Beyond the Announcement: What the AUKUS Deal really Signals?
On 15th September 2021 the United States, United Kingdom and Australia upset the global balance of power by announcing the formation of a new military alliance, AUKUS. The security pact is primarily concerned with military technology sharing, such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, undersea domains and long-range strike capabilities (Jones, B., 2021). But so far all of the media attention has been focused on one element of the pact, that under this agreement Australia will gain nuclear-powered attack submarines. In keeping with standard security dilemma behaviour, the announcement has drawn harsh criticism from some of Australia’s neighbours in the Indo-Pacific who fear this may lead to nuclear proliferation in the region and increase tensions (Action, J.A, 2021). This is all understandable of course, but too much has been focused on Australia’s role in the alliance and its new capabilities that we forget what long-term implications this means for all three partners and their ambitions in the region.
The US-China Competition for Regional Domination
To understand AUKUS, it is important to remind ourselves of the bigger picture and the circumstances that led to the announcement in September. The unspoken, though obvious, target of the AUKUS announcement is China who has been steadily growing its diplomatic, military and economic presence in the Indo-Pacific for quite some time (Cranston, M. 2021). China’s economic growth can largely be attributed to maritime trade, China being the world’s largest source of sea-based trade (Jones, B. 2021). Yet, China’s access to this source of wealth is vulnerable to being shut off by the US and its allies, who have successfully contained China’s naval and diplomatic presence in the region since implementing the Truman Doctrine in 1948 through maritime dominance and control of key strategic chokepoints such as the Singapore and Taiwan Straits (Ibid). For this reason China has been expanding and modernising its navy for the past two decades and has even surpassed the US in anti-ship missile technology and is catching up in other technologies such as undersea detection, anti-submarine warfare, space-based communications and advanced computer targeting software (Ibid). America’s status as the world’s sole superpower is dependent on naval dominance, its multitude of allies and technological advancement, all of which are now being challenged, at least in the Indo-Pacific, by China (Kuo, M.A. 2021).
But one area of technology central to American naval power, that remains ahead of China, is America’s nuclear submarine technology. China’s advancements in satellite and radar technology are effective at detecting surface fleets, but are incapable of detecting American nuclear submarines which can remain submerged for months on end and are more quiet than diesel-powered submarines (except when the engines are switched off in diesel subs, something nuclear subs cannot do) (Jones, B. 2021 and White, R. 2021). China’s own nuclear submarines, which grew by four this year to number 15 in total, are far behind their American counterparts in terms of stealth and range (Jones, B. 2021). Based on this growing power parity with China in the Indo-Pacific and Chinese ambitions on the South China Sea and Taiwan, the US needs a trump card to put itself back on top.
As any student of hegemonic stability and balance of power would tell you, when the survival of a state is threatened by a hegemon or a coalition of states, they should seek stronger allies in order to maintain an equilibrium of power (Baylis, J et al. 2014, p. 101-102). The same goes for hegemonic powers in decline when faced with the challenge of rising competitors. For years the US has known it would eventually have to deal with growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific but has shrugged it off as a long-term risk, rather than an immediate concern (Corben, T. et al. 2021). Whilst that threat appears far off, the US should use China’s rapid growth to fuel its own prosperity and attach Beijing to the rules based international order. Or so the thinking went. Now realising their status as regional hegemon is at risk, the US faces three choices: Continued cooperation with China, a direct challenge to China whilst they still have the advantage, or deepened ties with key regional partners and strengthening their allies (Jones, B. 2021). America’s attempt at cooperation and appeasement has done little to slow China’s rise or liberalise the country and direct confrontation would only further increase the likelihood of war. Thus the United States has opted for the third option, with AUKUS providing the blueprint of this new strategy (Kuo. M.A. 2021).
East of Suez once more: The Return of Europe to Asia
The biggest issue for the US presence in Asia is that they do not have such a large alliance pact like they do in Europe. Through NATO, America’s European allies can shoulder much of the burden for Europe’s defence that otherwise would be placed on the United States (Yildiz, A. 2021). In the Indo-Pacific, America’s greatest security partnership is the Quad which only contains the US, Australia, India and Japan. Since America is experiencing a “pivot to Asia”, it makes sense to build upon the Quad and deepen relations with other regional partners that are similarly worried by China’s build-up (Jones, B. 2021). The quickest way to do this is to bring in some of its NATO allies into the Indo-Pacific and to increase the defence capabilities of its security partners already present (Ibid). This is most exemplified by the presence of the UK in the AUKUS pact. In March 2021 the UK released its latest Defence White Paper, which signalled a more “Global Britain” approach to security issues (Ministry of Defence, 2021). Since the UK faces no real threats in the Atlantic or in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it now sees its security interests lying “East of Suez” once again and is positioning itself to be more involved in the Indo-Pacific (Holmes, J.R. 2019).
