The AUKUS Agreement analysed

AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the USA, was announced on the 15th of September. The agreement was forged with the intention of granting Australia the capability to build nuclear-powered submarines using US technology. The pact undermined a 2016 Australian agreement with the French company Naval Group (DCNS) which planned to build twelve diesel submarines. However, due to numerous delays and financial issues, this became more complex and therefore the Australian cancellation could come as no surprise, despite $2.4 billion having already been spent on the project. What did come as a surprise was that neither the press nor apparently other governments were aware of what was in the offing until the agreement was announced. Needless to say, the French government was very unhappy and recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington for ‘immediate consultations’, although notably London was not included in this.

In the future, the alliance seeks, as explained by Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, “to deliver a safer and more secure region”. Australia has held concerns over Chinese expansion, and therefore the alliance is intended to counterbalance these as Australia’s technological capabilities will improve. The Indo-Pacific region, and more specifically, the South China Sea has seen a myriad of territorial disputes, with China at the centre. China’s expansion has seen its naval capabilities overtaking Japan, India, and most significantly, the US. This has given them the confidence to reclaim land in the area. Reconnaissance activity by other nations, which China declares unlawful, have revealed their efforts to physically increase the size of the islands or creating new ones altogether in dredging operations since 2014. However, in the press conference in which the AUKUS alliance was announced, there was no mention of China itself. Nevertheless, the reality of the situation was clear enough; Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the countries in AUKUS should “abandon [their] old-school cold war and zero-sum mentality”.

As tensions in the South China Sea region have grown, there are concerns about the possibility of war. Former Prime Minister Theresa May asked in the House of Commons on the 16th of September, “what are the implications of this pact for the stance that would be taken by the United Kingdom in its response should China attempt to invade Taiwan?”. This is not an unreasonable question given recent threats by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping confirming it was China’s “historic mission” to control Taiwan and promised, “resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt towards Taiwan independence”. These threats and frequent incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in recent weeks have certainly raised tensions both in the area and internationally. From an Australian perspective, possessing nuclear-powered submarines makes strategic sense, although the time scale for this would be years into the future rather than a response to any immediate threat. It does however underline to the Chinese authorities, the direction Australia intended to follow, especially in the aftermath of disputes, where China has put tariffs on Australian exports of barley, red meat, and coal. In the ‘Chinese Global Times’ publication regarded as something of a mouthpiece for the Chinese government, an editorial taken in the year warned “if Australia keeps angering China, China should give it a lesson much harsher than tariffs on barley”. That the US was tilting its global interests towards the Pacific is hardly new. This had been announced by Barack Obama when he was President and had subsequently been followed by Donald Trump. There is less American interest in Europe, the old NATO ‘heartland’.

British foreign policy has also made an “Indo-Pacific tilt”, a post-Brexit consideration linking the UK to the location of half of the global economic output and half of the global population. This is symptomatic of a wider British shift in foreign policy. Having now left the European Union, the British government attempts to move alliances out of Europe, something reflected in AUKUS, but the proposed CANZUK alliance too (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK). However, this new stance, and AUKUS in particular, has been described as “a commitment to an American-led international order”. If Australia does develop its own nuclear submarine capability, the Australian navies’ facilities at HMAS Stirling, the naval base in the Western Australian near Perth, would no doubt be of interest to both the US and Britain. In 2019 Australia also announced a $200-million project to extend facilities at its base at Darwin in Northern Australia. This is 2,500 miles from the disputed South China Sea, far closer than Perth and requiring less travelling time for submarines. In either case, naval facilities in the region to compliment an ‘Indo-Pacific Tilt’ would be most welcome. This may already be underway, as it has been reported by ‘the Australian’ that “Britain’s nuclear submarines [are] to use Australia as a base for Indo-Pacific presence….so they can have a more persistent presence in the Indo-Pacific region under plans discussed by ministers”.

The pact has certainly had an impact on the EU. EU President, Ursula von der Leyen, has demanded an apology on the part of Australia for its treatment of France, as it claims it was “blindsided” by the announcement. Meetings for the proposed alliance were largely kept secret, with few involved, but notably, the meeting between Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson, and Joe Biden at the G7 Summit in June, was likely to have been part of the negotiations. President Macron was present at the summit, but not included in AUKUS, which has no doubt added to French displeasure. This has led, once again, to calls for a ‘European army’. Given the upcoming presidential election in France in April 2022, it is necessary for Macron to recover from what could be viewed as a humiliation. Given America’s tilt away from NATO, an increasing European military capability in some form is going to be inevitable, but whether this is under the auspices of the EU remains to be seen. Only this month a ‘Mutual Defence Pact’ has been announced between France and Greece, the first such agreement between two NATO members. The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hailed the agreement as being the cornerstone of an independent European defence policy: “The defence of European interests in the Mediterranean now acquires new substance. If attacked, our country will have at its side the most powerful military on the continent, the sole European nuclear power.” Britain is clearly no longer being viewed as a European power.

AUKUS, a pact “based on capability, convergent interest, and above all, trust” will inevitably have an impact upon NATO. The development of unity between countries that had formerly been defined by a shared heritage means the alliance is likely to have wider implications than simply nuclear technology, and it is clear that US interests are changing. The likelihood that European nations can rely upon the US for protection any longer is diminishing, as it seems the greatest international threat, at least from the perspective of Washington, is now China, rather than the Kremlin as it had once been. In Britain, the most apparent threat is presumed to be Russia despite broadening interests to a more international scale. British concerns are equally likely to have been considered in the AUKUS alliance. The possibility of Scottish independence may also have been a factor in the decision as the UK’s ‘Trident’ nuclear weapons programme is based in Scotland. To have to move this to alternative locations in Wales or England would prove problematic. No matter the decision, there would be an inevitable disruption of NATO. One possibility would be to lease out the HMNB Clyde at Faslane where the nuclear weapons are kept, although this does conflict with the Scottish National Parties policy of Scotland being a non-nuclear state, therefore bases abroad may have their attractions.

For both Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, this has been the first high visibility step on a journey that has been underway for a decade or more. Whether it would have taken place in its current form had Brexit not occurred is debatable. What is almost certain is that it will not be the last and its ramifications will extend into international trade.


Written by Frances Rigby


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