PacNet #30 – Australia’s election: Quad continuity and climate alignment, with nuclear disagreements

Sworn-in as Australia’s new prime minister, within hours Anthony Albanese was flying to Japan for the summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”).

An accident of timing—the May 24 summit following Australia’s May 21 election—offered the leader of the Australian Labor Party plenty of flying-start symbolism.

Departing Canberra for Tokyo, Albanese said the “message to the world” was that Australia had a new government that would lift policy on climate change, while emphasizing foreign policy continuity and the value of “friendships and long-time alliances.”

The Quad

Labor’s attitude to the Quad today (version 2.0) differs markedly from its rejection of the first version of the Quad.

Back in 2008, the Rudd Labor government walked away from Quad 1.0 because ties with Japan or India could endanger its relationship with China, as Kevin Rudd argued: “Australia would run the risk of being left high and dry as a result of future foreign policy departures in Tokyo or Delhi.”

Labor has gone from negative to positive about the Quad, reflecting the shift from positive to negative in Australia’s view of China. When Quad 2.0 was created in 2017, Labor matched the Liberal-National Coalition government’s enthusiasm for the reborn grouping.

Albanese, a minister in the government that sank Quad 1.0, told the Tokyo summit that his government’s priorities aligned with the Quad agenda: “I acknowledge all that the Quad has achieved. Standing together for a free, open, and resilient Indo-Pacific region. And working together to tackle the biggest challenges of our time, including climate change and the security of our region. My government is committed to working with your countries and we are committed to the Quad.”

AUKUS

Labor’s policy states that it will aim at “maximi[zing] the potential of the important, bipartisan AUKUS agreement.” The language is a nod to the greatest defence achievement of the outgoing prime minister, Scott Morrison—the deal with the US and UK to build an Australian nuclear-powered submarine.

A Canberra jest is that while China was stunned by AUKUS, the most amazed people were in the US Navy. The US Navy line had always been that Australia should not bother asking for a nuclear sub, because the answer would be an emphatic refusal. As China sparked the rebirth of the Quad, so Beijing helped Washington change its mind about sharing submarine technology.

The Biden administration insisted it would go ahead with AUKUS only if Labor gave it solid backing. But Morrison waited four-and-a-half months before informing Labor. During the campaign, Albanese condemned Morrison for seeking political advantage by telling Labor about AUKUS the day before it was announced.

“It is extraordinary that the prime minister broke that faith and trust with our most important ally by not briefing Australian Labor on these issues,” Albanese said.

Morrison replied that he’d maintained full secrecy and did not want to give Labor the chance to leak details of the negotiations.

Now, Labor’s job is to make AUKUS work.

Changed China

Changes in China, and in Australian views toward China, have done their part to ensure bipartisan continuity on the Quad and AUKUS. A shared Labor-Liberal line throughout the campaign, with a three-word expression, was to blame Beijing for the problems in the bilateral relationship: “China has changed.”

The diplomatic icy age is five years old. China has been doing the trade squeeze on Australia for two years. China’s ministers will not take phone calls from Australian ministers, nor respond to ministerial letters.

As he headed for Tokyo, Albanese commented: “The relationship with China will remain a difficult one. … It is China that has changed, not Australia. And Australia should always stand up for our values. And we will in a government that I lead.”

Beijing could use the new government in Canberra as the opportunity for a reset, linking it to the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in December. First, though, China must reverse the billions of dollars of thinly disguised political trade bans imposed on Australian exports, or as Labor’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong puts it: “Desist from its coercive economic positions.”

The first step from Beijing was a message of congratulations to Albanese from Premier Li Keqiang saying, “The Chinese side is ready to work with the Australian side to review the past, look into the future and uphold the principle of mutual respect and mutual benefit, so as to promote the sound and steady growth of their comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Australia chooses the United States

A Canberra refrain of earlier decades was that Australia didn’t have to choose between China and the US.

No longer. Australia has chosen because of what China has become.

In the election foreign policy debate at the National Press Club, Wong said the no-choice duality was the way John Howard’s government (1996-2007) could balance the principal strategic relationship with the US and the principal economic relationship with China. That no-choice balance was gone, Wong stated: “Clearly, the way in which economic power is being utilized for strategic purposes means that duality, as a model of engagement, is no longer the case. I would make this point, though—we have actually already chosen. We have an alliance that’s over 70 years old, between us and the US, an alliance with deep bipartisan support. So we have already chosen.”

Wong used Madeleine Albright’s phrase, saying the US remained the “indispensible partner” in the reshaping of the region, while Australia must do much more with partners in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

The “we’ve chosen” message from Wong is an echo and an answer to a set of question that nagged at Washington in the first decade of this century: How far would Australia lean towards China?

The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, says Australia’s response to China’s coercion had resolved US doubts about Canberra: “Frankly, if you’d asked me 10 years ago what country was most likely to start thinking about ‘we have to have a different kind of relationship with China and maybe think differently about the United States,’ it might have been Australia. I think that is completely gone now.”

Banning nuclear weapons

Labor has promised to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. For Albanese, this is both policy commitment and personal belief. At Labor’s national conference in 2018, Albanese moved the motion to make the treaty party policy.

He recounted how one of his mentors on Labor’s left wing, Tom Uren, had been a prisoner of war on an island close to Nagasaki, and “saw there the second atomic bomb with his own eyes. He came back, having fought for Australia, a fighter for peace and disarmament.”

Albanese said the nuclear ban should be core business for Labor, and is following Labor tradition, campaigning against nuclear weapons while holding tight to the extended deterrence offered by the US alliance, as outlined by the Keating Labor government’s 1994 Defence White Paper:

“The Government does not accept nuclear deterrence as a permanent condition. It is an interim measure until a total ban on nuclear weapons, accompanied by substantial verification provisions, can be achieved. In this interim period, although it is hard to envisage the circumstances in which Australia could be threatened by nuclear weapons, we cannot rule out that possibility. We will continue to rely on the extended deterrence of the US nuclear capability to deter any nuclear threat or attack on Australia. Consequently, we will continue to support the maintenance by the United States of a nuclear capability adequate to ensure that it can deter nuclear threats against allies like Australia.”

In his talks with US President Joe Biden, Albanese can promise that a Labor government will be much closer to the US position on climate change than the previous Liberal-National coalition government.

Instead, the new difference between the two allies will be over nuclear weapon­s.­

Bridging this difference looks an impossible quest. Managing it will involve Australia talking more openly about the extended deterrence bargain. Such a debate will build on what has been a long discussion of Australia’s calculations and commitments in hosting the key US signals intelligence base at Pine Gap.

In adopting the UN treaty, the Albanese government will draw on the alliance approaches used in earlier eras to deal with the United States’ neither-conform-nor-deny nuclear policy; the creation of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone treaty; and the lessons Canberra took when New Zealand crashed out of ANZUS alliance 36 years ago because of its anti-nuclear policy.

The 70-year history of the alliance gives plenty of guidance on using broad agreement to balance individual policy differences.

Graeme Dobell (graemedobell@aspi.org.au) is Journalist Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He has been reporting on Australian and international politics, foreign affairs and defense, and the Asia-Pacific since 1975.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #11 – Nuclear submarines for our Pacific allies: When to say yes

An earlier version of this article appeared in Real Clear Defense. 

