WHEN US OFFICIALS say that a particular policy move is not aimed at countering China’s growing influence, it is a good rule of thumb to assume that it is. Thus, with the security pact newly announced between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the awkwardly named AUKUS.
AUKUS seeks to provide Australia’s navy with the technology and advice to build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, which will make it the seventh navy to deploy them. They will replace a dozen conventionally powered subs ordered from France but never delivered because of unresolved disagreements over local sourcing, among other issues.
That $90 billion order has been cancelled, to Paris’s displeasure. To add to European annoyance, the AUKUS agreement was announced the day before the EU was due to outline its Indo-Pacific strategy. The EU is increasingly being pushed into an uncomfortable no man’s land between Beijing and Washington.
It is unimaginable that Australia will deploy the subs anywhere but under the waters of the region. Equally, it is inconceivable to regard the announcement as anything other than a tighter drawing together of the three countries in a common ‘Indo-Pacific’ security alliance, which has China as its threat nation.
While the subs are the headline-catching element, the agreement also involves the trio sharing information and technology on intelligence and quantum technology. This will complement, not replace, existing arrangements such as the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership between New Zealand, Canada and the AUKUS countries.
As such, it adds another layer to a growing set of overlapping security cooperation initiatives being advanced in response to China’s growing military power.
Australia will also buy cruise missiles from the United States for the Royal Australian Air Force as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles for its navy, which presumably the subs will carry.
Cruise missiles are the weapon of choice to attack, or at the least deter, naval aircraft carrier battle groups at sea. They also give Australia, and by proxy the West, the capability to strike targets inside China such as airfields and command and control facilities for the PLA’s integrated air and missile defence systems.
Beijing’s criticism of the deal has been swift, if somewhat pro-forma, perhaps because the military threat is some years out; the subs are unlikely to be deployed until 2040. By then, the PLA-Navy will have more of its own nuclear-powered subs in the water.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said:
The nuclear submarine cooperation between the US, the UK and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts. The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology to Australia by the US and the UK proves once again that they are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical game and adopting double standards.
He added that:
Seeking closed and exclusive clique runs counter to the trend of the times and the aspirations of countries in the region, which finds no support and leads nowhere. Relevant countries should abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception, respect the will of the people of regional countries and do more to contribute to regional peace, stability and development. Otherwise, they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.
The time frame for building Australia’s subs will be lengthy. According to US President Joe Biden, the first 18 months of the agreement will be spent working out how to build the subs under these conditions without violating non-proliferation commitments.
Australia is a party to two regional non-proliferation agreements. Its prime minister, Scott Morrison, says that his country seeks to become neither a military nor civil nuclear power.
That the United States and the United Kingdom are ready to take the rare step of exporting sensitive nuclear technology to a non-nuclear nation underlines the serious intent of AUKUS. It may also spur Beijing to accelerate the build-out of its blue-water navy.
Australia’s nuclear submarines, when they do eventually launch, will provide another means of deterrence.
The AUKUS agreement has been welcomed in Tokyo and Taipei, and will be, if not so openly, in countries such as South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and India, also concerned about China’s growing demonstrations of military power in the region.
However, other ASEAN members will be warier in pubic and private. Indonesia has expressed its concern ‘over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region’.
If the agreement does not worsen Australia-China relations, it will only be because they are already at such a low ebb. Canberra is arguably now the Western government that is most openly confrontational towards China save for Washington.