GP Short Notes # 572, 19 September 2021
On 15 September, the US President Joe Biden, the UK PM Boris Johnson and Australian PM Scott Morrison, in a joint virtual press conference, launched a new security partnership in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS is an acronym for Australia, the UK and the US. According to the joint statement, the AUKUS "will focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities". However, the main highlight is the pledge by the US and UK to "support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy".
The US President Biden said in a statement: "Today, we're taking another historic step to deepen and formalize cooperation among all three of our nations because we all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term". Australia PM Morrison called it a "next-generation partnership" while the UK PM Johnson called it "a new chapter in our friendship". The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the move "extremely irresponsible" and said that the alliance "seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts".
On 16 September, New Zealand's PM reaffirmed her country's decades-old policy of being a nuclear-free zone. She said: "New Zealand's position in relation to the prohibition of nuclear-powered vessels in our waters remains unchanged".
On 17 September, France recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia over the cancellation of the multi-billion-dollar deal for conventional submarines by Australia in lieu of the new deal for nuclear-powered submarines. The French Foreign Minister called it "unacceptable behaviour between allies and partners".
What is the background?
First, the US efforts to build multiple alliances in the Indo-Pacific. Considering China as the primary security threat and in continuation with the Obama-era pivot, the US has in recent years been shifting its attention to the Indo-Pacific from the Trans-Atlantic and Middle East regions. This has entailed establishing multiple arrangements like Quad (and now the AUKUS), strengthening engagement with regional groupings like ASEAN and repurposing long-standing alliances like Five Eyes.
Second, the centrality of Australia and the deteriorating China-Australia relationship. While Australia was already a part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance and the Quad, membership in the AUKUS has cemented the centrality of Australia in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US. It has also pushed the already deteriorating relationship between China and Australia over maritime and trade issues to a point-of-no-return.
Third, the UK's role in the Indo-Pacific. While Australia and the US are part of the Indo-Pacific, the UK is not (except some colonial territories). The UK's assertiveness in the region has increased in recent months, especially after Brexit, to arrest its declining global influence. In July 2021, a British naval strike group led by the country's largest warship HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed through the hotly contested South China Sea and held naval drills with Japan. The UK has also announced its intention to station two patrol ships permanently in the Indo-Pacific with logistical support from Japan, Australia and Singapore. France has also increased the frequency of naval deployment in the Indo-Pacific, including the South China Sea.
What does it mean?
First, the significance of nuclear-powered submarines. While the AUKUS alliance partners have clarified that the submarines would not be armed by nuclear weapons but would only be powered by nuclear energy, it would still give Australia the capability to project power in the maritime region. These submarines are capable of staying underwater for long durations and also are comparatively more silent and harder to detect. This will be disadvantageous for China, which, despite decades of investment in its navy, still lags in underwater warfare capabilities.
Second, the US move to build a security alliance with the UK and US while sidelining Quad for this purpose implies a realization in the US that India and Japan would be reluctant to give the Quad an explicit security and military character. It appears that the US is moving forward on a two-pronged strategy to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region: a security alliance on the one hand and a larger political alliance on the other. This will also pave the way for further expansion of Quad to include other countries threatened by China. How China reacts to this two-pronged strategy beyond the usual rhetoric has to be closely watched.
Third, while the cancellation of the deal by Australia after years of negotiations has instilled a sense of betrayal in France, it would take considerable diplomatic effort to heal the strained ties between the AUKUS members and France. The divide, however, would be a temporary one.