AUKUS: A step forward in deterrence against China

On September 15, US President Joe Biden, alongside British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, announced the creation of an “enhanced trilateral security partnership” to share advanced technologies. The partnership will be called AUKUS, and it will work on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and other undersea capabilities. Yet, the most notable initiative that this partnership will undertake is to help Australia obtain nuclear-propelled (though not nuclear-armed) submarines, using technology supplied by the US. This is only the second time that the US will share this advanced technology with an ally, after having done the same with Britain 63 years ago. This move is seen as directly countering China's rise, though the country is not mentioned in the agreement.


The consequences of the deal and the reactions that it has elicited, both from allies and foes of the US, Australia, and UK, are multifaceted. In Europe, which does not want to confront China too strongly, the deal has been heavily criticized for two main reasons. Firstly, much of the anger has come from France, since Australia abruptly ended a previous submarine contract with France worth more than €50 billion in order to pursue the submarine deal with the US and UK. The deal was signed in 2016 and entailed the construction of 12 diesel-powered Barracuda submarines. The French Foreign Minister declared the move by Australia as “a stab in the back”. In the days following the announcement, Paris recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, and cancelled both a celebration in Washington as well as a defence ministers’ meeting between France and the UK. The loss of the deal is a major setback for French industry, but above all it is a blowback to France’s ambition to strengthen relationships in the Indo-Pacific region, where around 7,000 of its troops are stationed in addition to nearly 2 million of its citizens. For France, this event signals more than ever the necessity to pursue European strategic autonomy in order to avoid depending excessively on the US. However, this may prompt a backlash from Eastern European member states, which are traditionally more dependent on the US military for their security.


Secondly, the EU’s top leaders accused the US of disloyalty to the transatlantic alliance, attacking US President Joe Biden for disregarding a G7 summit agreement to remain united while confronting China. In addition, they called the treatment reserved to France unacceptable and asked for clarification from the US before continuing with business as usual. Due to the spat, there were rumours that the new EU-US Trade and Technology Council’s first meeting, planned to take place on September 29, would have been delayed, though in the end the meeting went ahead as expected. Moreover, French officials argue that in these conditions it is impossible to continue talks for a free trade agreement between the EU and Australia. Yet, these criticisms will be met with resistance by other free-trading EU countries in Northern Europe.


Conversely, in the Indo-Pacific region, the AUKUS agreement has been well received. Japan, India, Singapore, and Taiwan have all reacted positively to the news of the deal. In Canada, the opposition criticized the government for not being involved in the deal. This agreement, which greatly strengthened the Australian Navy, is a step forward in deterrence against China and shows the US’s willingness to share advanced military technology, signalling to American allies that the US is committed to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Furthermore, the AUKUS pact shows a trend towards the multilateralisation of American alliances in the Indo-Pacific region - already evident with the creation of the Quad - which is gradually overcoming the precedent of the hub and spoke approach of bilateral relations. Moreover, given the overlapping memberships between the Quad and the AUKUS, the two could merge or collaborate more closely in the future.


Predictably, China has reacted furiously to the deal. Despite not being singled out in the text of the agreement, China is the main reason behind the strategic tie-up. Chinese officials accused the US, UK, and Australia of embodying a “cold war” mentality which violates non-proliferation commitments. However, the arrangement is widely considered a response to Beijing’s aggressiveness, where the strengthening of security partnerships to deter Chinese power in the region seems to be the main goal.


For the three members, the agreement has many benefits. For Australia, it is a push back against trade pressure from China ongoing since the row over an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Moreover, the supply of nuclear-powered submarines in the next decade will shore up Australia’s military capabilities, bolstering its ability to deter potential Chinese aggression in the region. For the US, the pact will help downplay talk of a loss of trust among its allies following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. It also brings its commitments to face up to China to a higher level. For Britain, this partnership adds credibility to the post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ narrative and adds substance to its Indo-Pacific tilt, already embraced with the foreign and defence policy review and the application to join the CPTPP earlier this year.


In sum, the AUKUS partnership is big news for the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region. It brings deterrence against China to another level and continues the trend of multilateralisation of alliances with the US which in turn solidifies US credibility and ties in the area. However, the row with the EU, and particularly with France, is a major drawback of the agreement that must be addressed to avoid long-lasting damages to the transatlantic relationship, already strained after the Trump era and the Afghanistan fallout. It should not be forgotten that France is also an important player in the Indo-Pacific, and a major split between the AUKUS members and Paris can only be counter-productive.