On March 9, South Korea will elect a new president. One of the first things the new president will have to determine is whether or not to get Washington to support South Korea’s development and fueling of a nuclear submarine fleet. The progressive candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has publicly vowed to press the United States to cut a submarine technology transfer deal for South Korea similar to what Washington struck with Australia. In a recent interview, Mr. Lee noted, “It is absolutely necessary for us to have those subs.”

But is it? Mr. Lee’s key opponent, Yoon Suk-yeol, says no. He favors investing in military space and airborne surveillance systems instead. In fact, if South Korea is serious about neutralizing the naval threats it faces, it would do far better with a sound mix of advanced non-nuclear anti-submarine and anti-surface systems than with nuclear submarines.

A detailed study, which The Naval War College Review just published, spells out why. Commissioned by my center and authored by James Campbell Jr., of Naval Sea System Command, “Seoul’s Misguided Desire for Nuclear Submarines” details how poorly nuclear submarines would perform in the relatively closed East China, Yellow, and East Seas, which border Korea. His conclusion: The best way to track and contain North Korean naval threats and help the United States and Japan monitor the First Island Chain (the islands connecting Russia, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines) is not with nuclear submarines. Nuclear submarines are vastly more expensive and far less effective than a proper mix of advanced non-nuclear naval systems for these particular missions.

Such systems include upgrading South Korea’s air-independent propulsion submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, and naval surface combatants; upgrading, sharing, and analyzing acoustic and non-acoustic anti-submarine sensor information with Washington and Seoul; and investing in new anti-submarine technologies. The latter include airborne and underwater drones, wave runners, artificial intelligence-enhanced anti-submarine systems and the like.

As for South Korea using nuclear submarines to launch conventional missile “second strikes”—yet another argument some South Korean naval advocates make for “going nuclear”—using these boats for this mission compares poorly against using air and mobile ground-launched missile systems. These are far more survivable, can fire many more rounds, and cost far less per flight. Finally, if Seoul is eager to secure a blue-water navy, then developing advanced surface combatants, including small aircraft carriers, is more cost effective and avoids compounding the growing challenge of identifying nuclear submarine friends and foes in the open Western Pacific.

Sensible for Seoul, this set of recommendation is also sound for Tokyo. From bases in Japan, super-quiet, advanced conventional submarines and other select non-nuclear systems can monitor and contain Chinese and North Korean naval threats within the First Island Chain far better than nuclear submarines.

What, then, about Australia? Located thousands of miles from China’s coast, Canberra requires naval platforms that can quickly travel significant distances and stay on station for extended periods. For this purpose, nuclear submarines make sense. In short, it’s different.

Why belabor these points? First, if Washington wants Seoul and Tokyo to make military investments that are leveraged to deter North Korea and China, preventing South Korea and Japan from wasting billions of dollars on nuclear submarine cooperation is essential. This, in turn, requires making a no-nonsense distinction between Australia’s naval requirements and those of Seoul and Tokyo.

Second, green lighting South Korea on nuclear submarines risks spreading the bomb. Nuclear submarines require enriched uranium fuel. Seoul, which attempted to build nuclear weapons in the 1970s, has been asking Washington to allow it to enrich uranium now for nearly a decade. So far, Washington has said no. Why? Even if Seoul promised to enrich uranium ever so slightly, it could flip any enrichment plant it ran to make weapons-grade uranium in a matter of days. Bottom line: If Seoul pursued its own nuclear naval program, it would alarm Japan (a historical antagonist that also has pondered going nuclear) and disrupt alliance relations with Washington, Seoul’s nuclear guarantor.

What’s to be done? It would help if Seoul weren’t the only one being asked to restrain its nuclear aspirations. In this regard, my center has proposed having Australia commit to a moratorium on enriching uranium tied to its 30-year AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. It also has recommended that the United States and Japan join South Korea in suspending their commercialization of fast reactors and the recycling of nuclear weapons explosive plutonium. This would help spotlight similar militarily worrisome plutonium production-related activities in China.

Finally, Washington should work with Europe to help Seoul and Tokyo tackle significant cutting-edge defense related projects of their own. For South Korea, this might be developing space surveillance systems. For Japan, it could be advanced communications, computing capabilities and cryptology to crack China’s great firewall.

Each of these steps would help. First, however, South Korea and Japan need to conclude that their acquisition of nuclear submarines would be, at best, a dangerous distraction.

Henry Sokolski (henry@npolicy.org) is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration.

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Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B Zingaro

PacNet #3 Abe was key to the Indo-Pacific’s evolution

This is a transitional moment for the Indo-Pacific. Regional governments are forging new security relationships—the Japan-Australia partnership is the leading edge, as various European governments jostle for inclusion—and new institutions are emerging—from AUKUS to the Quad in the security sphere and at the same time, economic configurations include CPTPP and RCEP.

How did we get here? There are several explanations. Realists insist that rising powers create instability, triggered either by their ambition or the hegemon’s insecurity. For others, the unraveling of the architecture of coexistence, in which China provided markets and the US provided security, was the problem. To my mind, there are still more basic explanations.

First, you need a threat, a source of instability big enough to motivate states to act. With all due respect to John Mearsheimer, China doesn’t fit the bill—at least, not until recently. China has been rising for decades and while that created concern, there wasn’t concerted action to balance against it until Xi Jinping took power. He inherited a powerhouse economy and a modernizing military and married them to ambition and vision—a Belt and Road Initiative that girdled the globe—to pursue the China dream. His ascension and his muscular foreign policy unnerved governments worldwide. If the dream belonged to the nation, it is Xi who acted to make it real: The elimination of rivals, the consolidation of power, and efforts to entrench himself in office make plain that he is a singular world-historical individual who drives decision making in Beijing.

That security threat has been magnified by perceived unreliability on the United States. It’s tempting to blame Donald Trump for this. He created considerable unease with his disdain for alliances, contempt for multilateralism, and narrowly defined view of US national interests, but concern predates his administration. The US refusal to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a strategic agreement masquerading as a trade deal that Washington was instrumental in negotiating, is the most glaring example, and that was President Obama’s fault. The failure to ensure that China honored the purported agreement to withdraw its forces from Scarborough Shoal was another blow to US credibility.

Trump’s mercurial and transactional approach to policy crystalized fears and left allies and partners wondering what might be next. While the worst predictions did not come true, the damage was done. Governments around the region know that even if Trump departed, Trumpism remains, and his foreign policy mindset could reassert itself in Washington even if he did not return to power.

More alarming, though, is a realization that a “mainstream,” traditionally minded president like Joe Biden can still unsettle the status quo. The withdrawal from Afghanistan rattled even those allies who approved of the decision but were alarmed by the incompetence of its execution and the lack of consultation. The persistence of Trump’s thinking about economic security, manifest most plainly in tariffs that remain in place against allies, is another source of concern. Other moves, such as the abrupt cancellation of the France-Australian submarine agreement and the substitution of a UK-US deal, reinforce a belief that Washington’s field of vision is narrowing and that allies and partners play increasingly bit roles.

