Written by Maria Milagros Martín Jiménez (Mila)
On September 15, 2021, the three strongest naval superpowers in the world announced an unprecedented military alliance that signalled a shift towards the Indo-Pacific as the new world’s centre of gravity in the geopolitical domain. The AUKUS Alliance mainly encompasses the UK and US’ commitment to advance Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-propelled submarines, sharing their technology for the first time since they both entered the US-UK nuclear partnership back in 1958 (Huong, 2021, p. 51). As a consequence, Australia will become, along with Brazil, the only non-nuclear-weapon state that owns nuclear-powered submarines (Anwer, 2021, p. 88). Nevertheless, AUKUS’ agenda covers four other strategic areas: undersea technologies different from submarines, quantum technologies, cybertechnologies, and artificial intelligence (Shoebridge, 2021, p. 3).
One of the main causes that has prompted the alliance has been the sharp decline in Sino-Australian relations. Since the latter publicly banned Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, from being involved in the development of G5 networks in 2018, tensions have increased. Likewise, Australia’s demands for independent investigations regarding the origin of COVID-19 have worsened their engagement to a point where negotiations between them have been relegated to a consular level (Hoang et al, 2022, p. 53). Moreover, the aggressive turn experienced by Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping’s leadership has deteriorated the region’s strategic environment, making it more pressing than ever to shift the military balance away from the Asian superpower (Hoang et al, 2022, p. 52).
In addition to manifesting the volatility and assertiveness of the Indo-Pacific as the new global political chessboard, the Alliance suggests major adjustments in the policies of the parties involved. Pertaining to Australia, besides increasing its offensive and deterrent power, AUKUS embraces the resolution of Australia’s long-lasting identity dilemma of “neither East nor West, as its body is in Asia and its soul is in Britain and America” (Cheng, 2022, p. 2). Thus, the alliance outlines its inclination towards the “Anglosphere.” However, by doing so, it has risked reinforcing arguments in favour of not considering the country as a legitimate part of the region in which it is, for better or worse, located (Tsuruoka, 2021, p. 4). For the UK, AUKUS represents the first steps towards the implementation of its “post-Brexit Global Britain ambition” (Shoebridge, 2021, p. 2) as well as its “Pivot to the Indo-Pacific” (Huong, 2021, p.55). On the US side, AUKUS adds up to its strongest move to counter China’s rise through the empowerment and deepening of traditional alliances (Cheng, 2022, p. 3). It has also refuted the assertion of those who believed that “the election of Joe Biden as US President would change the path followed by its predecessor and return to business (with Europe) as it had done in the past” (Kuo, 2022).
While some authors might argue that AUKUS can merely be considered as the enhancement and strengthening of a geopolitical partnership that already existed, the secrecy and political miscalculations that surrounded its announcement, together with the military and strategic shift that may unfold by 2040 (the deadline for the fulfilment of the alliance’s objectives), make it worthy of further discussion. This article is devoted to the analysis of the sense of unease and diplomatic debacles that emerged with the disclosure of AUKUS, as well as the future outcomes that might derive from it with regard to those states that, irrespective of not being parties to the alliance, are indirectly impacted by it.
Impact of AUKUS on ASEAN
There is a solid understanding that ASEAN is not AUKUS’ target. Nonetheless, there are concerns that the alliance may spark tensions among its members as a result of being forced to choose between the US and China in an increasingly fractured landscape (Anwer, 2021, p. 94).Divergent perceptions of China’s threats, differing approaches to security policymaking, and fluctuating demands for cooperation from the US might challenge the adoption of a common standpoint (Cheng, 2022, p. 4). For instance, at the time of its announcement in 2021, ASEAN members, known for their concerted approach to policy decision-making, could not reach a consensus on AUKUS. For example, while the Philippines and Vietnam welcomed the alliance, no political leader in Indonesia supported it (Patti, 2021). In fact, following its announcement, the government issued a response expressing their deep concerns “over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region” (Laksmana, 2021).
Similarly, the resort by Australian policymakers to ASEAN-related slogans and rhetoric, to describe a non-ASEAN option has been considered as condescending. From this perspective, instead of “paying rhetorical homage to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific or ASEAN centrality while crafting an exclusively trilateral strategic policy in secret” (Laksmana, 2021) ASEAN members would have preferred to be consulted or, at least, informed.
Concerning the long-term impact of AUKUS, experts believe that ASEAN might be caught in a security dilemma due to the “strategic overcrowding of extra-regional powers” (Laksmana, 2021). ASEAN’s weak collective defence mechanism makes it pressing for its members to rely solely on their independent military capacity building. As a result, the new alliance is likely to accelerate the modernization and enhancement of their naval forces, which occurred in 2010 in response to escalating tensions in the South China Sea (Cheng, 2022, p.4). Furthermore, there are concerns that the provision of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia might undermine ASEAN’s attempts to preserve the region’s nuclear status.
Impact of AUKUS on Japan and the Emergence of “Informal JAUKUS”
When AUKUS was disclosed in September 2021, regardless of whether Tokyo welcomed the initiative for its prospects of ensuring security in the Indo-Pacific, questions about the US-Japan alliance were raised. Whereas Australia’s past level of military integration with the US has been deeper than Japan’s, the launch of AUKUS is likely to trigger Tokyo’s reassessment of its Self-Defence Forces operability and the level of integration between the two militaries (Tsuruoka, 2021, pp.5-6).
