Australia Can’t Get By on Nuclear Subs Alone

The newly minted Australia-U.K.-U.S. security pact, known by its acronym AUKUS, was announced just days after the 70th anniversary of another regional trilateral defense arrangement, the ANZUS treaty, which comprises Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The genesis of both deals was deeply informed by history and geography.

Signed in 1951, ANZUS built on its signatories’ close cooperation in the Pacific theater of World War II and reflected a common sense of identity between the three signatories—all Pacific Ocean-facing, English-speaking democratic societies of the New World. But ANZUS was always a precarious alliance, never including a NATO-like Article 5 provision for mutual defense.

AUKUS, too, does not include such a provision, as the wording focuses mainly on technological cooperation—most importantly to help Australia deploy nuclear-propelled attack submarines. Still, the partnership appears more oriented toward mutual obligations. All three powers now need each other more, owing to a confluence of factors: the relative decline of U.S. power; the fallout of Brexit and the U.K.’s subsequent efforts to strike out on its own under the banner of a “global Britain”; and the emergence of a powerful and assertive China that challenges U.S. primacy and directly threatens the Anglosphere’s member Down Under.

The new pact thus reflects a convergence of strategic interests and some shared values, while pointing to a future of deeper collaboration. To work, though, AUKUS must be informed by regional concerns and address more than great power competition alone.

From Australia’s perspective, the AUKUS deal represents an effort to build on its close historical ties with powerful friends, while recognizing its place in a region of mounting geopolitical importance—and tensions. Since the 1951 ANZUS treaty, Canberra has topped up its precarious “insurance policy”—its reliance on the U.S. security umbrella—by supporting American military interventions over the decades in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Australia invoked the ANZUS treaty and contributed air, naval and ground forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the Persian Gulf for two decades. Along the way, it deepened security ties with the U.S., bolstering interoperability and honing Australia’s military into a capable but boutique force that remained structured for little more than niche contributions to U.S.-led campaigns.

The “global war on terror,” however, saw the waning of America’s unipolar moment. Two decades later, the limits of U.S. power are on full display, accentuated by China’s rise. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party’s actions—“wolf warrior” diplomacy; economic coercion; cyberattacks; interference in other countries’ domestic politics; expansive territorial claims and island-building in the South China Sea; aggressive confrontations in international waterways and along the disputed border with India in the Himalayas; and willful obfuscation over the origins of the coronavirus—have shifted the calculus of many foreign leaders. As it shifts its posture to confront this challenge head-on, Australia has buttressed its alliance with the U.S., while also striving to bolster ties with Indo-Pacific neighbors.

Where does the U.K. fit in, then? During the 1970s, London walked away from trade and security ties with Australia and New Zealand, in favor of what would later become the European Union. But the 2016 Brexit referendum and the subsequent “Global Britain” campaign have changed that equation, as London looks to the Indo-Pacific for trade deals and a revalidation of its “special relationship” with the U.S., absent its EU membership.

The central pillar of the AUKUS pact, the submarine deal, is a major development. Not since 1958 has U.S. nuclear submarine technology been shared—and even then, only with the U.K. Canada considered it in 1987, but was rebuffed by the same powers now supporting Australia’s move—they were worried Canada would challenge U.S. dominance of the Arctic. Washington’s agreement to do this now points to a sense of vulnerability and of needing to further enlist Australia, as well as other nearby allies and partners, to bolster its own regional security posture.

Two critical powers in this regard are Japan and India, America and Australia’s other partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad. Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu officially welcomed the deal, while India appeared somewhat ambivalent on the surface, choosing to maintain a “studied silence” for now. The new pact will likely come up for discussion when the four Quad leaders hold their first in-person summit in Washington later this week. Ultimately, the fresh British and American commitments to the region, as well as Australia’s bolstered submarine capability, are sure to be welcomed in New Delhi, as in Tokyo.

