The AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) alliance announced on 14 September 2021 will facilitate Australia building at least eight nuclear powered, but not nuclear armed submarines, collaboration and technology sharing on AI, cyber warfare,. With overall closer alignment of regional security policies. While there was no mention of China in the announcement, AUKUS is without doubt the latest element in the USA’s policy of ‘containing’ China (see comment below). As such it should be seen as complementing the Five Eyes (FVEY) intelligence sharing organization that also includes Canada and New Zealand.
The Chinese responses to AUKUS, perhaps not surprisingly, included a statement issued by the Washington embassy accused members of habouring a ‘Cold War mentality’, and Zhao Lijia of the Foreign Ministry stated that the alliance ‘seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race’. Responses neither surprising, nor necessarily wrong. Perhaps more significant, is that the reception has been scarcely more cordial elsewhere in the region with only Taiwan openly and fully endorsing the agreement. While 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 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. In many ways these responses mirror the unease that attended the 2007 announcement of QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) involving the USA, Japan, India and Australia, and indeed continues to dog the organisations activities.[i]
It can be argued that the lack of comment by I-P governments reflects a highly pragmatic reluctance to offend either China or the USA. However, it cannot have escaped their attention that despite the Western (and Australian) hype of AUKUS as a regional ‘game changer’, in isolation, and certainly for the immediate future, it actually boils down to very little.
Firstly, the construction and operationalising of a nuclear submarine fleet is an extremely lengthy process, on past showing perhaps 10-20 years, and Australia lacks any nuclear infrastructure. Secondly, the UK and Australia are already closely linked in security and defence areas, with Australia already particularly dependent on the USA. Fourthly, given the weakness in defence terms of the UK and Australia relative to the USA and China (Table 1), their input can only be at the margins. That is, AUKUS changes very little, not least for Australia, which remains economically closely linked with China, with all the potential dependence that implies.
There has been much speculation that while the submarines may be a very long-term project, there could be significant increases in US military activity involving Australia. This could include increased use of naval facilities by US vessels, even including nuclear powered and armed submarines operating from the Sterling base in Perth, use of Cocos Island to monitor the western approaches to the South China Sea, and increased through-put of American military aircraft and troops (at Darwin).[ii] Undoubtedly, such developments would fill a gap in the USA strategic deployment in I-P. However, while the present Australian government may be comfortable with this, its successors may prove less so, particularly given the impact on relations with China and the implications for Australia if it came to a shooting match.
While our view, as noted above, is that AUKUS is no more than a reassertion of the USA’s containment policy, this time with an emphasis on alliances, as against the ‘go it alone’ approach of the Trump administration, it would seem likely that the Biden administration envisages the formation of series of linked and complementary alliances. Though whether, as some commentators have suggested,[iii] this represents the beginning of a new form of world order or rather of American order keeping, we tend to doubt. But be that as it may, the immediate task of building a series of effective anti-Chinese alliances in Asia is a daunting task, even where there are already long-standing security relations with the USA.
This is particular the case in East Asia, where, whatever concerns individual countries have over China, they remain part of a rapidly institutionalising and highly integrated regional investment, trade and production system, in which China’s already dominate role is being significantly increased by the BRI, related funding of infrastructure and major trade and investment developments, notably with respect to ASEAN, RECEP, CPTPP and a flurry of Chinese extra-regional arrangements. It is notable that two days after the AUKUS announcement, China reported that it had applied to join CPTPP, and the European Parliament approved a report on a new China-EU Investments Agreement, which could begin the unfreezing of the agreement stalled since May 2021, as long as China is prepared to lift the sanctions imposed on EU institutions and MEPs.
Within East Asia, China remains the principal driver of economic growth and integration, as such US moves that impact on the Chinese economy have and will continue to have major implications on the rest of the region, including countries with the closest ties with the USA. Additionally, continuing economic action against China will have significant consequences for the global recovery from the Covid 19 pandemic and very specific consequences for the American corporate sector and consumers.
Source: Business Insider India, 13 July 2021, accesses on 20 September 2021 from, https://www.businessinsider.in/defense/ranked-the-worlds-20-strongest-militaries/slidelist/51930339.cms
[i] Jonathan Stromseth ‘ASEAN and the QUAD: Strategic impasse or avenue for cooperation?’, Brookings, 23 September 2021, file:///Users/chrisdixon/Desktop/ASEAN%20and%20the%20Quad:%20Strategic%20impasse%20or%20avenue%20for%20cooperation%3F.webarchive
[ii] Kathrin Hills ‘US military extends reach into China’s backyard with Australian security pact’, Financial Times, 18 September 2021.
[iii] Tom McTague ‘Biden’s New World Order’, The Atlantic, 16 September 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/09/us-uk-australia-china/620094/