In September 2021, the creation of the new trilateral alliance between Australia (AU), the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), called ‘AUKUS’, emerged centre-stage in the theatre of international relations. The Economist described it as an instance of “the tectonic plates of geopolitics shifting in front of your eyes.” But many are still curious about the motivations behind and geopolitical implications of this new pact between these three major Anglophone countries. Indeed, all three countries, along with New Zealand and Canada, are already members of the Five Eyes alliance. Australia and the United States are already both members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as well as ANZUS. And the United States and United Kingdom are both members of NATO. So, what does AUKUS uniquely offer amidst the complex web of alliances in which these countries already participate?
Australia has sought to extend its power projection capabilities well before joining AUKUS. In 2016 Canberra signed a deal to purchase 12 diesel submarines from France but unilaterally withdrew from it two months ago. While the French sought peace in the Indo-Pacific, Australia wanted to support their ally, the United States, in defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. To that end, Canberra gradually became convinced their strategic interests aligned more with the United States, and believed that nuclear submarines would fulfill their needs more effectively than conventional ones. The only other country the United States has shared their nuclear submarine propulsion technology with is the United Kingdom. So evidently, the specific purpose of the AUKUS alliance is to enable Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines and facilitate this transfer of sensitive technology. Australia is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), so, while a nuclear reactor powers these submarines, they are conventionally armed and do not possess a nuclear arsenal. The nuclear reactor on these submarines can power the vessel for decades without refuelling, and they also have a desalination device and oxygen generator on board. Unlike non-nuclear (conventionally) powered submarines that need to surface periodically to snorkel or refuel, nuclear-powered submarines can stay submerged for as long as their food supply is sufficient. Australia is the seventh country in the world to possess nuclear submarines, a result many expect to substantively influence the balance of naval power in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia-China relations becoming increasingly tempestuous during the last few years nudged Australia toward reinforcing ties with China’s most powerful adversary, the United States. Notable flashpoints of tension between Canberra and Beijing would include the Turnbull government blocking Chinese firm Huawei from supplying their 5G technology in Australia. And China implementing tariffs on key Australian exports after the latter pressed for an enquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Furthermore, the Chinese navy has a greater maritime inventory that is also growing faster than any other navy in the world. So, as Beijing seeks to assert its influence in the Western Pacific, Australia feels compelled to push back.
The first area of contention is the Taiwan Strait – a narrow strait straddled between the Chinese province of Fujian and the independently governed island of Taiwan. In early October 2021, over 150 Chinese warplanes, a record number, flew into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone within four days. A few days later, the Chinese president Xi Jinping declared that the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland “must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled“. Taiwan’s defence minister recently warned that China could mount an invasion of the island by 2025. Given China’s arsenal of over 2000 anti-ship ballistic missiles, each capable of neutralising a surface ship, nuclear submarines, given their stealth capabilities, are instrumental in deterring a Chinese invasion across the strait.
The United States and its allies also seek to counteract Chinese influence in the South China Sea. Contrary to five nations in South East Asia and the Hague Tribunal, China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea. Further, Beijing has built artificial islands in the South China Sea and fortified them with barracks, missiles, warplanes, and warships. Since over $3 trillion worth of trade passes through the region, many are concerned about Beijing exerting its power over the South China Sea. Given that the US Navy is spread thin across the globe, allowing a close ally like Australia to operate nuclear submarines will shift the balance of power, in the Western Pacific, in their favour.
Moreover, through AUKUS, the U.S. will likely enhance its capability to compete strategically in the Indo-Pacific. First, the pact enables US air forces to realise the burgeoning agile combat employment (ACE) concept. The ACE is a strategy that disrupts the enemy’s targeting process by using multiple airfields in one area to disperse airpower and project combat power from multiple locations. Although Australia is far away from China, it is still an alternative location from which ACE operations could be launched.
Second, AUKUS improves interoperability between Australia and the US. As Jackson iterates, by codifying recurring aircraft and associated personnel deployments to Australia, the two countries can exercise and exchange tactics and procedures. This, in turn, helps to alleviate interoperability challenges and foster the two militaries’ cooperation. The UK will also benefit from the AUKUS pact specifically through raising its profile in the Indo-Pacific region. Furthermore, the alliance will create hundreds of jobs both in and around the highly skilled sector of nuclear power and its relevant support technology across the UK and the rest of AUKUS. This job creation, especially considering the submarine development timeline, will have a flow-on effect of not only attracting some immediate talent but in turn, creating further economic growth and prosperity for generations to come.
Australia, the UK, and the US claim that the AUKUS pact only serves to assist Australia’s development of submarine power and does not pose a threat to regional peace. However, countries, most staunchly China, are concerned that the alliance will precipitate further tension, offering greater protentional for risk of nuclear proliferation and an overall threat to regional stability. While the big geopolitical players are jostling and probing, smaller players such as the Pacific Island nations, who are exposed to fragile and vulnerable ecological environments and equip relatively modest military capabilities, are at heightened risk of collateral damage. Outgunned and with a comparable inability to adequately defend themselves, these nations may have no alternative but to join the arms race or fix their cart to a self-interested horse; further jeopardising the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty.
Finally, pundits like Sethi have predicted that AUKUS may open the doors for other nuclear-armed countries to make similar offers. For example, China may seek Pakistan as a partner to develop a similar agreement – as Pakistan has ambition and well-recognised form in regard to developing and equipping its naval Strategic Forces Command with a greater arsenal. Through this, it has the potential to create a greater risk of nuclear proliferation and threaten the stability of regional peace.
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