AUKUS: What is it and what does it mean for the Indo-Pacific?
The United States, United Kingdom and Australia recently announced a new strategic alliance called AUKUS. The trilateral agreement’s first material commitment will see Australia build and acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines sourced from US submarine designs. Broadly speaking, the agreement will see greater integration of defence technologies, cyber capabilities, quantum technologies and artificial intelligence amongst the three parties. Although many details remain unknown about AUKUS, what we do know is that the partnership is the latest development in the rapidly shifting geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific region.
Rationale Behind AUKUS
The broad theme behind the agreement is deterrence. Although it was not explicitly stated at AUKUS’ unveiling, many experts suggest that the alliance aims to contain China’s increased military aggression in the region - namely its recent activity in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. However, each party has something to gain from the agreement.
For the United States, AUKUS signifies its newfound emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region. It falls in line with the US foreign policy refocus of ensuring “a free and open Indo-Pacific” through strengthening alliances and partnerships in the region. Australia is a long, trusted ally through which the United States can exert their influence and strengthen its ability to abate the security challenges posed by China.
For the UK, joining the agreement can be seen as its latest move towards enacting its new Indo-Pacific “tilt”. AUKUS reaffirms the UK’s alliance with the United States and expresses its post-Brexit vision of a ‘Global Britain’ to the international community. The move also complements recent trade deals with South Korea, Australia and Japan.
Australia is perhaps the party set to gain the most from the AUKUS pact. The first benefit is access to nuclear-propellant technology that the US and UK have shared since 1958. Australia’s inclusion into this knowledge-sharing arrangement will exponentially increase its military capability, as nuclear-powered submarines are quieter, more powerful and can run far longer than diesel submarines. Although this is the only detailed commitment the trilateral alliance has committed to so far, it represents a significant elevation in Australia’s role in the balance of power of the region.
Reactions Across the Region
Initial reactions to the birth of AUKUS have been mixed.
The French, perhaps the most vocal adversary, recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia. Mostly sour of Australia’s decision to withdraw from its 2016 $90 billion contract to purchase French submarines. France has since announced that its ambassadors will return to Washington and Australia but attitudes remain cold towards Canberra.
Indonesia and Malaysia - some of Australia’s closest neighbours - have both come out to strongly condemn the security pact. Taking issue with proposed plan to equip Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he is “deeply concerned about the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”, saying AUKUS only heightens the situation. Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob echoed these fears saying AUKUS and its efforts to counter China could be a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region” and encourage aggression amongst other powers in the region. Experts warn these reactions could have been avoided by more tasteful diplomacy from Australia.
Singapore, the Philippines and Japan on the other hand expressed their approval of the deal.
China has condemned AUKUS, claiming it intensifies a regional arms race and reinstates a “Cold War mentality” towards the region.
Implications for the Indo-Pacific Region and Australia
However, perhaps more important to assess is how this development fits into the broader Indo-Pacific narrative.
It is undeniable that China is showing increased signs of regional aggression - seizing and fortifying reefs in the South China Sea, posing mounting military pressure on Taiwan and exerting its economic might by imposing trade blocks on Australia.
But is AUKUS - a defence led approach - the best way to go about countering it?
Experts warn that although AUKUS signals a much needed militaristic rebuttal to China and may help provide some stability in the Indo-Pacific region, it needs to be complemented by significant soft power efforts - particularly by the United States. A recent report published by the United States Studies Centre argues the US lack of investment strategy for the region prohibits any improvement in its strategic position in the region. Essentially, a lack of engagement in regional economic integration initiatives could be undermining any security commitments made by the US and its allies.
For Australia in particular, AUKUS signals a clear alignment with the US within the region and some argue that this could threaten Australia’s independence. AUKUS speaks to Australia's age old defence dilemma, self-reliance vs US reliance. By acquiring nuclear-powered submarines dependent on US and UK support, Australia could be seen to be backing itself into a foreign policy corner.
Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong has spoken to these concerns saying the technological dependence on the US and UK of Australia within the agreement could hinder our ability to “act alone when need be” and our ability to act autonomously when required.
AUKUS raises valid questions surrounding Australia’s future ability to separate its sovereign strategic objectives from the foreign policy interests of the US and UK.
Unfortunately, we lack the foresight to know if AUKUS will be a strategic success, encouraging peace and stability in the contentious Indo-Pacific, or a move that only escalated tensions further.
Claudia Strachan is a journalist and producer at ausbiz. She recently completed a Bachelors of International Studies and Media at the University of New South Wales. Her areas of interest include political economy, climate security and gender.