A third factor that shaped the region’s evolution was the tenure of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. His was one of the most remarkable second acts in world politics. After a brutal failure during his first term as prime minister, he returned to the Kantei for a period of stability, energy, and creativity unrivaled in Japan’s modern history.

The fact that Abe stayed in office as long as he did—he claimed the record for the longest-serving PM in the country’s history—transformed perceptions of Japan. His determination to modernize the country’s national security bureaucracy and subsequent commitment to using that power and purpose to support a wobbling regional order yielded institutions—the CPTPP and the Quad, to name but two—pillars of the emerging architecture.

A fourth and final key factor is a conceptual framework, the Indo-Pacific. Abe championed this concept, but it deserves recognition on its own. While the idea of an Indo-Pacific strategic space had been employed by US Pacific Command combatant commanders from the late 1980s, Abe elevated that idea to a guiding principle in his 2007 speech to the Indian Parliament in which he spoke of “the confluence of two seas.” Obama’s “rebalance” incorporated the concept, but it didn’t assume prominence until the Trump administration adopted the framework in 2017.

The Indo-Pacific is a curious geographical space. China is physically in the middle, but it’s bracketed between two democratic powers. The inclusion of India as a geopolitical counterweight to China is one of the most obvious intentions of its proponents. More important, that Indo-Pacific frame is a predominately maritime domain and links the strategic space to the trade routes that run through its heart. In addition, the inclusion of the Indian Ocean invites European countries with an African presence to be engaged. These considerations expand the number of countries that can claim an interest in events within that region. It is thus an inherently inclusive framework, which allows more countries to participate in regional security affairs.

The key variable appears to have been Abe—which means that our current moment may well result from considerable luck. Abe was a break with history, and Japan appears to be resorting to kind. His successor was in office for just a year. His successor, Kishida Fumio, is popular, but he is a traditional Japanese politician who mediates among factions and plays down his own opinions. There is mounting evidence that the Japanese public is increasingly inward-focused, cautious, and risk-averse. It can be led, but Kishida will have to have vision, charisma, competence, and luck, especially given the challenging circumstances—COVID, China, and a distracted ally.

Still, trajectories have been set, and that will allow bureaucracies to follow through. Headwinds will grow, but there is enough momentum and energy to believe that a genuine regional security architecture will emerge.

Brad Glosserman (brad@pacforum.org) is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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PacNet #60 – AUKUS’ short- and long-term implications for Taiwan

More than a mere pact over submarines, the Australia-United Kingdom-United States trilateral (AUKUS) signifies the crossing of a strategic threshold by Washington and its partners, past robust competition and toward outright confrontation. This, naturally, has significant implications for Taiwan’s security.

By agreeing to afford Australia access to nuclear naval propulsion and other advanced strategic technologies—a first since the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958—AUKUS fortifies the US-led order to deter military challenges in the region. AUKUS, of course, has the Chinese Community Party (CCP) regime in mind. This strengthening of the defense relationship with Canberra, even at the expense of political fallout with Paris, signals to Beijing that Washington (and its partners) are preparing in case of conflict.

Taiwan is where such conflict looks likely, given the irredentist claims by China, the significance of its geography to major regional powers (e.g., the United States, or Japan), and its critical role in the global supply chain.

Nuclear-powered submarines (or SSNs, as the US Navy calls them) will give Australia the range, transit speed, and endurance to provide meaningful presence in the Taiwan Strait. Moreover, SSNs are one of the few assets able to penetrate and conduct sustained operations within China’s anti-access area-denial, particularly in combination with submarine-launched cruise missiles. The other long-range strike capabilities provisioned under AUKUS (Tomahawk cruise missiles for the Hobart-class destroyers, air-to-surface missiles for Royal Australian Air Force fighter aircraft, precision strike missiles, and US-Australian collaborative development of hypersonic missiles) will also strengthen Australia’s capacity to support US military operations in first-island-chain contingencies.

What’s more, AUKUS signals strengthened British security commitments to the Indo-Pacific, already demonstrated by the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group’s 28-week deployment to the region.

These contribute to enhancing the so-called “integrated deterrence” championed by the Biden administration, particularly Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Implications for Taiwan

Though heartened by AUKUS, Taipei remains cautious about its significance for its security.

If AUKUS partners are committed to deterring China from conquering Taiwan, the three governments must reassess their policy regarding defense cooperation with the island. For example, London still imposes strict restrictions on defense exports to Taipei. Canberra, for its part, has long forbidden direct contact between Taiwanese officials with Australian defense establishment outside of the military education system. Not surprisingly, then, Taipei is prudent in its expectations of any realignment of Canberra’s security cooperation posture, especially given Australia’s economic interdependence with China.

The United States has begun making headway towards enhancing Taiwan’s defense while managing tensions with China. One example appears to be quietly encouraging a select number of allies to loosen restrictions on security cooperation with Taipei, including defense technology, intelligence, and other exchanges. Similar policy realignment should be among priority considerations for AUKUS countries.

AUKUS countries, meanwhile, are unlikely to deploy additional military capabilities to change the power balance in the Taiwan Strait by 2027, when US-based sources say the threat of Chinese invasion is most severe. Current Australian power projection assets are limited to six Collins-class conventionally powered submarines, with the deployment of nuclear submarines still over a decade away. Also unclear is Britain’s willingness and ability to rapidly base and sustain substantive capabilities in the Indo-Pacific that would contribute to deterring and, if necessary, winning a major military conflict with China. AUKUS’ significance to Taiwan, therefore, is primarily over the long term.

Near-term options

AUKUS countries should advance an ambitious security cooperation agenda focused on a Taiwan Strait conflict scenario. At a strategic level, they should participate in joint war planning. At the operational level, they should consider a joint working group to ensure interoperability—including, most importantly, with Taiwan forces and C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) systems.

Between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, there should be discussions about assisting Taiwan with defense systems and/or related technology, which can help alleviate the severe arms embargo Beijing imposes on Taipei. AUKUS countries should also explore expanded participation through track-2 discussions on collective measures for countering gray-zone threats, improving regional interoperability, and enhancing intelligence sharing.

In the short-term, however, even before such measures are enacted, AUKUS signals to Taiwan that key countries are now willing to push back more seriously against Beijing’s rising military assertiveness. It suggests to Taipei that outside help is increasing, making its leaders more resolute in the fight for its own defense and survival, which is critical to strengthen deterrence against Chinese military adventurism.

Fu S. Mei (tdrfsm@aol.com) is Director at the Taiwan Security Analysis Center in Manhasset, New York.

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PacNet #59 – “JAUKUS” and the emerging clash of alliances in the Pacific

When the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) agreement was announced in September, Moscow’s initial response was gloating. In 2015 Paris had reneged on a deal to sell Russia two amphibious Mistral warships and now France itself has been let down by its close allies.

Quickly, however, emotional satisfaction gave way to cold geopolitical calculations, which had little to do with France. On the surface, the military-technological arrangement of the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia is of minor concern to Russia. AUKUS’ area of focus is the Indo-Pacific, whereas Russia’s most vital security interests and geopolitical ambitions are in Europe and the Middle East. In the Pacific, Russia’s strategic posture is defensive and status-quo-oriented.

