AUKUS: Burning bridges, building submarines
The new trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States has been dominating foreign affairs and defence reporting. Over the past few days the diplomatic shockwaves have rippled around the world and new AUKUS flow-on effects emerge seemingly by the hour. The French are fuming, Indonesia’s uneasy, New Zealand’s found itself with more questions than answers, and the Pacific Islands have been, thus far, excluded from the discourse entirely. Is AUKUS a big deal? Yes. Are we all overreacting? Definitely. Is AUKUS overhyped? Almost certainly. Do the diplomatic costs outweigh the strategic benefits? Let’s break it down and see.
First, it’s crucial to understand how we got here. While some commentators have levelled criticism against Canberra for exacerbating tensions with China and fuelling an arms race by procuring nuclear-powered submarines, a key dynamic has been overlooked. China’s increasingly assertive behaviour over the past 18 months has certainly pushed Australia further into the U.S. security sphere, with AUKUS being the most substantial result thus far. Chinese foreign spokesperson Zhao Lijian, in a display of cognitive dissonance that’s come to characterise his ministry, stated that “the most urgent task is for Australia to correctly recognise the reasons for the setbacks in the relations between the two counties”. While submarines have been the poster-child of AUKUS, the inclusion of cyber capabilities and interoperability show that Canberra recognises one of the key reasons for the tensions just fine.
Now, I know using the phrase ‘burning bridges’ here is rather brash, but it puts the right emphasis on a key theme of all this AUKUS hysteria; multiple nations feel either left out, uncomfortable, confronted, or outright tricked. In terms of China, Australia has no desire to completely estrange one of its largest trading partners and diplomacy continues behind the scenes. It’s safe to say, though, that Canberra has made its bed, and it’s made of American steel, not Chinese silk. Did I push the boat out a bit too far on the euphemism?
Regardless, the signalling couldn’t be clearer: Australia won’t tolerate Beijing’s strong-arming and aims to procure top-shelf defence capabilities to protect its interests. This much has been evident since Boeing Defence Australia set up a manufacturing hub in Queensland last year. Does all this posturing and signalling mean anything in actuality? I’ll dive into the integrity of the strategy later on.
If we take into account the Quad, Five Eyes, ANZUS, FOIP, and the India-Japan strategic partnership, AUKUS fits seamlessly into the existing security architecture of the Indo-Pacific. So while it’s reasonably unsurprising that such an agreement has emerged, the strict secrecy of the negotiations and sudden announcement of the agreement do justify the heated reactions by other allied states, especially France.
France has been well and truly side-lined here, and foreign minister Le Drian held nothing back in his public address in the wake of recalling his ambassadors to Washington D.C. and Canberra. It certainly was a “heavy political act”, in his own words, and it could be argued that the AUKUS states acted with a degree of “brutality and unpredictability”, but calling this a “crisis between our countries” cannot achieve much more than throwing fuel on the diplomatic fire.
Le Drian brought plenty of fuel, however, as he called out “Australia’s willingness to be a surrogate for the United States and to abandon its sovereignty”. Born from reactionary vigour as they may have been, these words still carry immense weight; the weight of $90 billion to be precise. More hurtful, perhaps, was Washington’s undermining of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy more generally, a core tenet of which is promoting multilateralism and inclusivity.
France is an Indo-Pacific nation, with a sprawling military presence and an enormous collective Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching across the two oceans. Paris has a vested interest in regional security and stability, but is increasingly finding itself on the fringes as stronger allies take a harder line vis-à-vis China. Getting left in the dark by two of your closest allies as they undercut one of your biggest contributions to stability in a contested region that you have large amounts of territory in is, indeed, brutal. As for Britain’s part in this, the Brexit wound is still fresh and AUKUS may yet drive a new wedge between the two NATO members. Cue a few wry smiles in the Kremlin.
But never fear. Bonds forged in fire are hard to break, and in the last six months France has intensified its military cooperation with the U.S., and the upcoming Quad meeting will be a good opportunity to emphasise these ties and potentially bring France further into security cooperation with India and Japan too. Things will continue to simmer between Paris and Canberra, but the just-released EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific will likely offer avenues for rapprochement. Let’s wait until the ambassadors have been debriefed and Le Drian has collected his thoughts before hazarding a guess about France’s next move.
Back in Wellington, the feeling is one of watchful caution. While some news outlets and political commentators whipped up a storm of misinformed analysis and unnecessary dramatisations, Prime Minister Ardern stuck to the script. New Zealand’s engagement with Five Eyes remains unchanged and the speculation about us being left behind, or that we should have been part of AUKUS, is gratuitous. There’s a titanic difference between a signals intelligence sharing network (Five Eyes) and a nuclear-powered submarine supply chain and interoperability agreement (AUKUS). There’s also a titanic difference between $5 billion and $45 billion, being the defence budgets of New Zealand and Australia respectively.
Furthermore, with former defence minister Ron Mark’s ambitious Defence Capability Plan now landing in the lap of Peeni Henare, there’s already uncertainty around how many billions of dollars the government will commit and over what timeframe. Wellington chose the HMNZS Aotearoa, the C-130J Super Hercules, and the P-8A Poseidon’s two years ago, and we would choose them again today over nuclear-powered submarines, for obvious reasons.
