The West looks East with the AUKUS pact
By Luca Pavoni, Junior Consultant
Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited London this week to participate in a round of media interviews and speaking events. Morrison, who led Australia from 2018 until his defeat in the 2022 elections, has a somewhat damaged legacy at home due to a number of brazen and controversial policies, not least of all appointing himself five secret portfolios to undercut his own ministers and reinforce his power. However, in the UK’s defence sector – which Morrison is allegedly targeting as the destination for his post-politics career – the ex-PM is regarded more fondly, with his prevailing legacy being the father of one of the most ambitious security pacts of the 21st century so far: AUKUS.
The trilateral security pact between the Western powers, initially announced in 2021, promises to cement the West’s naval power in the Pacific by supplying British and American-made state-of-the-art nuclear-powered (not nuclear-armed) ‘SSN-AUKUS’ submarines to Australia. This, it is hoped, will enable Australia to replace its aging fleet and act as a suitable counterweight to growing Chinese incursions in the Pacific, especially evident in China’s policy towards Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Earlier this year, the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States met in California to put pen to paper on AUKUS. A joint leaders’ statement by US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared that the security partnership will “promote a free and open Indo-Pacific”. The summit confirmed that up to eight conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines will be provided to Australia by the US and UK, and that the three states will work closely to share military and technology insights.
With a large timeframe extending into the 2040s, and a colossal price tag of nearly £200 billion (US$244 billion/AU$368 billion), AUKUS represents a substantial commitment from the West towards safeguarding their presence in the region. While this is refreshing news for Asia-Pacific allies who are relieved to be remembered by Western powers, AUKUS raises international concerns around nuclear non-proliferation and the acceleration of a clash between superpowers.
One eye on Russia, the other on China
The United States and its allies have the difficult task of keeping check on two opposing powers, both of which are simultaneously exploring ways to challenge the world order and unseat American global hegemony that has reigned otherwise uninterrupted since the end of the Cold War.
China perceives the West being distracted by the war between Russia and Ukraine as an opportunity to advance its expansionist agenda across the Pacific with less pushback. The longer the conflict wages on, the faster China can accelerate its efforts to become a leading superpower by the middle of the century. It is telling, therefore, that China’s 12-point plan for peace in Ukraine provides no practical solutions towards achieving lasting peace and instead, perhaps intentionally, lays the groundwork for an enduring stand-off.
Seeking to dispel this assumption, the US has funnelled billions into the Royal Australian Navy to position it as an intimidating reminder to China that the West has eyes and arms everywhere. It is a typical arrangement that Australia has enjoyed with every leading naval power since its conception – first with the British Empire, in exchange for defending its colonial assets in the Indochina region, and then with the United States, in turn for serving as a valuable ally against Imperial Japan and now China.
This arrangement is today cemented by Quad – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, India, Japan and Australia – and now also by AUKUS. It signifies that the US, with an annual military spend over US$800 billion – more than the next nine highest spending countries combined – still has the ability to exercise a global reach. And with a war raging on in Europe over Ukraine, and the risk of another looming over Taiwan in Asia, it is important now more than ever to look both east and west.
A ’nuclear’ threat?
Headlines branding AUKUS as a “nuclear subs” agreement have created a misleading likening to ‘continuous at sea nuclear deterrents’, such as the UK’s Trident Programme, where nuclear weapons are perpetually carried on submarines ready to be deployed at any notice in the case of a nuclear war. This, plus speculative warnings that AUKUS could make Australia a “nuclear war target” for China, have distorted the nuclear component in AUKUS.
AUKUS submarines are nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed. They represent considerable upgrades to the speed, strength and reach of Australia’s current submarine fleet but they do not leave the realm of conventional warfare.
This being said, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has accused the three states of flirting with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bans the exchange of nuclear weapons technology to non-nuclear states but does not regulate the exchange of civil nuclear technologies. Using nuclear power to fuel deadly weapons risks blending these distinctions together and setting a dangerous precedent for other countries to push the limits of the non-proliferation regime.
Nuclear aside, AUKUS is a massive military statement that is hard for China to ignore and inevitably enflames aggressive rhetoric between China and the West. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson recently branded the pact a “path of error and danger” and warned the West against using a “cold war mentality”. China sees Taiwan as part of its national territory, despite vehement Taiwanese claims of the contrary, and believes it has historical claims to the bulk of the South China Sea, despite the conflicting claims of five other sovereign states. Increasing Western military presence and prowess in what China believes to be its own ‘back yard’ certainly risks bringing the world’s two biggest powers one step closer to a head-on clash.
AUKUS is a tremendously ambitious project between three nations that are bounded by shared social, cultural, economic and military relations. It is also refreshing news for Asia-Pacific states that cannot hope to contain Chinese expansionism on their own and fear that their Western partners have forgotten them in favour of a more pressing crisis in Ukraine. However, it is also a precarious move in the waters where tensions are already at a boiling point, and one that should not be taken lightly.