That doesn’t mean Russia isn’t concerned. The Russian Pacific Fleet currently has only seven nuclear-powered submarines on active duty, and Australia is expected to receive eight submarines with American and British assistance. Still, no one expects that Russia will need to fight Australian subs, if only because their area of operation would likely be much closer to the South China Sea than the Sea of Okhotsk.

Everyone understands that AUKUS has China in its crosshairs. So, Moscow’s stance on AUKUS is first and foremost determined by Russia’s relationship with China. Mostly because they have a shared foe—the United States—Moscow and Beijing have been building up a “strategic partnership” since the late 1990s. The Russo-Chinese alignment, as it stands now, has all the features of a quasi-alliance, or entente.

There is little chance that Russia and the United States work out their differences in the foreseeable future, especially given the Ukraine issue. At the same time, a multi-faceted geopolitical and geo-economic rivalry between Beijing and Washington is intensifying. The Moscow-Beijing bond, then, will only get stronger. Russia expects Chinese support in its confrontation with NATO in Eastern Europe. As we will see, based on readouts of official talks and commentary from Chinese state media, Beijing seeks to enlist Moscow as an ally against US-led coalitions in the Indo-Pacific. This is why Moscow opposes AUKUS—and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia—even if these arrangements do not pose a direct challenge to Russian security.

Moscow has repeatedly expressed its disapproval of AUKUS, including at the highest level. In a recent public appearance, Vladimir Putin called it a “closed alliance” whose establishment “leads to more tensions” in “the Pacific zone.” During his videoconference with Xi Jinping on Dec. 15, both leaders denounced AUKUS, as well as the Quad. Putin has also expressed support for Beijing’s “legitimate position on Taiwan-related issues.” According to Xinhua’s account of the Putin-Xi conversation, Russia “will firmly oppose moves by any force to undermine China’s interests using Taiwan-related issues, and moves to form any type of ‘small groups’ in the Asia-Pacific region.” Reciprocating Putin’s understanding of Chinese strategic concerns in the Indo-Pacific, Xi “supported Russia’s demands” that NATO should stop expanding toward Russian borders.

Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov referred to AUKUS as a “bloc” and “destabilizing factor,” which may “usher in a new phase of struggle for dominance not only in the Asia-Pacific, but in other regions as well.” Gerasimov also emphasized AUKUS’ potential to proliferate nuclear technology. In another sign of Russian solidarity with China, the Russian envoy at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna joined his Chinese counterpart in labeling AUKUS a potential nonproliferation concern. (As an aside, Russia’s purism with respect to the nonproliferation dimension of AUKUS may smack of double standards. For decades, since the 1980s, the Soviet Union/Russia has been leasing nuclear-powered submarines to India and this collaboration program is still active.)

To counter AUKUS, Beijing may expect more from Moscow than rhetorical solidarity. With China bracing for a long-haul rivalry with the United States and its many allies and partners, Beijing will probably attempt to construct its own network of alliances, and Russia will be front and center. In military terms, Russia offers three benefits to China. First, Russia is the most significant external supplier of military technology for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), even as China is becoming increasingly capable of designing and producing most sophisticated weapons. Second, Russia can tie down US forces in the European theater, distracting Washington and weakening its capacity to respond to contingencies in the Western Pacific. Finally, Russia could support China in the Pacific strategic theater in the event of a confrontation, most probably over Taiwan.

It is perhaps only a question of time before a fourth nation, Japan, throws its weight behind AUKUS. De facto, it is already there, informally, and a formal linkage may be in the works, despite US officials’ claims to the contrary. Tokyo has consistently signaled that it would not stand aloof in a contingency over Taiwan, and it has been more vocal in recent months.

The emerging “JAUKUS” is primarily a naval partnership. If there is a war between China and JAUKUS countries, it will happen primarily at sea. This is where Russia’s assets in the North Pacific would come in handy, and there are signs that Beijing is beginning to see Russia as an important part of China’s response to the maritime threats coming from the JAUKUS coalition. Even just a month before AUKUS was announced, the Russian International Affairs Council published an article by Zhao Huasheng, a professor of Fudan University, in which he proposes to add a maritime dimension to the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. The article argues that “China and Russia are facing serious security threats from sea, some of which are from the same source. Maritime military cooperation between China and Russia can enhance their respective military defense capabilities and more effectively safeguard their security.”

Given the sensitivity of the subject, it is unlikely a senior Chinese scholar published this article without a nod from Beijing. In a Russian-Chinese expert roundtable in late October, which I attended, there were also calls from the Chinese side for arrangements consisting of states not happy with AUKUS and the Quad.

The maritime domain has been an increasingly important component in Russo-Chinese military cooperation. The most spectacular recent manifestation was a “joint patrol” by Russian and Chinese warships in the Pacific Ocean, in which they nearly circumnavigated Japan. Of note, the commanding ship of the joint flotilla was the Chinese newest destroyer Nanchang. Beijing’s Global Times said the Sino-Russian naval demonstration was “a warning to Japan as well as the US, which have been rallying allies to confront China and Russia, destabilizing the region.”

The North Pacific is the most logical theater to operationalize a Moscow-Beijing military axis. Russia and China have a direct presence in the region, where they maintain substantial military capabilities, which can complement each other. It is also in the North Pacific that Russia and China directly interact with a shared adversary—the United States and its junior ally Japan. Last June, Russia held massive military drills in its Far East and adjacent waters. The exercise simulated “a standoff of two coalitions of states,” even though the composition of antagonistic coalitions was not revealed.

Russia’s naval capabilities in the Pacific are limited, with the Russian Pacific Fleet being essentially a green-water navy. Still, Russia can provide a range of force multiplier functions to the Chinese in the event of a new Pacific War. For example, Chinese submarines can use Russia’s Pacific littoral zone, especially the Sea of Okhotsk, as a sanctuary. In recent years, Russia has been building its coastal defenses in the Pacific, paying special attention to the Kuril Islands that guard the entrance into the Sea of Okhotsk. The prospect of China getting basing rights on the Russian Pacific Coast, perhaps in Kamchatka, also no longer looks out of question. When a conflict over Taiwan erupts and the United States and Japan intervene militarily, China might rely on Russia to launch a counterattack against Alaska and the Japanese Islands.

One might ask about Russia’s motivation to get drawn into a Pacific war between China and JAUKUS, especially given that such a war could easily escalate? The simple answer is that Moscow has no choice. If the Ukraine crisis escalates and the West imposes massive sanctions on Russia, Moscow will turn to China for an economic lifeline. Chinese help is unlikely to come free of charge. In return, Russia might be asked to accommodate Beijing’s military requests in the Pacific.

North Korea is another strategic player in the North Pacific whose geo-economic dependence on China, along with its avowed anti-Americanism, makes it a suitable candidate for a Sino-centric alliance network.

Over the next few years, a “RUCNDPRK” partnership could become a counterbalance to JAUKUS.

Artyom Lukin (artlukin@mail.ru) is Deputy Director for Research at the Oriental Institute – School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University (Vladivostok, Russia).

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PacNet #58 – Why the UK was the Big Winner of AUKUS

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Diplomat.