Becoming ever more salient, though, is the fact that New Zealand and Australia are far from being a single strategic entity, as some have suggested. As we turned our defence focus towards the South Pacific in 2019, Australia has now turned theirs the other way towards the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Ultimately, AUKUS is a net gain for New Zealand’s security in the long run whether the submarines can enter our waters or not, and we weren’t left out of anything that we could afford to be a part of.
Unfortunately, the Pacific Islands have been almost entirely excluded from the AUKUS discourse. New Zealand’s Advancing Pacific Partnerships plan fumbles its way slowly forward amidst spending uncertainties and Covid-19 restrictions, but the instability in the Pacific Islands only speeds up. Natural disasters are devastating Fiji, political instability has rocked Samoa, and China continues its courting of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Kiribati for geo-strategic gain.
No one has cared to ask how the island nations feel about a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in their region, but I suspect there will be mixed reactions. Analysts and commentators have a habit of forgetting about the little guys whenever the big players throw their weight around. If these big players fail to give the South Pacific as much consideration in their strategic calculus as Beijing does, they may face an uphill battle to make up the difference in years to come.
Other nations, at a glance:
Indonesia will be feeling uneasy about AUKUS, regardless of agreeing to enhanced security cooperation with Australia less than two weeks ago. Flying under the radar recently were the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), outlining that the two AUKUS states are “firmly committed” to ASEAN centrality. As the de facto leader of ASEAN, Indonesia will be at pains to reconcile how this commitment may put it right in the firing line between Australia and China, and how it increasingly finds itself as a strategic spectator as extra-regional powers jostle for influence.
As for others in the region; Japan’s on board; Taiwan is likely supportive; Vietnam will quietly endorse; Singapore and the Philippines are at ease; and Malaysia probably shares Indonesia’s feelings.
Canada is the final mention here. There’s been much talk of the ‘Anglosphere’ as some vague strategic entity lately, but the concept holds some fleeting utility here. As the other Five Eyes partner left out of AUKUS, Canada isn’t taking the news as harshly as some imagined. Trudeau dismissed criticism on the matter by stating that “this is a deal for nuclear submarines, which Canada is not currently or any time soon in the market for. Australia is.” Toronto will continue to effectively outsource balancing against China to the U.S. and sit comfortably behind AUKUS, even if concerns are raised about the so-called emerging “Three Eyes” architecture threatening its seat at the table.
Time to analyse what AUKUS can actually achieve vis-à-vis China and if the diplomatic costs discussed above will be worth the strategic pay off.
First, let’s talk timelines. The AUKUS and AUSMIN documents both present an initial 18 month negotiating period to “identify the optimal pathway” to delivering the submarines. Readers unfamiliar with military procurement cycles just learned a hard lesson: procuring assets, usually, takes a very long time. It will take one and a half years just to discover how long it really take for the submarines to materialise, and initial estimates in this industry are almost always optimistic. It could easily be two years or more before a concrete plan is in place. If we see an Australian nuclear submarine in operation before 2035, things will have gone very smoothly. A headline from satirical news site The Betoota Advocate summarised this point poignantly: ‘China Panics After Learning They’ve Only Got 25 Years Until Australia Gets 8 New Submarines’. Moral of the story? Shifting the balance of power is a long game and much can change over the next decade as the strategic environment evolves and budgets and timelines experience flux.
On the topic of balancing I’ll draw from an excellent article by Professor Van Jackson that appropriately critiques AUKUS. He coins the phrase “vulgar balancing”, described as “strategic decisions justified in the name of balance of power but without an underlying concept”, arguing that, you guessed it, this is bad statecraft. Lacking a “theory of victory”, Australia’s announcement “once again puts capability before concept”; offering no tangible strategy outside of a willingness to vaguely deter Chinese expansionism.
The AUKUS documents in general are heavy on concept and light on detail, boasting that the submarines will somehow give Australia a ‘capability edge’ over a strategic competitor that already has a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Don’t get me wrong, I said above that AUKUS will be a net gain for Indo-Pacific security in the long run, but big dollar figures and shiny new tech doesn’t excuse half-baked strategy.
Tangible benefits from AUKUS in the next decade will stem from the other-platform interoperability and cyber capabilities, but these again lack detailed explanation in the documents. I see the U.K. being drawn, willingly, further into Quad interoperability and cooperation in general as a result of AUKUS, facilitating the emergence of a Quad + 1 regional architecture. As mentioned above, France may jostle for a seat at the Quad table too.
I’ll finish on an important note. We cannot give in to tunnel vision and analyse this issue in a strategic vacuum. AUKUS is a wager that the Indo-Pacific will still be a heavily contested region in 15 to 20 years, and that the contest will be against China. This is a reasonably safe wager, but entropy always finds a way. A Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, a volatile Iran, a train-launched ballistic missile North Korea, an Arctic-expansionist Russia, an increasingly belligerent Turkey, and many other actors contribute to uncertainty and competition in the strategic environment. Not to mention that tactics in the grey-zone, below the threshold of war, have migrated from the periphery much closer to the centre of power competition. The world may look very different in 2035, and while nuclear-powered submarines are a formidable defence capability now, the evolution of autonomous weapons systems and quantum technology may usher in obsolescence for many conventional systems faster than we think.