AUKUS: Western Powers Form Controversial Defense Partnership in Pacific Region

On September 15, Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. forged a trilateral strategic defense partnership, named AUKUS after the abbreviations of its member countries’ names, to formalize and strengthen the three countries’ long-standing security cooperation. Described by some analysts as the “Asian NATO,” the defense pact enables the three nations to share military technologies in areas such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and perhaps most consequentially, nuclear-powered submarines. As the first formal multilateral security alliance the U.S. has entered since the Cold War, the creation of AUKUS is fraught with geopolitical ramifications. 

As part of the deal, the U.K. and U.S. will assist Australia in building a modern, nuclear-powered, and conventionally-armed submarine fleet—the first time the U.S. has exported its nuclear-propulsion technology since 1958. Though marketed as an alliance to “better meet the threats of today and tomorrow [in the Indo-Pacific],” the pact and its attendant collaborations are likely targeted against China, which has built up its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years. In response, the Biden administration has scrambled to solidify a chain of alliances against China, from South Korea and Japan in the north to India in the south. The South China Sea, an area where China has focused much of its recent military buildup, was previously a glaring geographical gap in U.S. strategic alliance. For the Biden administration, AUKUS brings Australia, as well as the U.K., into American Pacific defence policy in attempts to bridge this geographic gap. Situated near Indonesia, Australia can provide critical naval support for potential conflict in the South China Sea. However, to directly operate in the South China Sea, which lies some 1600 miles from mainland Australia, the Royal Australian Navy has to improve its current capabilities. AUKUS seeks to catalyze just that, arming the Royal Australian Navy with Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles and modern nuclear-propelled submarines that can conduct warfare far from the Australian mainland. Continuing a policy that started under the Trump administration, the strategic defense alliance marks U.S. attempts to shift focus towards matching China’s military investment in the Indo-Pacific in the post-Afghanistan era.

As ambitious as AUKUS may seem, it will likely not serve its intended purpose. While the first AUKUS submarine is not expected to be delivered until 2040, China is expected to commission at least six nuclear submarines by 2030. Therefore, AUKUS does little to shift the regional naval power balance. The same is true for long-range strike capabilities. While Australia awaits Tomahawk missiles from its newly-forged allies, China already possesses thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles that can reach the Australian mainland. The power balance is so strongly in China’s favor that a May 2021 report by the state-run Chinese media company Global Times openly threatened to “target military objectives in Australia [with long range warheads] when the situation becomes highly tense.”AUKUS is limited, not only in its timeline but also in its transnational scope. “AUKUS,” an amalgamation of the three member countries’ names, nominally precludes additional membership and suggests that this alliance is not intended to evolve into a multinational NATO counterpart in Asia. Thus, the alliance may have limited practical values beyond its symbolic significance. 

International blowback in the wake of AUKUS proved swift, not least of which from European nations like France. In 2016, Australia contracted the French Naval Group corporation to build 12 Attack-class diesel-electric submarines at a cost of $90 billion. Following the announcement of AUKUS, which effectively terminated this program, French politician and Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian decried the move as “a stab in the back,” adding that “we had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed.” Despite the angry response, AUKUS is unlikely to undermine France’s relationship with either of the three countries involved, since it is historically rare for arms deals to break up relationships between long-time allies. Other opposition comes from anti-nuclear environmentalists. Australia’s Green Party leader, Adam Bandt, criticized the deal as “floating Chernobyls in the heart of Australia’s cities,” citing potential safety hazards. Some fear that the deal is the Australian government’s metaphorical “Trojan Horse” for introducing nuclear power to the civilian industry. Indeed, the reactor technology of nuclear-propulsion, though advanced, is remarkably similar to civilian reactor technology. Therefore, to the ire of domestic advocates, Australia can easily transfer what it would learn from nuclear-propulsion to the construction of civilian reactors and even develop atomic bombs. There is currently no country in the world that operates nuclear submarines without a nuclear weapons arsenal. Therefore, AUKUS has the potential of breaching the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While AUKUS started with ambitious promises and tremendous symbolic significance, it angered a plethora of groups and may have limited military values. 

By: Michael Huang