This week’s surprise unveiling of AUKUS — a stepped-up security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — shows that democracies are getting more serious about deterring China’s bid for dominance in the Pacific and beyond.
During a joint announcement on Wednesday, leaders of the three countries said AUKUS’s first mission will be to help Australia gain a nuclear-propulsion submarine (it will not be armed with nuclear weapons). This “will be one of the most complex and technically demanding projects in the world, lasting for decades and requiring the most advanced technology,” British prime minister Boris Johnson promised. His country, which gained the technology from the U.S. decades ago, will work with Washington to provide assistance for the project; Washington will also transfer Tomahawk missiles, hypersonic weapons, and precision-strike missiles to the Australian Defense Force.
No one mentioned China, but the rationale for this new partnership, which complements existing alliances, such as the Quad (which includes the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India) and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), is obvious. Intensifying Chinese pressure on Australia has put the country on the frontlines of the fight against the Chinese Communist Party’s bid for dominance.
Canberra’s possession of nuclear submarines would be a game-changer in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan or other U.S. allies. Simply put, nuclear propulsion is key to conducting lengthy operations far from Australian shores — it’s the best, most advanced option for a country with Australia’s defense needs.
Intentionally or not, the event coincided with the White House’s announcement of the first-ever, in-person gathering of the Quad leaders and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting with his Lithuanian counterpart, in which he expressed support as the Baltic state contends with its own, similar Chinese bullying campaign.
China got the message. Its foreign ministry called AUKUS “extremely irresponsible” and said that it “aggravated the arms race and hurt international nonproliferation.” To the contrary, China’s attempts to punish Australia with tariffs for daring to enact stronger foreign-interference laws, joining the Quad, and questioning the Chinese line on COVID’s origins are what turned AUKUS from a nice idea to a strategic necessity.
Still, little about AUKUS is final, and there are plenty of road bumps ahead.
The three countries will now enter an 18-month “consultation period” in which they game out the best way to produce these Australian subs. Already, Australian defense planners are warning the Morrison government against repeating the mistakes of a multimillion-dollar contract with a French company to construct twelve attack-class diesel submarines.
Security concerns, huge cost overruns, and delays put that contract, which was signed in 2016, on shaky ground; AUKUS merely provided an excuse for Australia to ditch the deal.
Meanwhile, France, which was left out of the AUKUS group, sounds almost as unhappy as China. Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian took to the airwaves in the hours after Wednesday’s press statements to rip Australia’s withdrawal from the deal and America’s support of the move, calling it a “stab in the back” reminiscent of the Trump era. “I am angry and bitter,” he said. “This isn’t done between allies.” A New York Times push alert blared, BREAKING NEWS, announcing that France had canceled a gala to mark 240 years of the U.S.–France alliance.
It is puzzling that President Biden — who has made catering to Western European partners such a significant focus, often to the detriment of U.S. interests — only seems to have given the French a few hours’ notice before pulling the plug on the Australian sub deal. Le Drian and other European officials hinted that the episode harmed recent European efforts to bolster counter-China efforts in the Indo-Pacific.
But the transatlantic alliance has seen tougher days, and placating Paris over the failed sub program would have come at the cost of failing to adequately boost Australia against the threat from China. It might also be worth remembering that France’s President Macron was one of those European leaders pushing for a major EU trade deal with China last year (a stab in the front, perhaps?).
That London and Washington were at loggerheads just a few weeks ago over Biden’s disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal suggests that any damage done to U.S. efforts to get France to contribute to Indo-Pacific security is hardly permanent. Nevertheless, some overtures to play to France’s amour propre are called for, not least because France itself maintains a presence in the Pacific, and, in the face of a different challenge than that presented by Beijing, has been fighting hard against Islamist terror in the Sahel. French forces were also in Afghanistan, and France remains one of NATO’s three nuclear powers.
If AUKUS speaks of stepped-up allied efforts, China’s announcement on Thursday that it is applying to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows that Beijing is also playing the long game. AUKUS will have to be just a start.