The diplomatic and media spat has only now begun to die down since the announcement on Sept. 15 of the AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. While the agreement has been presented as allowing Australia access to sensitive US technology to acquire eight nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines, the agreement also involves cooperation in other sensitive areas. AUKUS meant the concomitant cancellation of Australia’s contract with the French Naval Group to build 12 conventionally-powered submarines.

For the United States, the strategic benefits of AUKUS are symbolically important, but otherwise modest. Upon celebrating the 70thanniversary of the ANZUS alliance with Australia and New Zealand, the United States extolled Australia as its historic partner, the only country that has been involved in every war—from the justified to the ill-considered—that Washington has fought since 1917.

Today, Australia is completely on the US side in its rivalry with China. Having a fellow member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement (dating from World War II) and, more recently, a member of the Quad as an even closer ally in the Indo-Pacific is a plus for Washington. More concretely, having an Australian submarine force of some eight vessels as an auxiliary fleet to the US Navy in the South China Sea makes good, if marginal, strategic sense for the Pentagon.

However, whether the perceived loss of autonomy and sovereignty is in Australia’s own interest is a cause of some debate Down Under. While supporting, in principle, the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS, the opposition Labor Party has criticized the government for the 10-year gap in submarine capacity that will result from waiting till 2040 for the first of the yet-to-be-designed vessels to arrive.

It is also unlikely that the submarines will be built in the United States for two reasons. On the one hand, as things stand today, the specialized US shipyards already have their order books full over the next decades producing vessels in much larger numbers—and in absolute priority—for the US Navy. On the other, Australian requirements would seem to be for a smaller hunter-killer submarine than those produced for the US Navy, and rather for something akin to the Royal Navy’s existing Astute-class submarine.

US manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin were already set to provide the weapons systems for the 12 Australian submarines commissioned under the aborted project with the French; they will now do so for the eight vessels planned under AUKUS. US companies will, however, more fully benefit from other aspects of AUKUS with the development and manufacture of high-technology weaponry. Still, these cooperative arrangements were already underway prior AUKUS. For example, the emblematically named Loyal Wingman unmanned aerial vehicle developed by a subsidiary of Boeing in Australia had its first flight in February of this year.

So, if in economic terms the United States is not the major beneficiary of AUKUS, this leaves the United Kingdom. Somewhat surprisingly the role and, above all, the economic interests of the United Kingdom in the pact have been left unexamined. Britain has not suffered from any of the diplomatic blowback that has occurred since Sept. 15. For example, while Paris recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, its ambassador in London remained in place. At the time this was interpreted as a subtle way of pooh-poohing the importance of the United Kingdom. Perhaps, also, given the parlous state of relations across the Channel as the unfortunate but predictable consequences of Brexit are worked through, it may have seemed unhelpful to add another area of contention.

Most commentators have essentially highlighted the symbolic value of AUKUS for London. At worst, this means reviving a kind of Anglosphere with echoes of Churchill and Roosevelt or even shades of a return of the British Empire in the Indo-Pacific. At best, it involves giving some substance to the post-Brexit trope of a Global Britain, returning as a major security actor in the region almost 60 years after the withdrawal from “east of Suez.” From this perspective, the timing is not inconsequential. The AUKUS announcement was made the day before the presentation by the president of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, to the European Parliament of a Franco-German-inspired major policy paper on the EU Strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

The timing of the announcement may have been prompted by London to eclipse any European foreign policy grandstanding. If so, it was quite effective: the EU Strategy went largely unreported. However, for Canberra it seems not to have been clever to offend a key European country while in negotiations for an EU-Australia free trade agreement.

Beyond the symbolism, and the post-Brexit one-upmanship, the importance of AUKUS for Britain lies elsewhere. A recent post from International Institute for Strategic Studies in London traces the genesis of AUKUS to a request made by the chief of the Royal Australian Navy to his British counterpart. This request is understandable: Historically the Australian submarine fleet has been dependent on expertise from the Royal Navy and several senior officers are from Britain. But other than questions of comradeship, for very rational reasons, the British seemed to have jumped on this opportunity. At a practical strategic level, AUKUS will enable Britain to have more permanent basing rights for its own nuclear-powered submarines in Australia. This would enable a more sustained naval presence in the Indo-Pacific rather than the fleeting deployment, as at the moment, of a naval group around the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Nevertheless, the most important benefit of AUKUS for Britain is for what former US President Dwight Eisenhower famously described as the military-industrial complex. A mere two days after AUKUS was announced, the British government awarded two contracts to BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce for initial design work on a new generation of nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines for the Royal Navy. It makes a great deal of industrial sense to share design costs with a reliable partner-client, i.e., Australia, especially as BAE Systems already has a significant presence there.

Given the issues of technical specifications and industrial capacity mentioned above it would appear that, by default at least, most of the production will occur in the United Kingdom. This would involve a lower level of local production in Adelaide compared to that under the contract with the French. Moreover, the yet-to-be designed class of submarines for Australia would enter service in the 2040s, the same timeframe as that mooted for the British subs. This is a decade after both the next generation of US nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines, as well as the initially planned entry into service of the conventionally powered submarines envisaged in Australia’s contract with the French. Thus, a major motivation for Britain is in the industrial logic of economies of scale. Such economies would benefit most of all the United Kingdom.

Beyond this understandable industrial logic, there are also electoral concerns that underpin the AUKUS announcement. In his short declaration on Sept. 15 with the US president and his Australian counterpart, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted on the jobs that would be created in his country. He somewhat heavy-handedly insisted these industrial jobs would be created in those poorer, pro-Brexit constituencies in northern England that swung to the conservatives in the 2019 elections, but which cannot be considered as permanent Tory territory.

As European middle powers and important arms manufacturers, France and Britain share a similar approach. While appealing to historic ties, such sales of weaponry are designed to tie the buyer into a degree of international partnership. The difference, however, is that France, unlike Britain, is a resident middle-power in the Indo-Pacific. The French territory of New Caledonia is Australia’s closest eastern neighbor, so in that sense France’s now much-damaged partnership with Australia also has a domestic dimension.

It is therefore not surprising that the loss of the submarine contract has engendered not merely recriminations, but a concerted reevaluation in the last two months of French—and even European—strategy in the Indo-Pacific, and the place of Australia within that framework. It remains to be seen whether Canberra’s decision to throw in its lot with the United States, to the detriment of damaging relations with other partners, is in the county’s national interest.

David Camroux (david.camroux@sciencespo.fr) is an honorary senior research fellow within the Centre for International Studies (CERI) at Sciences Po.

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PacNet #57 – Building on AUKUS to Forge a Pax Pacifica

An earlier version of this article appeared in Real Clear Defense. 

America’s offer to supply British and US nuclear submarine technology to Australia (AUKUS) became a political fact almost instantly. President Biden and prime ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison announced it. Yet, whatever its outcome, if it’s just limited to building subs, it’s unlikely to deter Beijing. To accomplish that and create a real Pax Pacifica, Washington will have to up its ante and forge additional strategic technology collaborations between Japan, South Korea, and Europe.