The UK is not alone in this, France has also expressed an interest in the Indo-Pacific given the growing tensions and threats to its overseas territories there (MEFA, 2021. pp. 8-16). Though France was enraged at the AUKUS announcement, it was primarily directed at Australia for cancelling its existing submarine contract with the French-owned Naval Group in favour of the promise of nuclear-powered subs (Jones, B. 2021). France has since calmed down, at least in relation to the UK and US involvement, but remains unhappy for one particular reason: France was cut out of the deal (Ibid). A signature of French foreign policy under Macron has been the consolidation of the French military presence in its overseas territories and growing influence in the Indo-Pacific (Ibid). This is largely for similar reasons to the UK’s own “pivot to Asia” with France also worried by China’s naval posturing. Since Macron’s Indo-Pacific foreign policy shift, France has been intensifying relations with Indo-Pacific states, especially Indonesia through the recent ‘Coming into Force’ contract selling Rafale fighters and other defence contracts (Our Bureau, 2021). This strategic shift is more noticeable in the recent announcement that France is flirting with the idea to build nuclear submarines for India, another Quad member (WION). Thus in “retaliation” for being cut out of the AUKUS announcement France’s response is to further strengthen another US and Australian ally who currently has territorial disputes with China. Seems unusual unless it is designed to give the impression that these allies are at odds when in reality their goals are aligned. Whether or not France is doing so in retribution against AUKUS or to gain bargaining power to join it, either way the west and its allies benefit at China’s expense.
There is perhaps one other reason why France is acting out against AUKUS in this manner: France might be better at convincing regional players to sign military pacts with France than either the US, UK or Australia. France did not colonise the entirety of South Asia for four hundred years and so reaching out to India is perhaps more palatable than if the UK did so. But France did colonise Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for a considerable amount of time and so the US might be better received as a strategic partner than France would. Furthermore, if AUKUS did include France we would no doubt be seeing more accusations of Neocolonialism at work, but with just the Anglosphere countries those fears are not quite as potent. The point here is this: this bickering amongst friends is just theatre!
Learning From its Mistakes: a ‘New SEATO’
When you consider the growing presence of European powers in the region, which also now includes Dutch and German naval deployments (Herzinger, B. 2022), one can’t help but wonder if the US is seeking to re-establish SEATO. The Southeast Treaty Organisation does not receive the same level of fame as its NATO cousin primarily because it was an abject failure. Formed in 1954 to prevent the spread of communism, it was dissolved in 1977 due to its failure to organise around the defence of Indo-China and because of internal disputes, with Thailand and the Philippines being the only members actually located in Southeast Asia (Buszynski, L. 1981). But a ‘New SEATO’ sounds exactly what the US is doing, whether they realise it or not. Many of SEATO’s former members are now increasingly looking towards the Indo-Pacific with keen eyes. The UK, France, Australia, America, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand were all members of SEATO, not including their overseas possessions like Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Sarawak and North Borneo. Some other familiar faces were interested in joining but ultimately did not, countries such as Canada, Malaya (which included Singapore), Indonesia, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam (Ibid). But given the end of the Cold War and the failure of the original SEATO, how realistic is this goal?
As we have already noted, the US has close military ties with the UK and Australia but they also have security pacts with the Philippines, Thailand, Japan and South Korea. Those last two are very important in understanding why SEATO failed and why a ‘New SEATO’ might be more plausible. The United States has redefined its geographic areas of interest from Southeast Asia to the Indo-Pacific since the end of the Cold War. This is a far more inclusive and far-reaching term that expands America’s operational theatre and allows it to bring in more regional partners on vital issues. As a result, a ‘New SEATO’ pact would be more appealing if it included members of the Quad and other regional allies like Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan (as an observer), since it removes one of the big weakness of the original SEATO.
Another criticism of SEATO was its ideological nature as an anti-communist treaty. Since the Cold War has ended there is no discernible reason why making an anti-communist treaty organisation should be created, especially since it would risk alienating potential partners like Vietnam. But it is important to know that the threat of communism in the 1950’s was perceived as a real danger to regional stability and thus it acted as a unifying influence which led to SEATO’s formation. Today China’s actions in the region are just as worrying and provocative, with the Nine Dash Line claiming territories and maritime boundaries of several ASEAN members and several clashes taking place since 2011 (Kuo, M.A, 2021). It is only because of Cambodia and Laos supporting China’s position during ASEAN summits that the regional bloc has been unable to unify against this expansion (Son, J. 2021). Therefore, a regional security pact that clearly defends the freedom of navigation, right of passage and state sovereignty that was outside of ASEAN and backed by major powers like the US, India and Japan would be appealing for many ASEAN states. Several ASEAN states already have strong military ties with the US and its allies who are increasing their presence in the region, so it is not that hard to see them increasing their strategic relationship in this way.
Such a pact may be a far-off prospect and may not even lead to any formal declarations, but it is clear from this that the US wants its European allies involved in the region. America also wants regional players to increase their defence capabilities and has now shown through AUKUS that the US is willing to help provide resources to assist in that undertaking.
A change of tactics: Are regional players already aligning themselves with AUKUS?
