On Sept. 15, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia revealed their new AUKUS alliance, a move that caused deep rifts in global diplomacy. The trilateral agreement centers around a weapons deal in which Australia pledged to buy nuclear-powered submarines through technology sharing done by the U.S. and UK for the first time in 50 years.
This deal sidelined the original $60 billion one that Australia made with France to receive conventional attack submarines, effectively ending a 30-year partnership between the two countries that is considered a cornerstone of France’s Indo-Pacific policy.
To the dismay of France, the nuclear submarine deal was kept as a secret until being unveiled in a virtual press conference between the leaders of the three countries. In response, French President Emmanuel Macron removed the French ambassadors to the countries involved. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the move a “stab in the back.” A week after the deal was announced, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was unable to meet with Macron to address the situation.
While tensions have subsided over the past few months and the ambassadors have returned, rebuilding trust with France will require patience for all three allies.
Yet, AUKUS is more than a billion-dollar deal for nuclear submarines. The security alliance was made in direct response to recent Chinese aggression and is an attempt to increase U.S. and UK presence in the Indo-Pacific region and strengthen its ties with Australia, a regional powerhouse. This move is key in the American “pivot to Asia,” which began in 2015 under the Obama administration.
Concern over the militarization of the South China Sea, increased tensions among China and Taiwan and the repressive crackdown on Hong Kong are among the top reasons why AUKUS claims to need a security alliance against China. And the U.S. and UK found a willing partner in Australia.
In response to the Australian backing of a United Nations inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, China effectively ended a 2015 free trade agreement by imposing excessively high tariffs on Canberra, even though Australia is one of Beijing’s biggest trading partners. Since then, a Chinese intelligence ship was found sailing through the Australian exclusive economic zone in August. There has also been evidence of Chinese attempts to meddle with Australian elections through misinformation campaigns targeted at the country’s large Chinese diaspora population.
Through AUKUS, the U.S. and UK can use Australia’s strategic geography to bring their power to the Pacific. However, other regional players are not thrilled at the new alliance; South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and New Zealand have all expressed concern over the way this deal might impact regional stability. These countries don’t want to have to choose between two superpowers and fear what increased militarization may bring.
Their concerns might very well be valid. A Chinese diplomat responded to the unveiling of AUKUS by raising alarms over a possible case of nuclear proliferation and threats to regional unity and cooperation. Beijing claims this deal is “extremely irresponsible,” claiming it will cause an arms race to erupt.
Despite Chinese claims, however, Cold War-era fears of Australia forgoing its obligations to the Nonproliferation Treaty and becoming a nuclear weapons state are unfounded.
University of Southern California professor Jeffrey Fields argues that this doesn’t change anything in regard to Australia’s nuclear positioning. Fields believes that Canberra was already set to receive submarines from France and that the deal produces more efficient and quieter submarines that happen to use nuclear propulsion.
“I wouldn’t look at this as arming Australia,” Fields argues. “[Instead, the deal] illustrates the continuing interest the United States has in the region overall.” This deal allows Washington to further express its concern with Beijing’s behavior and solidify itself as a major power in the region. AUKUS will serve as a geopolitical tool to be leveraged in the face of confrontation, a deterrence to China’s aggressive maritime decision making.