/What AUKUS Really Means (via Qpute.com)
What AUKUS Really Means

What AUKUS Really Means (via Qpute.com)


On Sept. 15, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia unveiled a new security partnership, with the less-than-euphonious acronym AUKUS. The three states are close allies of long standing, but the headline item in the new arrangement is a joint effort to equip Australia with a fleet of advanced nuclear-powered submarines. U.S. President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced plans for more extensive cooperation on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.

Those basic facts about AUKUS are pretty straightforward. But why it came together—and what it means—is more complicated and far more revealing about where the world is heading.

First and most obviously, this move is a classic illustration of balance-of-power/balance-of-threat politics at work. Although China was not mentioned anywhere in the announcement, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this initiative was taken in response to growing perceptions of a rising Chinese threat. These perceptions are partly based on China’s increased capabilities—including its capacity to project naval power in the Asia-Pacific—but also on its openly revisionist aims in certain areas. Equipping Australia with long-range, extremely quiet nuclear-powered submarines will enable Canberra to play a more active role in the region, along with the other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the United States, India, and Japan).

On Sept. 15, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia unveiled a new security partnership, with the less-than-euphonious acronym AUKUS. The three states are close allies of long standing, but the headline item in the new arrangement is a joint effort to equip Australia with a fleet of advanced nuclear-powered submarines. U.S. President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced plans for more extensive cooperation on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.

Those basic facts about AUKUS are pretty straightforward. But why it came together—and what it means—is more complicated and far more revealing about where the world is heading.

First and most obviously, this move is a classic illustration of balance-of-power/balance-of-threat politics at work. Although China was not mentioned anywhere in the announcement, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this initiative was taken in response to growing perceptions of a rising Chinese threat. These perceptions are partly based on China’s increased capabilities—including its capacity to project naval power in the Asia-Pacific—but also on its openly revisionist aims in certain areas. Equipping Australia with long-range, extremely quiet nuclear-powered submarines will enable Canberra to play a more active role in the region, along with the other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the United States, India, and Japan).

Second, although what’s going on here is to some degree purely structural (that is, reflecting shifts in the balance of overall capabilities), in other respects, Beijing has no one to blame but itself. Until recently, Australian opinion was ambivalent about the implications of China’s rise: Business leaders hoped to preserve lucrative commercial ties, and prominent strategists warned that opposing the growth of Chinese power was not in Australia’s interest. But China’s increasingly belligerent conduct—especially its unwarranted decision to impose a punishing trade embargo in response to an Australian proposal for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus—has triggered a steady hardening of Australian attitudes. China’s counterproductive response is a reassuring reminder that the United States is not the only great power capable of diplomatic malpractice.

Third, the announcement is a carefully measured step that will take some years to come to fruition. The new arrangement doesn’t threaten Chinese Communist Party rule within China or aim to crater the Chinese economy, which would be self-defeating. But the actions announced on Sept. 15 will complicate Chinese efforts to project power at sea and control critical lines of communication. As such, they will impede future Chinese efforts to overawe nearby countries and gradually persuade them to adopt more compliant postures. In short, it is a move designed to discourage or thwart any future Chinese bid for regional hegemony.

As such, this move also suggests that one of my previous concerns about the prospects for an effective balancing coalition in Asia may not have been as serious as I thought. I had previously noted the collective action problems that afflict most alliances could be especially severe in Asia, in part because of the vast distances involved, which might tempt some countries to sit out disputes occurring far from their shores. In this case, however, we have three countries—only one of them located in the Asia-Pacific—taking steps that will facilitate action in key regional locations. Collective action dilemmas will no doubt still rise, but the broad outlines of an effective balancing coalition are increasingly evident.

Fourth, the reactions of third parties will be a key issue, not just in the Asia-Pacific theater. The French government is reportedly “furious” about the arrangement because it torpedoes (pun intended) a prior Australian commitment to purchase 12 conventional subs from France. Indeed, Paris went so far as to cancel a gala event in Washington celebrating 240 years of Franco-U.S. cooperation. When the French decide not to throw a party, pay attention. France is a strong advocate for a more robust European security posture (something the Biden administration also wants), and Paris may have a potential role to play in parts of the Pacific as well. If the three AUKUS members simply forgot about French self-esteem—something I find rather hard to believe—they need to get busy making amends.

Reactions within the region will be even more important, however. Here, the key issue is whether it is interpreted as a measured but timely act of collective defense (which I believe it is) or as an unnecessary provocation. As I’ve noted before, a key issue in regional politics is the degree to which either the United States or China is perceived as the one that is “disturbing the peace” Asian countries are eager to preserve. My guess is most countries in the region will view this move with favor, given the relatively limited nature of the new initiative and China’s heavy-handed conduct in recent years.

The final issue is the nuclear dimension. The three leaders emphasized that the deal would be limited to the transfer of nuclear propulsion technology (such as reactors to power the new subs) but not nuclear weapons technology, and the new submarines will not be armed with such weapons. Australia has long been a strong opponent of nuclear proliferation and wary of civilian nuclear power, and Morrison reiterated that stance in his own remarks.

All that is well and good. But it is possible—possible, mind you—that something a bit more subtle is going on here. The reactors used in U.S. nuclear submarines require highly enriched uranium, and Australia will gain access to this technology as its fleet expands. From a proliferation standpoint, that is a step in the direction of more extensive nuclear infrastructure. It is also an indication of greater U.S. (and, to some extent, British) willingness to transfer highly sensitive technologies to close allies.

One might therefore see this as a sign the United States might gradually relax its traditional opposition to nuclear proliferation, if and when circumstances required. The United States’ 2005 civilian nuclear agreement with India is consistent with that inference, and the new arrangement with Australia can be seen in a similar light. How will other states—such as South Korea and Japan—see this decision, and how is Beijing likely to interpret it?

I doubt many (any?) people want to see more nuclear weapons states in Asia, and I’m dead certain Washington doesn’t want that right now. But the whole issue of deterrence in Asia—and especially extended deterrence—is extremely complicated, and it will become more so as China’s nuclear arsenal expands. If the security environment deteriorates in the years ahead, U.S. opposition to the measured spread of nuclear weapons capabilities might decline. If Beijing would like to avoid that outcome, muzzling its “wolf warrior” diplomats and limiting its territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas would be a good place to start.


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