The AUKUS alliance and its implications on Indo-Pacific geopolitics
by Rhiane Kall
On September 12, 2021 the United States announced the formation of a trilateral strategic defense partnership between the US, the UK and Australia, named AUKUS. The alliance’s main stated goal is to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarine technology, a modernization of conventional diesel-powered submarines, with almost indefinite submersion duration. They further announced the intention to collaboratively develop hypersonic missiles, possibly in response to China and Russia’s more advanced testing of hypersonic missiles that can effectively evade missile defense systems. The alliance poses a range of implications for the power balance in the region: raising geopolitical tension with China, the suspected violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in currently non-nuclear Australia, and increasing the security threat perceived by North Korea.
First, as China’s hybrid warfare tactics of expanding into the South China Sea become increasingly oppositional to American Foreign Policy objectives in the region, the alliance is a clear counter-measure, to reinstate American presence in the region. In terms of geopolitical tension: China has been using gradual expansion technique known as ‘salami-slicing’ as a means by which to increase its control over waters in the South China Sea: this involves building artificial islands over which the country claims sovereignty over, and consequently the surrounding waters forming China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Due to its gradual nature, salami-slicing expansionism often goes unaddressed, since each ‘slice’ is not sufficient to warrant international backlash. AUKUS joins the yet another recently formed American alliance in the region: the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), an informal partnership between the US, Japan, Australia and India, that has been advancing its defense planning rapidly, with their first summit with President Biden scheduled for September 24. The Chinese Foreign Minister Yi called the announcement of this alliance a part of the US’ “five-four-three-two” tactic, referring to the aggregate security risk posed by the Five Eyes, the Quad, the AUKUS, and bilateral alliances in the region. China’s response to the AUKUS has been to declare this “anti-China” formation of “cliques” as “extremely irresponsible double standards” and an enactment of “Cold War mentality”, which will “intensify the arms race”.
Next, in terms of economic repercussions and responses: Joining the alliance indicates Australia’s renouncement of strategic ambiguity in the region, and foreign policy alignment with the US towards the containment of China, which is likely to have ramifications on China’s economic relations with Australia. China is Australia’s largest two-way trading partner (around 31% of total trade) totaling $245 billion, aided by their bilateral free trade agreement, ChAFTA. This makes Australia’s move to join the alliance despite their dependence on China a gamble on their expectation of America’s continued influence in the region. As a further response, China has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in response to this military alliance, to demonstrate its interest in economic cooperation rather than ‘military confrontation’ . However, CSIS analysis views this move as a strategy to extend economic dominance. Evaluating this response, it is likely that the alliance groupings and geopolitical tensions will increase significantly.
Second, critics argue that the alliance is likely to violate the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, an agreement that seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and achieve eventual disarmament. In response to this concern, Prime Minister Johnson countered questions of likely nuclear proliferation by asserting that “…the submarines in question will be powered by nuclear reactors, not armed with nuclear weapons.” However, with Australia’s current use of nuclear energy, it would not take too long for them to expand their program into enriching Uranium to the degree of weapons-grade fuel. In other words Australia is at a stage of nuclear latency, wherein they can become nuclearized at short notice. Under the extended deterrence protective umbrella of the United States, Australia will have a sheltered nuclear pursuit, should they choose to proliferate in the future, which may eventually lead to a nuclear cascade effect with nearby countries choosing to nuclearize so as to increase their deterrent capabilities against their nuclear neighbors. The alliance’s expansion into hypersonic weapon technology development, particularly, heightens the perceived security threat, otherwise known as the security dilemma, to other nations in the region, thereby increasing the risk of an increased counter-balancing military expenditure and even a gradual arms race in the Indo-Pacific. While it is unlikely that Australia will have obtained nuclear-powered submarine capability before 2040, the prospect of a latent nuclear capability remains a concern.
Third, the alliance may hinder the United States’ diplomatic talks with North Korea, since their increased military presence in the region poses a perceived risk to North Korea’s upholdment of their regime. When the US installed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems on South Korean land in 2017, North Korea had viewed this as a significant act of aggression and subsequently tested the Pukkuksong-1 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile, and sought a closer alliance with China as a counterbalancing measure. So far, North Korea has released a response stating that the alliance could initiate a nuclear arms race because of the change it creates in the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific. Based on their previous reaction to increased American defensive capabilities in the region, the development of offensive capabilities in the form of nuclear-powered submarines, may hasten their race toward acquiring second strike nuclear capabilities. This, in turn, significantly undermines American denuclearization talks with North Korea. Nevertheless, the US’ increased military and defense presence in the region adds credibility to their extended deterrence treaties in the region, particularly supporting the sovereignty of Taiwan and the security concerns of South Korea.
In conclusion, The United States’ introduction of the AUKUS alliance as a means by which to further their foreign policy interests in the region comes with a range of security implication, both in terms of volatile security relations with China and North Korea, as well as the wary international perception of nuclear powered weapon development aided by superpowers. The formation of counterbalancing and counter-counterbalancing alliances remains very reminiscent of the Cold War and should be approached carefully.