A little after the launch of AUKUS, the possibility of including Japan in the alliance hit the headlines. Among other things, the alignment of their domestic security affairs (with the concerted ban on Huawei from their telecommunications networks) and the joint training performed in the Indian Ocean in October 2021 have led experts to talk about the emergence of an “informal JAUKUS” (Auslin, 2022). Similarly, the signing, in January 2023 of the “Japan-UK Reciprocal Access Agreement,” or “Japan-UK RAA,” aimed reinforcing joint military exercises and at facilitating the entry of troops into each other’s countries (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2023) has supported the existing JAUKUS narrative. Even so, it is important to bear in mind that AUKUS pivots around the exchange of nuclear submarine technologies, which has not been offered to Japan. In fact, in 2021, Washington emphasised that AUKUS was a “one-off” and an “exception to their policy,” making it clear that the US is not willing to make that exception for Japan (Tsuruoka, 2021, p. 5).
Impact of AUKUS on China and India
As the implicit target of AUKUS, it is no surprise that China condemned the alliance, depicting it as a “product of the Cold War mentality between Canberra, London, and Washington” (Hoang et al, 2022, p. 51). China’s rejection of AUKUS is understandable from the perspective that the presence of nuclear submarines in its surrounding waters poses a threat to its trade routes in the Indian and Pacific Oceans (Anwer, 2021, pp.87-93). Nevertheless, the future impact of the blockage of the Chinese flow of energy supplies and trade can be counteracted by the successful development of the Economic Belt of the OBOR as an alternative to its Maritime Silk Road (Seth, 2020).
In this regard, for China, AUKUS’ real danger resides in its potential to prompt the sophistication of India’s nuclear weapons and military technologies and, ultimately, an arms race (Anwer, 2021, p. 95). In the event that this scenario materialises, Beijing will be left with three undesirable policy options: give up, pursue, or intensify its arms race. On the one hand, the alternatives of pursuing and intensifying the arms race are reminiscent of “the collapse of the Soviet Union and of how Moscow exhausted its resources in its arms race with the United States” (Hoang et al, 2022, p. 52). On the other hand, giving up is not a possibility due to China’s refusal to give up its ambitions in the region. Therefore, AUKUS could force the Asian giant to make undesirable and tough decisions.
Concerning India’s approach to AUKUS, despite initial opposition on the side of Indian media for considering that, by being left out of the deal, the US had disregarded the country’s role in the Indo-Pacific (Anwer, 2021, p. 95), the year 2022 has witnessed the consolidation of the US-India bilateral partnership. For instance, high-level engagements have intensified, opening the door to ground-breaking agreements such as the “first-ever maintenance of a US Naval Ship in India” (The Economic Times, 2022).
Impact of the AUKUS Alliance on France and the European Union
France is the incontestable “victim” of AUKUS, which has harmed not only its economy (due to the termination of its $90 billion conventional submarine contract with Australia) but also its legitimacy as a prominent player in the region (Kuo, 2021). The level of deception was such that two weeks prior to the announcement of the alliance, Australia and France, which was completely blindsided, signed a joint press release reassuring the “importance of the Future Submarine Programme” (Perot, 2021, p. 3). As tensions between France and AUKUS members increased, the former sought and succeeded in attaining the support of the European Union (Cheng, 2022, p. 4). This was no major venture since the latter was also negatively impacted by it. Indeed, the timing of its announcement, on the same day as the release of the EU Strategy for the Indo-Pacific, demonstrates a profound disregard for Europeans (Shea, 2021).
In the months that followed, the AUKUS-France-EU axis worked to reconcile their positions.In line with this idea, as financial compensation, Canberra granted 555 million euros to France’s Naval Group (Barnes & Makinda, 2022). Likewise, the EU has continued its trade negotiations with Australia, whose 13th round was conducted in October 2022 (European Commission, 2022). However, a sense of betrayal and mistrust has crept into their interactions. We will have to wait to ascertain if it results in the embrace of Indonesia over Australia and in the progressive rapprochement with ASEAN (Perot, 2021, p. 5). What can be concluded is that, more than one year later, AUKUS has not led to France’s or Europe’s disengagement from the Indo-Pacific. Rather, it shed light on the debate on strategic autonomy and on the need to step up the Union’s military game while becoming more autonomous from NATO (Marafona, 2021, p. 5). Experts hope that AUKUS will serve as a wake-up call for the EU to bring an end to its “indecisive Indo-Pacific policy” (Kuo, 2021). If not, it risks being relegated to a position navigating between “more assertive Chinese and US counterparts” (Abbondanza, 2021).
This article has pointed out how, at the time of its announcement, AUKUS unleashed diplomatic and political frictions as well as strategic and security concerns among key actors in the region. It has also noted that, despite early speculations, the alliance did not result in the complete rupture of relations between States. Finally, the article has discussed the multiple policy and strategic options that can take place in the future, and that range from the reassessment of traditional alliances and the forging of new ones to the military build-up of the region. What is certain is that, in a matter of years, a lot has changed. In 2016, when Australia opted for French diesel-powered submarines the strategic environment was very different. Given the attention that the region is currently receiving, it is foreseeable that it will become a further polarised geopolitical landscape in which multilateral mechanisms will probably undergo a progressive deterioration.
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