What will happen if Washington doesn’t? Seoul and Tokyo could go their own way. Having been rebuffed after asking Washington to help it build nuclear submarines in 2020, South Koreans now wonder why Washington just said yes to Australia. Assuming Seoul proceeds with its plans, though, it would squander billions on nuclear submarines unlikely to perform well in the closed and shallow seas that surround Korea. Worse, it would give Seoul a pretext to enrich uranium for its subs with plants that could also produce weapons-grade material for bombs. Japan would hardly stand for this. Count on it, and possibly others, developing additional nuclear weapons options, straining rather than strengthening America’s security ties in the region.

This, however, is hardly inevitable. Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, and Europe could create a Pax Pacifica by tightening the nuclear rules and collaborating on new, cutting-edge technological projects. The aim would be to get China to realize that any regional hot war it might threaten in the short run would only further catalyze a larger cool competition against it that it would likely lose.

How might the United States and its allies pull this off? One way, recently suggested by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, would be to amplify the Australian-UK-US deal’s nonnuclear features—its space cooperation, unmanned underwater warfare systems development, and advanced computing and missile collaboration—and open them up to the participation of Japan, South Korea, and others as appropriate.

Washington also could forge new collaborations. One might be an ROK-French-US (ROKFUS) initiative to build an enhanced space surveillance system that, among other things, could aim to eliminate the blind spots the moon’s brightness creates near it for our ground-based telescopes. France, the hips of the European Space Agency and NATO’s space command, should be interested. So should Seoul, which otherwise is poised to waste billions on unnecessary space launch systems and redundant navigational satellite constellations. Meanwhile, the project’s surveillance system could keep track of Chinese military and civil satellites, including those near the moon, threatening critical US and allied satellites in geostationary orbits.

Another useful project would be to have Germany, as the European Union’s lead, work with Japan and the United States on advanced computer and communications systems that could help could crack codes, secure communications, and open up closed internet systems. This deal (DEJPUS?) could exploit Japan’s, Europe’s and America’s considerable accomplishments in these fields, Japan’s and Germany’s current cooperation on advanced computing, and help assure US and European markets for the systems the undertaking might generate. This, after China’s rush to tap the European 5G market, would be no mean accomplishment. It also could help penetrate Beijing’s Great Firewall, which tracks and censors open communications in and outside China.

These additional initiatives could include additional participants. Their aim would be to reduce Japan’s and South Korea’s incentives to go their own way (or nuclear); encourage Europe’s democracies to engage more deeply with those of the Pacific; and create peaceful counters to Chinese economic, military, and diplomatic forms of intimidation.

Sound too good to ever be true? It may be. Certainly, there’s one question Chinese and Russian critics of AUKUS raise that could make all this stillborn:  Isn’t sharing nuclear submarine technology with Australia directly at odds with reining in nuclear risks? For many, the answer is yes. It ought to be just the opposite.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has publicly supported AUKUS so long as Australia keeps clear of enriching its own uranium. Scott Morison’s Australia’s Liberal Party, which enjoys a mere one-seat majority in Australia’s House, seems to be listening: Prime Minister Morison recently stated that Canberra does not intend to develop a civilian nuclear program. Even if it did, Australia has no need to enrich uranium or reprocess spent reactor fuels. As such, Australia could follow the UAE and Taiwan’s example by forswearing these activities in its nuclear cooperative agreement with the United States.

This could be done by amending the existing US-Australia nuclear cooperative agreement or 123, which currently prohibits the transfer of any controlled US nuclear technology for any military purpose. Agreeing legally to forgo enriching and reprocessing also has the advantage of short-circuiting nuclear proliferation critics at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference this coming January. Finally, it would help further restrain South Korea, which would like to enrich uranium and reprocess US-origin spent fuel but is prohibited from doing so by its current nuclear cooperative agreement with Washington.

As for concerns regarding highly enriched uranium, which would fuel the subs but could also help make nuclear weapons, both the US Los Angeles and the British Astute-class submarines use this fuel. Their reactor cores, however, do not require refueling for 33 years or more and cannot be serviced without cutting open the hulls. Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom should exploit this by announcing that either the United States or the UK will retain title to the fuel, so Australia will have no need to touch it.

Combine that with a legally binding pledge not to enrich or reprocess and additional American-European strategic technological collaboration with Japan and South Korea, and Washington could set the stage not only for less nuclear proliferation but a Pax Pacifica with real staying power.

Henry Sokolski (henry@npolicy.org) is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration.

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PacNet #54 – What AUKUS means for Malaysia’s technological future

When the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced their new trilateral security partnership, AUKUS, on Sept. 15, Malaysia’s prime minister released a statement expressing concern about its impact on stability in Southeast Asia. Malaysia’s minister of foreign affairs and minister of defense separately issued a statement in support of the prime minister’s position, underscoring the risks of a conventional and nuclear arms race, particularly in the South China Sea.

These statements are worth parsing out. At the outset, however, it is important to note that despite Malaysia’s reservations about AUKUS, the government has continued to welcome deeper relations with all three countries in the pact, bilaterally and through multilateral platforms such as the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA). What’s more, nuclear-powered submarines are only a piece of AUKUS. Of greater significance to Malaysia, and the rest of Southeast Asia, is the longer technological arc of AUKUS, which will reshape the regional strategic landscape.

The nuclear objection

Although uneasiness about AUKUS was downplayed as overhype or strategic naiveté, Putrajaya’s position is an assertion of Malaysia’s long-standing foreign policy. The underpinnings of AUKUS bring to bear Malaysia’s stance on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, non-alignment, as well as its management of the South China Sea dispute all at once.

Some may have interpreted Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s statement that AUKUS could trigger a regional nuclear arms race as misunderstanding the nature of the deal. AUKUS, of course, involves nuclear-powered—rather than nuclear-armed—submarines. However, AUKUS marks the first time a non-nuclear weapon state would receive nuclear-powered submarines and, therefore, this raises uncertainties about proliferation and international legal safeguards. These questions, although distant for now, remain deeply unsettling for Malaysia given its position vis-à-vis the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes. For example, Malaysia has tabled a United Nations resolution every year since the 1996 International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. The resolution underscores the ICJ’s call for nuclear disarmament “in all aspects under strict and effective international control.” Since AUKUS exploits a loophole in existing nuclear safeguards regimes, Malaysia believes that there is a risk that this will undermine the disarmament goal.

But even if Malaysia’s nonproliferation concerns with AUKUS may be misplaced, Putrajaya is not alone in fearing that it will trigger a conventional arms race among the major powers in Southeast Asia’s backyard—specifically, in the South China Sea. In looking at AUKUS, Indonesia’s foreign ministry, for instance, voiced “deep concern” over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region. Even Singapore and Vietnam, which are often described in the media as welcoming of AUKUS, gave carefully crafted responses that suggest they are cautious. Both states stress the importance of regional peace, stability, cooperation, and prosperity.

Partners and problems

Despite Malaysia’s apprehension of AUKUS, Putrajaya has continued to welcome closer bilateral and multilateral ties with Washington, London, and Canberra, including in the areas of security and defense. Only a month after AUKUS was announced, Malaysia’s Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein affirmed the country’s commitment to the 50-year-old FPDA, the overlap in FPDA and AUKUS partners notwithstanding. As part of the FPDA, Malaysia participated in a 10-day exercise, Bersama Gold 2021, involving 25 fighter jets, six support aircraft, six helicopters, 10 maritime ships, one submarine, and over 2,000 military personnel alongside Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom in the international waters of the South China Sea. Malaysia also hosted the FPDA’s anniversary celebration and the FPDA defense minister’s meeting following the exercise.

