PacNet #63 – AUKUS: Stepping boldly into space

Our information-based societies are inseparable from space technology, and space is an increasingly “contested, congested, and competitive” domain. With over 5,000 operational satellites in orbit and tens of thousands more to launch over the coming decades, reliance on space will only increase, as will its importance as a domain for strategic competition. Space-based assets provide services essential for telecommunications, weather and climate monitoring, agricultural management, the finance sector, natural disaster response and recovery, and more.

In recent years, governments and the commercial sector have awoken to the risk of space assets as a single point of failure, given that the degradation of access to space or the destruction of space-based assets would catastrophically affect civil, commercial, and national security sectors.

However, establishing a resilient and robust space industry ecosystem is an enormous, complex task requiring a significant degree of international collaboration on sensitive technologies—making AUKUS a prime medium for elevating such cooperation. The United States increasingly recognizes the need to support and scale international allies and their space capabilities as to deepen interoperable architectures and build resilient space systems.

Previously the sole preserve of a few governments, the space industry is now heavily dependent on commercial operators. SpaceX operates approximately one-half of all satellites in orbit, followed by OneWeb Satellites and Planet Labs. The proliferation of satellites and access to space is largely due to improvements led by the commercial launch sector over the past decade. In 2020, the global space industry’s value reached an estimated $424 billion, expanding 70% since 2010.

With space increasingly recognized as a strategically pivotal domain of critical technology, its future will mirror that of cyber: trending towards bifurcation in trade and research as globalization retreats. This will spur intensification of space competition, presenting risks for civil, commercial, and national security uses.

Though the United States remains the pre-eminent global space power, Russia and China have been designated as the greatest threats to America and its allies in space, as outlined in a recent Defense Intelligence Agency report. Their significant investment and focus on space follows a common objective to out-perform the United States and its allies and to exploit reliance on space-based systems. Russia and China’s combined operational space fleets have grown by approximately 70% between 2019 and 2021.

The Chinese government has a strategic approach that considers US dependence on space “its Achilles’ heel,” and is rapidly expanding its capabilities to exploit this. The Rosetta Stone for interpreting China’s ambitions for space is its approach to Antarctica and the South China Sea, where it previously professed a commitment to non-escalatory behavior while continuing to incrementally expand its presence and assert its claims. Ye Peijian, the chief commander of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, compares the moon and Mars to the Senkaku and Spratly Islands, adding that China must protect its “space rights and interests.”

Investment in new and emerging capabilities continues to grow in counterspace technologies.

The capabilities of Russia and China, in particular, are rapidly evolving. The most totemic counterspace weapon is a direct ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT), of which 16 tests have been conducted by four counties—the United States, China, Russia, and India. Yet it is investment in energy weapons beyond direct-ascent ASAT technologies by all major space players will define the future of counterspace technologies. These energy weapons include high-powered lasers and microwave weapons. Attacks from these weapons will be difficult to attribute as damage can be temporary or reversible. In the immediate term, however, use of cyber-attacks and radio frequency jammers targeting space infrastructure remains the most urgent military threat to space systems.

In-orbit collision is another risk that is difficult to mitigate. There is potential for a cascading series of orbital impacts—the Kessler effect—that could wreak havoc on all orbiting space assets and potentially render space inaccessible. Space weather can add to potential collision risks by rendering satellites uncontrollable. While the threat of radiation can be minimized, there is a limit to what can be done to protect from powerful geomagnetic storms that can either destroy or significantly harm the functionality of space-based assets.

Opportunity for AUKUS

The technology-centric trilateral AUKUS agreement could elevate space cooperation and build mutually beneficial space capabilities. One can already see space-related momentum in agreements on complementary technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and hypersonics. For the United Kingdom, space cooperation and improving interoperability via AUKUS would support its recent designation of space as part of its Critical National Infrastructure. The 2022 UK Defense Space Strategy underscored Britain’s desire to be “at the heart of Allied space efforts.” The United States would profit from shared uplift in capabilities of the United Kingdom and Australia, which could for example become capable of reconstituting mutually beneficial space-based assets in the event of a crisis. This includes global navigation satellite systems that provide vital position, navigation, and timing services used for all forms of transportation, the finance industry, agriculture, emergency management and more. Additionally, via AUKUS, these partners can investigate opportunities to improve and streamline space “innovation cycles and co-development processes” for building mutually reinforcing capabilities in times of crises. These could include common satellite technologies.

