AUKUS: A UK Perspective

There are two ways of looking at the “Aukus” initiative, recently launched by the US, Australia, and the UK.

First, it may be seen, as it was described by Ben Wallace the UK Defence Secretary: as an important defence procurement trade deal between the US and Australia, involving the construction and delivery of nuclear-powered submarines for long-term underwater reconnaissance in the Indo-Pacific area. The UK’s role in this scenario is in supplying some marginal technology accompaniments, such as in sonar technology.

Second, it may be seen as a new and significant, security-pact element in the US-led development of an Indo-Pacific parallel organisation to NATO, aimed, principally, at enhancing the “forward defence” strategy of the US to “containing” China, in military and economic terms. Additionally, from a UK perspective, it is a manifestation of the Johnson government’s “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” in the context of the portrayal of the government’s “global Britain” strategy.

In practice, of course, Aukus is a mixture of these two portrayals, within which, different audiences may see reflected their own agendas. For the British anti-China hawks this is what they have been urging, confrontation of China, and a shift away from the EU’s “mercantilist” approach to China, emphasising the need for trade with China. For Brexiteers it is further confirmation of Britain’s move away from entanglement with the EU.

Analysis by Andrew Black and Michael Lloyd of the UK government’s recent defence and foreign policy review (SDSFR) suggested that the so-called “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” was based more on nostalgia for an imperial past than a recognition of current global realities, aside from hints of imperial nostalgia. Certainly, in defence and security terms the marginal increment if Indo-Pacific defence capability potentially supplied by the UK, will be dwarfed by the massive US military presence there. Moreover, though the US has allowed the UK to the part of Aukus, it appears to be no more than a titular presence.

The UK participation, however, confirms the current government’s desire to move away from potential involvement is any future, stronger EU defence arrangements. This tilt away from the rest of Europe is despite the US having already indicated that it would prefer the UK concentrate its activities in the “Atlantic-Euro” area, rather than frittering them away in other parts of the globe.

Although understandable in commercial terms, the shabby US abandonment of French interests – and indeed the “stealing” of the Australian submarine contract with France, who have their own nuclear-powered submarine technology, if the Australians had changed their mind about the propulsion system – has been deeply wounding for the French. Given the historical alliance between the UK and France, albeit occasionally fractious, for the UK to be associated with the  US-Australia deal is further proof, if it were needed, of perfidious Albion.

Despite the current government’s pretence, there is little concrete evidence of any significant UK interests or presence in the Indo-Pacific, save for a miniscule presence in Brunei, Singapore, and Bahrain, unlikely to be capable of significant enhancement given current commitments. Moreover, by apparently endorsing the hawkish, anti-China lobby in the UK, it is not clear how this will assist in developing trade links in East-Asia, which is dominated by China’s trading involvement in the region.

Nor has the UK’s membership of AUKUS likely to do much for trade and political relations with the rest of the region. The deal has only been openly and fully endorsed by Taiwan. Malaysia has been markedly critical, Singapore’s PM expressing the pious hope that the arrangement would ‘contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture’. New Zealand, and Indonesia expressed concern over Australia obtaining nuclear submarines – and with Malaysia reminding Australia that such vessels were banned from their waters. The rest have been silent, including India and Japan that had been directly approached by Scott Morrison.

The foreign and trade policies of the Johnson government are muddled and in apparent conflict with its defence and security policies. The suggested linkage with Australia in Aukus makes sense only if the UK is planning to go further become a member of the “Quad”, which is the US approach to forming an Indo-Pacific version of NATO. However, the politics of the Quad, in relation to ASEAN, CPTPP, and RECEP are complex. It is not clear how UK membership of an organisation that is viewed by China with suspicion, and within which the non-US members of the Quad, are hesitant themselves to use the term “Quad”, will advance UK interests in the region.

The moderate line that was taken on China in the SDSFR, attempting to balance trade interests with defence interests, provided a degree of intelligent and necessary foreign policy ambivalence. The EU still has such an approach towards China, attempting to balance trade interests with a critical political stance on human rights issues. The UK would be well advised to copy it.

About the GPI

The Global Policy Institute is a research institute on international affairs. It is based in the City of London, and draws on both a rich pool of international thinkers, academics as well as policy and business professionals. The Institute gives non-partisan guidance to policymakers and decision takers in business, government, and NGOs.