This proclivity to segment relationships based on issues and interests as well as the desire to preserve an expansive network of ties with competing major powers are a key element of Malaysia’s foreign policy approach. This is true with AUKUS countries, as it is with China. Despite sustained harassment by Chinese vessels around Malaysian waters, the Malaysia-China relationship remains warm and friendly. Putrajaya has sought to sequester its problems with Beijing in the South China Sea from the economic, political, and socio-cultural dimensions in the bilateral relationship. This separation of issues both between and within partnerships is a feature rather than a bug of Malaysia’s foreign relations. It does not, however, always work perfectly.

Technological pathways

Accordingly, to retain geopolitical space for itself in the middle of deepening fissures between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China on the other, Putrajaya will need to intensify its diplomatic engagement with all sides proactively rather than reactively. This will require looking at trends which now appear to coalesce around technology as well as the governance and regulatory frameworks that underpin it. AUKUS underscores this point.

Nuclear submarine technology for Australia is but a “first initiative” under AUKUS. In the pipeline is trilateral collaboration on cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, and undersea capabilities. While the subtext for these plans may be defense technology competition with China, there are converging opportunities for cooperation between Malaysia and the three AUKUS countries that could empower Putrajaya in shaping the regional tech landscape. The most accessible, benign, and functional entry point for tech cooperation is the digital economy. Much of this is already underway in Malaysia, with ongoing industry partnerships as well as capacity-building and training efforts to improve cyber security and the operationalization of AI in various economic sectors.

There is one practical way Malaysia can carve out strategic agency while helping chart the region’s tech-based future amid rival powers. The government could create either a coordinating ministerial or ambassadorial portfolio specific to the cross-cutting role of technology. This senior official would stitch together the country’s technology interests in trade and economy, national security, and foreign affairs, and register Malaysia’s perspectives on tech’s rules of the road—from ethics and norms to standards and laws—in bilateral, multilateral, and multi-stakeholder discussions. Although the National Cyber Security Agency of Malaysia currently functions as the lead coordinating agency on cyber security matters, a senior official representing the country’s cross-sectoral interests in broader emergent/emerging technologies could help streamline multi-faceted policies at the domestic level. Additionally, a single, senior point of contact could facilitate cooperation with AUKUS countries and others on new and unfolding technologies. In both substance and form, a coordinating minister or ambassador would recognize tech’s reach across agency silos and the importance of a whole-of-government approach in contributing to the evolving governance frameworks of technology.

Several countries outside of Southeast Asia already have representatives in similar roles that reflect the ubiquity of technology transcending a range of agendas in government, industry, and civil society. Malaysia could benefit from that model. A focused and active Malaysia, along with its ASEAN counterparts, offering thought leadership on tech governance would not only design the country’s digital future in a more comprehensive manner but also potentially help the region avoid the pitfalls of US-China decoupling.

Malaysia may not welcome AUKUS. But it should use it to shape rules of the road to ensure that Southeast Asia’s tech and strategic landscape remains inclusive rather than exclusive.

The author would like to thank the Asia Pacific Team from the Defence and Security Foresight Group (DSFG) for their support during the development of this piece. 

Elina Noor (ENoor@asiasociety.org) is Director, Political-Security Affairs and Deputy Director, Washington, D.C. Office at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

PacNet #51 – What AUKUS means for European security

The Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security pact is a European—not just French—issue. While the canceled contract with Australia was not about European submarines, and the strategic partnership with Australia was not with the European Union, EU leaders and heads of European states did more than sympathize with the French. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borellstated that EU member states consider AUKUS as “affecting the European Union as a whole.” Michael Roth, the German Secretary of State for European affairs, called it a “wake-up call for everyone in the EU” and German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass states the manner in which it was established was “irritating and disappointing, not only for France.”

Why are Europeans worried?

First, the way AUKUS was negotiated and announced led to a crisis of confidence across the Atlantic because it suggests that Europe is no longer the US priority. For Europeans the problem is less the loss of a contract than the way France was treated. If this is how the United States acts with France, which has the strongest military in the European Union and its second-largest economy, what would keep Washington from doing the same with any other European country? Furthermore, if AUKUS confirms that the Indo-Pacific is now the priority for the United States, it implies Europe is no longer the strategic partner it once was. Not only did it sideline France—which is at the forefront of Europe’s growing Indo-Pacific engagement—but it also did so on the very day the European Union released its own Indo-Pacific strategy.

Second, AUKUS directly impacts the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific, where the European Union has strategic interests and its own approach, as developed in its strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. AUKUS might complicate Europe’s deepening cooperation with Australia, and European countries could be tempted to limit engagement with the Indo-Pacific more generally. The timing is especially poor now: New Caledonia’s independence referendum is set for December and China favors independence to extend its influence in the South Pacific (a New Caledonia under Chinese influence could break the encirclement of China by isolating Australia, as demonstrated by Paul Charon and Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer).

One reason for the crisis might be the absence of political appointees in the Biden administration—no ambassadors in Europe, and Karen Donfried was only confirmed as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in late September—while the White House Indo-Pacific team is much more robust. The first tour of the secretaries of state and defense was in that region, the DoD’s priority is China, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) in the Indo-Pacific has been revived. Even Biden’s tour in Europe in June was remarkable in the way the communiqués of the G7, NATO, and EU-US Summit all mentioned China, paving the way for more awareness in Europe over this challenge.

Furthermore, Ukraine (a European, though not an EU, state) claimed to be “surprised” when the United States decided to permit the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was not a collective decision; the G7, EU, UN, and NATO secretary general called on the Americans to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to end evacuations, but the US response did not meet their expectations. Finally, the lifting of the travel ban (expected in November) was not announced until Sept. 20, despite high vaccination rates in Europe (while other countries with lower vaccination rates have not been subject to such a ban).

AUKUS is the last straw. It is a wake-up call for Europeans, a clear sign that they must do more to safeguard their strategic interests. The US commitment to Article 5 remains iron-clad, but Europeans might wonder what the US stance would be if a crisis emerged in Europe’s neighborhood, especially one that impacts Europe but not the United States. If the United States were to leave Iraq, what would the Europeans do, as the American armed forces ensure force protection? It is not surprising, then that there are debates over strategic autonomy.

What is the way forward?

First, Europe does not have a shared strategic vision. To form one will require some collective imagination: as Carnegie Europe’s Judy Dempsey put it, “strategic autonomy is meaningless” if Europe does not “collectively suppose strategically.” The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was a significant step in enhancing a shared vision, and it will inform the future strategic compass (to be released in March 2022 under the French EU presidency). The European Union should agree on the key challenges ahead, and new EU special envoy to the Indo-Pacific Gabriele Visentin will be essential to foster consensus.

