiency.

However, such exclusiveness will not give a good impression in the diverse Indo-Pacific region.

That is also part of the reason why some in Japan have shown a sense of uneasiness or detachment regarding AUKUS. The three member countries seem to be slowly realizing this.

It would not be realistic for Japan to directly get involved in Australia’s nuclear submarine project, but if AUKUS’ scope of activities expands to other areas, there might be room for Japan to cooperate.

Yet, the main focus of AUKUS for the time being will be cooperation on nuclear submarines. A realistic way forward for Tokyo would be to deepen its alliance with Washington as well as to increase interactions with London and Canberra in areas where Japan finds its own interest, rather than exploring the possibility of “AUKUS plus Japan.”

Japan also needs to boost bilateral and trilateral cooperation with the three nations to benefit from synergistic effects.

There are an increasing number of initiatives and elements in the regional order in the Indo-Pacific, such as the “Quad” grouping of Japan, the U.S., Australia and India, as well as France and the European Union’s engagement in the region. AUKUS is set to be part of this dynamic and flexible regional order.

Michito Tsuruoka is an associate professor at Keio University. 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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