Understanding strategic rationale of AUKUS

By- Radomir Romanov

This article is the first one of a two-part series by the author. Read the second part, ‘Will China be able to neutralize AUKUS through CPTPP?‘ here.

On September 15, 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America created a new format for trilateral security cooperation – AUKUS. At a joint press conference , the leaders of the three states stated that the objective of such cooperation is the strengthening of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR), a joint response to security challenges, and an increase in Australia’s defense potential. All of them pointed to the difficult strategic situation in the region, growing instability, and the emergence of new threats.

Within the framework of cooperation, the interaction of the parties will be expanded in the areas of regional policy, coordination of joint actions, cyber security, artificial intelligence, and underwater space. Cooperation between the naval forces, scientists and the defense industry will develop. The most important area of ​​work is the joint development of technologies by Australia for the creation of a nuclear submarine fleet with conventional weapons. It was especially noted that in this case, the technologies of nuclear weapons and peaceful atom will not be transferred to Australia. This process is likely to take more than a decade; the exact parameters of trilateral cooperation in this area will be worked out over the next 18 months. The production of submarines will take place in the area of ​​the city of Adelaide in South Australia, on the coast of the Bay of St. Vincent.

The United States and the United Kingdom have significant scientific and technological potential in the areas of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. In the field of the nuclear submarine fleet, these two countries have many years of experience: United States has had submarines of this class since 1954, Great Britain – since 1960.It is important to note that the creation of the British nuclear submarine fleet took place in close cooperation with the United States after the parties concluded a defense agreement in 1958. This was, to this day, the only precedent for the transfer of US nuclear submarine technology to another state. Later in 1962, an agreement was signed to sell Polaris ballistic missiles to the United Kingdom. In future, defense cooperation between the two states continued to develop, turning into a so-called special relationship.

In this regard, the creation of the AUKUS format is an extremely important event in world politics. Australian Prime Minister S. Morrison does not hide the fact that his country plans to buy Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States. However, many fear that Australia’s future nuclear submarines will potentially be equipped with US and UK nuclear weapons. Experts also express concern that for the first time a loophole was used in the text of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, according to which non-nuclear countries are allowed to build nuclear submarines, warehouses with materials for reactors are monitored by the IAEA, and this opens up an opportunity for creation of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear countries. 

So, why do Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States need such a new format for defense cooperation? There are mutual concerns for all, as well as their own individual motives that highlight the rationale behind AUKUS, and what it means for their ties with China.

The prerequisite for expanding the interaction of the three countries can be called their historical, cultural, ideological, legal, identity and civilizational community, significant experience of allied relations during the 20th and early 21st centuries. The parties are members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (which also includes Canada and New Zealand), have bilateral defense cooperation mechanisms, support each other on many international issues, and have similar positions on international crisis situations and conflicts.

The main reason for the creation of AUKUS is the continuous strengthening of China’s defence engineering and technical security developments and the desire of US-Australia-UK to restrain Beijing’s political and military potential. The appearance of nuclear submarines in the Australian Navy will lead to a strategic balance between China and Australia in the underwater space, equalizing the capability possibilities of the parties. Australia’s anticipated robust cybersecurity and AI development through triangular cooperation is also geared towards countering threats from China. As Canberra-Beijing ties deteriorate, it is understandable that Australia is looking to protect its national security and interests by turning to two of its oldest partners in the West. 

Australia’s position vis-à-vis China is twofold. On the one hand, it is the country’s largest foreign economic partner in both exports and imports. The parties closely cooperate on such issues as the fight against transnational crime, scientific relations, student exchange, tourism, migration, together they solve many regional problems. On the other hand, Australia pursues two strategic tasks in the region: firstly, supporting its ally, the United States, in terms of shaping the regional order and secondly, strengthening its own leadership in the South Pacific region. The first is essential to counterbalance China’s power. The second is to counter China’s growing economic and military presence in Canberra’s strategic neighborhood of influence, the South Pacific. There are also ideological contradictions between the Australia-China which have grown post-pandemic. Yet, Australia is not ready for an open escalation in relations with China, especially as its defensive power is rather limited. The assistance of the United States and Great Britain in this regard is definitely in its national interests.

