AUKUS: the dawn of a new strategic era
Australia is set to embark on its most significant strategic, economic and technological challenge of the century: to become the world’s seventh nuclear powered submarine country. Heralded as the most important strategic development for Australia since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951, on the 13th of March in San Diego, Anthony Albanese, Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden announced a tripartite deal for Australia to acquire conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability through the AUKUS enhanced security partnership.
The $368 billion AUKUS deal marks a “new dawn” for Australian geopolitics and strategy. Locking Australia into a strategic and technological partnership with the United States and Britain, the purpose of the deal is to strengthen Australia’s defensive capabilities in the Indo-Pacific against the backdrop of an increasingly aggressive and hostile China. The deal, underpinned by AUKUS’ commitment to “an international system that respects the rule of law, sovereignty, human rights and the peaceful resolution of disputes free from coercion”, represents a new defence doctrine of “deterrence at a distance”, casting AUKUS as an Australian response to Chinese regional provocation in the biggest military build-up in the region since World War II.
Following a phased approach, the deal will involve the purchase of three Virginia class nuclear submarines from the United States in the 2030s, followed by the building of eight British designed SSN-AUKUS nuclear submarines in Adelaide between 2042 and 2063. Nuclear-powered submarines have a distinct advantage over Australia’s current diesel-electric boats that make up the Collins-class fleet because they do not need to ‘snort’ to recharge their batteries and can stay underwater for months, avoiding detection.
The new SSN-AUKUS submarines will be more technologically advanced than the submarines China is expected to produce over the next decade on almost every indicator. With the ability to stay underwater indefinitely, rain long-range missiles at distant enemies and carry and dispatch forces into enemy territory, the submarines will transform Australia’s maritime defence for generations to come.
More importantly, the AUKUS deal reflects greater strategic coordination, integration and interoperability between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States in a partnership underpinned by shared technology and common democratic values. Through increased numbers of partner-nation SSNs in the Indo-Pacific, the capacity of these three allies in the undersea domain will be significantly strengthened, as will their ability to deter Chinese aggression and foster stability in the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, the alliance’s emphasis on the upgrading of infrastructure and industrial capacity will strengthen industrial bases in all three nations and create more resilient trilateral supply chains and additional production capacity.
However, the deal does not come without risks. Even with its ambitious timelines, Australia will still be left without enhanced submarine capability for the remainder of the decade. Its first purchase of the US Virginia-class submarines is set for the early 2030s - and that is assuming the sale will be approved by the future US Congress. Pivotally, the success of AUKUS also relies on the ongoing support and cooperation of future US Presidents, future UK Prime Ministers and continued financial and political commitment from future Australian governments. Labor will also need to create a brand new nuclear-educated workforce and an effective economic growth strategy to leap into this new industrial future. The significant increase in defence spending needed to fund the nuclear submarines will require existing and future governments to make hard political decisions on funding priorities between national security on one hand, and on other sectors such as health, aged care, NDIS and welfare, which together make up the caring economy. The growth strategy that Labor proposes to use to meet these competing budgetary demands whilst also transitioning the economy to net zero and reducing the budget deficit remains unknown. The challenge for Labor will be to develop a growth strategy that is not only economically sound but also politically acceptable to the electorate and within the broader Labor party.
Amidst growing hostility between Australia and China, the new AUKUS deal also poses challenges for Australia-Sino relations. In response to the announcement of the deal, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin warned that the three AUKUS nations are “walking further and further down the path of error and danger”. President Xi Jinping also recently announced that China would accelerate the expansion of its defence spending and named national security as a primary concern for the nation in the years to come. The Albanese Government needs to be aware of how the AUKUS deal may drive a further wedge between Australia and its biggest trading partner.
Alongside his commitment to the AUKUS deal, Albanese must increase multilateral efforts to build stronger ties with like-minded allies in the region. In particular, his Government should work to tighten the strategic nexus between Australia and key Quad partners India and Japan. Albanese’ four day visit to New Delhi earlier this month, where he and Prime Minister Nardendra Modi expressed shared concerns about the “increasingly uncertain global security environment” and committed themselves to strengthening their defence and security partnership to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific amidst Chinese aggression, is a good sign that the Australian Prime Minister understands the importance of strengthening the Quad.
Rishi Sunak was correct when he said that China poses an “epoch-defining systemic challenge” to the liberal rules-based order. At the essence of AUKUS lies the unwavering resolve of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to counter the growing threat of China and uphold the stability of the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Through greater strategic coordination and deeper integration, the deal marks the dawn of a new strategic era. If executed correctly, it will mark a transformational moment for Australia and the world outlook.
Isabella Baker is a Dalyell scholar at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Arts and Advanced Studies in Global and International Studies. She is interested in global affairs, national security and human rights with a particular focus on Australia’s relationship with China and the Indo-Pacific.