To work, AUKUS must be informed by regional concerns and address more than great power competition alone.

France, however, is deeply upset at the way the AUKUS deal was negotiated in secret, and the resulting cancellation of its deal to supply diesel-powered submarines to Australia is a significant commercial blow. As such, its recent decision to withdraw its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington is understandable. But given France’s enduring presence in the Indo-Pacific and shared concerns with Australia, as well as the U.K. and U.S., maintaining constructive relations with these powers will remain key for Paris. To help ease the short-term pain of the French contract it abrogated, Australia could lease French Barracuda submarines to cover the two decades of development expected before the new nuclear-propelled submarines materialize under AUKUS.

In Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the initial shock of the deal has generated unease. New Zealand’s prime minster, Jacinda Ardern, has avoided direct criticism of the deal, but communicated to her Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, that New Zealand’s longstanding ban on ships with nuclear weapons or propulsion from its territorial waters will apply to the new Australian nuclear-fueled subs. The more important context here, though, is that Canberra and Wellington work collaboratively on many issues in the Pacific, and this challenge is surmountable. The two need each other, and both sides know it.

Morrison will also need to reassure Indonesia, one of Australia’s most important neighbors, which has sought to maintain good trade relations with China and has expressed alarms about the deal. In a statement last Friday, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry said it was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.”

Making matters worse, the U.S. and Australia failed to consult with Indonesia in advance of the AUKUS deal. For Jakarta, the slight carried echoes of the U.S. announcement in 2011 of a Marine presence in the Australian city of Darwin, which the two sides also coordinated without input from Indonesia, and which the Indonesian government at the time called “too close for comfort.”

These sensibilities matter. Indonesia also has traditionally maintained a nonaligned foreign policy and does not want to be closely associated with AUKUS—even though privately, Australian policy analysts see their Indonesian counterparts as sanguine. Over time, Indonesia could view the AUKUS deal as something to accommodate, if not support. Like other ASEAN states feeling the pressure of China’s “sharp power,” it will watch carefully to see if the deal points to a more robust U.S. commitment to the region—not just on the security front, but economic as well.

Malaysia has similarly been critical, with Foreign Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob conveying to Morrison that the deal could become a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region.” This viewpoint reflects Malaysia’s growing accommodation with Beijing, and work is required to counter this perception.

As it seeks to build a bigger military “stick,” Australia should work on speaking softly. Respectful and constructive diplomatic and economic engagement with its neighbors is vital to bolster security and stability.

Some critics suggest AUKUS and nuclear submarines make war more likely. Overwhelmingly, though, the opposite view holds: To avoid war, deterrence is key, and in the light of China’s heightened assertiveness and expansion, Australia needs to muscle up in order to credibly deter. Nuclear-propelled submarines—with their quieter propulsion systems and capability to travel much longer distances—are key, coupled with additional precision long-range strike systems, which AUKUS also addresses.

Some have welcomed the deal by claiming, “The Anglosphere is back.” But Australia today is no longer simply a white, New World, English-speaking European outpost on the edge of Asia. The country has changed since abandoning the White Australia policy in 1967, which sought to restrict the numbers of nonwhite immigrants. Now, over one-quarter of Australia’s population is foreign-born, many of them from across Asia. In the past, Australia sought to achieve “security from Asia,” but the country is now more interconnected with Asia than ever.

Indeed, AUKUS must not be allowed to shift Australia back to this misguided worldview. it also must not polarize those in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, who are stuck in the middle of the U.S.-China competition and face other more pressing and potentially existential challenges.

The challenges of today relate not only to great power contestation but to looming catastrophe—climate and pandemic-related—and a spectrum of governance challenges, like terrorism, smuggling and violent conflict. AUKUS has appeal, and nuclear-propelled submarines are welcome. But the key to its success will be U.S., Australian and U.K. engagement with these other issues across the Indo-Pacific, coupled with economic investment and trade—not just military overtures.

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