European states differ in their views of China, which the European Union has labelled a “systemic rival,” “economic competitor,” but also a “negotiating partner.” It will not be easy to adopt a new EU strategy on China, but the recent report from the European parliament is a first contribution. It calls for engaging Beijing on matters of global concern—climate, health, and nuclear disarmament—but also defending core European values and interests, including engaging China in a human rights dialogue. It says no comprehensive agreement on investment can be reached while China sanctions European members of parliament and institutions—themselves a response to EU sanctions on individuals believed to be responsible for repression in Xinjiang—and even suggests an EU investment agreement with Taiwan.

Second, Europe must demonstrate that it is ready to be the global actor the European Union wants to be. This comes with a price, financial (increasing investments in defense spending or developing critical capabilities) and political. The endorsement of the EU strategy on the Indo-Pacific by the heads of states in October is significant in this regard. Implementing the strategy, including its security item (increasing naval deployments and port calls, for instance) will demonstrate to regional actors and the United States that Europe is a key Indo-Pacific actor, offering a unique approach it can implement.

Third, the European Union must engage in an open-eyed discussion with the United States on European security (not limited to European territory). Organizing the focused dialogue on security and defense (with an agenda item on the Indo-Pacific) as promised during the EU-US summit last June would be a welcome initiative. High-level consultations on the Indo-Pacific later this year, which were announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and HRVP Borell, would also give the United States an opportunity to encourage Europeans to step up. NATO will remain the cornerstone of European collective defense, but the United States has much to gain from a more credible, stronger European defense, as acknowledged by Biden in the joint communiqué with French President Emmanuel Macron. Significantly, the communique states that the United States “recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.”

Fourth, regaining trust with Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States is vital for further cooperation. How it happens will be critical. Opening avenues for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, between the European Union and the Quad (as considered in the EU strategy) would be a positive step. The fruitful meeting on Oct. 29 paves the way for France and the United States to restore this trust. This positive dynamic is yet to be found with Australia and the United Kingdom.

AUKUS will have lasting effects on European security. It revealed how much the strategic environment had changed and how the European Union’s critical security partners intend to play in it. Europeans must step up, not only to secure its own strategic interests, but also to participate in renewing a more balanced and more effective transatlantic relationship, including in the Indo-Pacific.

Marie Jourdain (MJourdain@AtlanticCouncil.org) is a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. She worked for the Ministry of Defense’s Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy in Paris.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #50 – Fold, call, or raise? China’s potential reactions to AUKUS

Over a month has passed since the announcement of the defense cooperation agreement among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS). While the deal includes cooperation in a variety of areas, the most eye-catching aspect of the cooperation is the sale of nuclear-powered submarines, a crown jewel of US military technology, to Australia. Although AUKUS does not mention China directly, it is well-understood that China motivated the formation of this partnership. Given the scope of AUKUS and its relatively long implementation timeframe, there are four ways to analyze Chinese reactions: threat assessment, nuclear nonproliferation, potential responses, and the regional arms race.

The threat assessment

The Chinese worry about Australia obtaining nuclear-powered submarines, but do not consider the threat urgent. They are concerned by the impact such submarines could introduce to China’s maritime domains, especially in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Beijing, therefore, has focused on the deal’s geopolitical impact and attacked AUKUS, arguing that it is the product of a “Cold War mentality” among Canberra, London, and Washington and that it will undermine regional security and stability. Some have equated AUKUS with an “Asian version of NATO,” with the potential to expand to include other like-minded countries.

Despite the severity of the challenge, there is also an impulse in Beijing to “wait and see” as to its real impact, as the details remain elusive and consultations will take time. The Chinese are not yet clear whether the submarines will be built, or whether they will come from retired US fleet. In addition, Beijing believes that AUKUS might be scrapped by future political transitions in the Australian government, especially considering its high financial and strategic costs. The fact that three former Australian prime ministers have expressed varying reactions to AUKUS leaves China with a sense of hope that this may not be a done deal.

Impact on proliferation

The most stringent Chinese attacks on AUKUS have focused on its implications for nonproliferation. The Chinese Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Vienna made a statement on Sept. 16 on the deal’s “undisguised nuclear proliferation activities.” He called for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to publicly condemn AUKUS, which, he claimed, demonstrates the “double standard” the United States and United Kingdom pursue in nuclear exports. According to a prominent Chinese arms control expert, director of the Arms Control Center at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) Guo Xiaobing, AUKUS violates the mission and core obligations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in five different ways:

  • It contributes to the proliferation of a delivery system for weapons of mass destruction.
  • It contributes to the proliferation of fissile materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
  • It has the potential to lead to the proliferation of uranium enrichment technologies.
  • It undermines the NPT because it sets a bad precedent.
  • It could fuel a regional arms race.

To be sure, AUKUS does not violate the NPT. In the IAEA Safeguard Glossary (2001 Edition), section 2.14, on the use of nuclear material in a non-proscribed military activity which does not require the application of IAEA safeguards, it is stipulated that “[n]uclear material covered by a comprehensive safeguards agreement may be withdrawn from IAEA safeguards should the State decide to use it for such purposes, e.g. for the propulsion of naval vessels” (emphasis added). This, in other words, excludes nuclear-powered submarines from IAEA safeguarding requirements. As such, then, China’s attack on AUKUS is that it violates the spirit of the NPT, but not its letter.

Potential responses

Given the impact of AUKUS is not immediate, Chinese reactions will take time to manifest. At present, China appears to prioritize understanding the scope and details of AUKUS and attacking its legitimacy for geopolitical and nonproliferation reasons. Still, in retaliation, some have proposed additional economic sanctions on Australia through trade. Hu Xijin, chief editor at Global Times called for “no mercy” to Australia if Canberra dares to “assume it has acquired the ability to intimidate China now that it has nuclear submarines and strike missies.” He has also proposed that China should “kill the chicken to scare the monkey” if Australia takes any aggressive military moves. In the event of perceived attacks from Australia, this could mean that China will retaliate militarily.

The most important challenge for China

For Chinese strategic thinkers, the real danger and core challenge of AUKUS (and the United States’ overall coalition-building in the region) lies in the intensification of the arms race in the Indo-Pacific. Although Beijing considers that the goal of its military buildup is to offset, or undermine US military dominance in the region, rather than targeting any regional countries, Chinese officials seem to be coming to the painful realization that their military modernization has led regional players to seek new (or more) weapons. Plainly, Beijing is realizing that its actions have contributed to a regional arms race. What’s more troubling for China is that this arms race is between China on one side and the United States and its allies and partners on the other. Beijing, then, must counter multiple countries at the same time.

Equally upsetting for China is that this arms race is created, fueled, and supplied by the United States. Starting with nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, China believes that the United States will receive—and deliver on—rising demands from allies and partners in the region for newer and more advanced weapon systems, even if they are not nuclear-powered submarines; South Korea, for one, has made this request for a decade.

Beijing must decide if it should “fold,” “call,” or “raise.” “Calling” or to “raising” vividly reminds China of the fall of the Soviet Union, and how Moscow exhausted its resources in its arms race with the United States. “Folding” does not appear to be an option—Beijing is unlikely to give up its regional ambitions. Beijing could call for arms control dialogues, but that will require compromises, and it is unclear that there is an appetite for this in China at the moment. Still, AUKUS might force China to make tough decisions.

Yun Sun (ysun@stimson.org) is a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the East Asia Program and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

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