The AUKUS announcement also sends another message to other Indo-Pacific states: You have failed to either multilaterally or unilaterally address the new maritime security realities of the region, so now we’re going to step in and build the capabilities of our allies (Burke, J. 2021). It is no surprise that the US has been frustrated with ASEAN’s strategic limitations in strengthening their naval and technological assets in response to China’s growing attempts to assert control over the Nine Dash Line, even though this challenges the territorial integrity of several ASEAN members (Kuo, M.A, 2021). Of course, ASEAN is not a strategic defence organisation but an economic one and one that operates based on unanimous agreement for proposals, which makes dealing with controversial issues quite challenging. That being said, some ASEAN members like the Philippines have been increasing their maritime presence over the decades to counter China’s encroachment on territory both sides claim to be theirs (Bhatt, P. and Pandey, A. 2022). In fact, some Indo-Pacific states are in support of the new accord, either openly supporting it or doing so behind closed doors (Corben, T. et al. 2021). Prior to the announcement being made, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison directly forewarned the leaders of New Zealand, Japan, Singapore and India of the new security pact (Ibid). Whilst New Zealand has a mixed view on the deal, there has been some indication that these countries are mostly positive of the arrangement in private if not in public (Ibid). So far the Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan have openly welcomed the pact, seeing it as an arrangement that maintains the status quo rather than destabilising a potentially fragile region (Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, 2021. Lee, V. 2021 and Lai, C. 2021).
But the offer to share valuable military technology is already gaining traction. South Korea has been seeking nuclear-powered submarine technology from their US ally since 2017, but was rejected in September 2020 over fears of nuclear proliferation (Lee, P.K. 2021). Despite what US officials have said about AUKUS being a “one-off” deal, given the change in administration and the concern for nuclear proliferation seemingly out the door, at least in relation to nuclear powered submarines, the logical next step would be to either add South Korea to AUKUS or sign a bilateral technology sharing agreement (Ibid). The same might be extended to Japan, but given Japan’s cautionary approach to nuclear power since the Fukushima meltdown that is not as likely. But if American officials are wary of making such suggestions, British officials are not. British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, has openly admitted that she sees AUKUS as the first step to a “Network of Liberty” (Bourke, L. 2021). She has also stated the UK is already in talks with Japan to provide better access and operational support between the two countries, adding that the UK is seeking closer ties with India and Canada across the defence landscape (Ibid). Meanwhile, Australia has recently signed a billion-dollar defence contract with South Korea, the largest defence contract Australia has ever made with an Asian power (Greene, A. and Dziedzic, S, 2021). This occurred weeks before Australia signed the historic Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) with Japan, the country’s first Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with a country besides the United States (Newsham, G. 2022). Already there is much activity following the AUKUS announcement to engage with regional actors, and this is just the beginning.
Meanwhile, whilst Indonesia initially was opposed to the AUKUS announcement, cancelling a visit by Scott Morrison to the country, the recent inauguration of General Andika Perkasa as the new Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces could signal a change of strategic direction (Ystiningrum, E. 2021). Perkasa has undergone professional development in the US, making it possible that he shares US concerns for the region (Ibid). Indonesia itself has been under pressure for some years from the Quad members, as well as several ASEAN members, to exercise strategic leadership in the Indo-Pacific and has had minor disputes with China over overlapping claims near the Natuna Islands (Inkiriwang, F.W. 2021. p.12 and Ystiningrum, E. 2021). A signature of President Widodo’s presidency has been the expansion of Indonesia’s maritime presence, as naval security has always been a major concern to the archipelago nation (Supriyanto, R.A. 2016). AUKUS could be a prelude to a security technology deal between Indonesia and the AUKUS members to modernise Indonesia’s naval technology in exchange for more assertive posturing against China. Given that Jakarta welcomed Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update which inferred a more assertive Australian presence in the wider region as well as Indonesia’s forceful response to Chinese incursions near the Natuna Islands, this is not as unthinkable as Indonesia’s immediate response to the AUKUS announcement suggests (Corben, T. et al. 2021 and Inkiriwang, F.W. 2021. p.12).
Even before the AUKUS announcement, Indonesia was already shifting its military technology focus to the west. Throughout much of Indonesia’s modern history they have been purchasing Russian-built Sukhoi fighter jets, but in recent years they have begun purchasing French Rafale jets as well as some British, American and Australian aircraft (Our Bureau, 2021). Indonesia’s new defence contracts, military modernisation attempts and new army commander might signal a defence realignment from Russia and China to the west. But given Indonesia’s ‘Free and Active’ foreign policy which it has maintained since gaining Independence, we will have to wait and see.
Ignoring the immediate response to the AUKUS announcement, the pact signals the beginning of a naval arms race between the West and China. America’s geostrategic shift from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, long considered only rhetorical, is now an actionable reality (Jones, B. 2021). This deal is just the first step in a long-term US strategy to build an alliance system in the Indo-Pacific of equal size and significance as NATO in Europe, directly positioned in opposition to China (Ibid). It further gives substance to the European strategic “pivot to Asia” as more and more European powers recognise the growing relevance of the Indo-Pacific to international security (Herzinger, B. 2022). Moreover, it signals to other regional players that they too can stand to benefit technologically through opposition to China. It may even suggest that the US and its allies in the West are open to aiding naval expansion and modernisation in Indo-Pacific states for those that want it, need it or are nervous about China’s own military expansion. As you can now see, this goes way beyond nuclear-powered submarines.
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