The United States views China as the main immediate challenge to its national security and worldwide presence. We can say that the conflict between the United States and China is the main intra-systemic contradiction of the global world. Economic differences aside, it is clear that China’s military build-up in the past decade and its foreign policy ambitions are of serious concern to the United States. Hence, it is seeking to surround China with a system of its own military alliances, to achieve a military advantage in the engineering and technical personnel, especially in the South China Sea. To realize these goals, Washington seeks to use its participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India and Japan,  the ANZUS alliance (Australia and New Zealand are also members), develop bilateral defense cooperation mechanisms with a number of states in the region, and strengthen its military presence in the Pacific. Australia is one of the main strategic allies of the United States in defence engineering and technical development; as partners they conduct military exercises,  cooperate in the defense industry, in the field of foreign direct investment in the defense industry, and the United States troops rotate via the island state. Protecting the South Pacific from Chinese expansion is fully in line with American interests, and Australia plays a key role in this area of ​​US foreign policy.

As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, China can hardly be called its main adversary on the world stage. Just six years ago, there was talk of a “golden era” in British-Chinese relations, and Britain was striving to make China the second largest export destination after the United States, despite ideological contradictions, primarily due to the situation in the former British colonies of Hong Kong and Taiwan. After the collapse of the colonial empire, British military-political interests were mainly concentrated in Europe.

However, in the context of Brexit, the United Kingdom has developed a “Global Britain” strategy, in accordance with which it seeks to increase its economic and political presence in regions of the world outside of Europe, including in the IPR. The focus in this region is on key allies – the United States, Australia and New Zealand. In addition to the aforementioned formats, the UK also participates in the Five-Power Defense Arrangements with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. More recently, the  United Kingdom’s Indo-Pacific outlook has seen sharp focus with it sending an aircraft carrier group to the South China Sea and improving ties with India to bring in a “new era” in bilateral ties; it has also announced that it will permanently deploy two war-ships in the Indo-Pacific.. Against the background of a number of contradictions with China that have arisen in recent years, caused only in part by US pressure on the UK, the country is in significant political gain from the new AUKUS format. Firstly, it is expanding its military-political presence in thedefence technology and engineering domain. Secondly, its already close ties with Australia and the United States are strengthening, now in a new capacity after leaving the European Union. Thirdly, the development of nuclear submarine technology for Australia is economically beneficial for the United Kingdom. Finally, the consequence of the creation of the AUKUS format was the termination of the contract between Australia and France for the supply of the first batch of 12 diesel submarines totaling almost 56 billion euros —- and this is a political victory of Great Britain over one of the leaders of the European Union.

The creation of the AUKUS format naturally drew criticism from China; Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson has termed it as “obsolete Cold War” thinking, although the containment of China was not openly called by the leaders of the three states the goal of the new alliance. It is significant that the Prime Minister of New Zealand, another Anglo-Saxon state and Australia’s closest ally in the IPR, Jacinda Ardern said that her country opposes nuclear technologies in the region, so it could not become a member of AUKUS. In this context, we can note the downgrading of New Zealand’s status for the collective West, which may lead to further disagreements between this country and Australia and US policy in the region, even as the three share ANZUS and Five-Eyes alliances

Most likely, in response to the creation of the AUKUS format, China will continue to even more actively build up its military power and defense capabilities in the engineering and technical personnel. The consequence of this will be an acceleration of the arms race in the region, which means an increase in the likelihood of dangerous incidents in the future.

Radomir Romanov is Senior Officer of Asia-Pacific International Institutions and Multilateral Cooperation Studies Center at the Far Eastern Federal University. He completed his Bachelors in “Interpretation and Translation Studies” at the Department of Japanese Studies and Masters from Cchool of International Relations at the Department of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Mongolian Languages. 

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