Through AUKUS, they may take steps to boost space resilience against military or natural crises by ensuring that the countries maintain minimum viable capabilities across key elements of the space industry supply chain. This could include focusing on elements required to reconstitute vital space-based assets, as well as systems for disaggregating and complementing existing capabilities. This process should include AUKUS governments working together to incorporate new and emerging technology firms into the space industry supply chain.

The completion of the Australia-US Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA) negotiations would help deepen cooperation. Using the recently completed UK-US TSA as a model, this agreement would enable US companies to operate from Australian spaceports and help pave the way to exporting space launch technology to Australia. It would ensure that US spaceflight technology is properly protected when operating in either the United Kingdom or Australia via a legally binding framework. The lack of a TSA between Australia and the United States is a significant barrier to further commercial activity across civil, commercial, and national security space sectors. Under the AUKUS banner, a TSA could be singled out for fast-tracking and would see both Australia and the United Kingdom able to more deeply engage world-leading US companies and their technologies.

Promoting the development of spaceports and mutual access via the AUKUS framework will improve both access to space and resilience building. Australia is well-positioned for launch activities by leveraging its geographic advantages and regional accessibility. All three countries will need access to capable launch vehicles. The Australian Department of Defense’s new Space Strategy notes that “Defence anticipates it will need access to a responsive and assured space launch capability in the future.” The UK Defence Space Strategy, also released this year, underscores the importance of launch. Both Australia and the United Kingdom continue to support development and operation of a number of spaceports, as well as a number of companies seeking to develop launch vehicles.

The United States and United Kingdom maintain globally leading satellite manufacturing capabilities. However, all three countries should ensure the ability to support higher rates of commercialization in the burgeoning small satellite manufacturing industry, particularly as rapidly emerging capabilities and advanced technologies can quickly change the satellite-manufacturing ecosystem. For Australia, targeted investment in the ability to manufacture small satellite constellations would meet local demand while servicing an expanding segment of the global space industry. As noted earlier, commercial firms are the largest operators of satellites, but planned satellite constellations and fillings booming into the tens of thousands will increasingly strain launch infrastructure and supply chains. Recognizing this, the Australian government has moved to fund the creation of space-focused collaborative manufacturing hubs.

These recommendations, however, represent only some of the many potential areas for greater cooperation through AUKUS. For example, as we become further dependent on space technologies, significant investment in ground segment would be integral to bolstering resilience. Similarly, emerging capabilities in optical communications can change the space industry landscape.

The AUKUS partnership can minimize the impact of a crisis, from conflict to natural disaster, on space infrastructure. By expanding complementary low-earth orbit small satellite constellations; streamlining mutual access to launch facilities; and bolstering each other’s domestic space manufacturing capabilities, the AUKUS partners could strengthen the resilience of their space-dependent societies. Better coordination of trilateral investment in new and emerging space-related technologies can support these initiatives.

Philip Citowicki (citowicki@gmail.com) is a Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum and an Australian foreign policy commentator.

This is an abridged publication from Triple Constellation: AUKUS in Space by Philip Citowicki for the Australian National University National Security College.

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

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR6 – AUKUS A Look Back at The First Analyses

Introduction
David Santoro and Rob York

Announced just over a year ago on Sept. 15, 2021, the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security partnership promised work on two interrelated lines of effort between the three allies. One entailed providing Australia with a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability. The other involved cooperation on developing and providing joint advanced military capabilities to promote security and stability in the region, including in cyber, artificial intelligence and autonomy, quantum technologies, undersea capabilities, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic systems, electronic warfare, and information sharing.

AUKUS sent shockwaves across the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Some praised the new partnership, explaining that it would tighten the US hub-and-spokes alliance system and stand as a powerful deterrent to China’s new assertiveness in the region. Others¾with the People’s Republic of China in the lead¾were much less enthusiastic, even outright critical, insisting that it would create unnecessary tensions, possibly leading to arms races or crises, and undermine nonproliferation norms and rules. France was also deeply upset because AUKUS immediately led to Australia’s cancellation of a French-Australian submarine deal, without notice.

In the days, weeks, and months that followed the AUKUS announcement, the Pacific Forum published, via its PacNet Commentary series, several preliminary analyses on the trilateral partnership, each reflecting a specific national perspective from throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond. One year later, and as implementation of the AUKUS partnership remains ongoing, we have compiled these analyses into a Pacific Forum Issues & Insights volume.

It is our hope that these publications will provide a basis for further study and additional recommendations.

Table of Contents

PacNet 41, 09/20/2021. After the shock: France, America, and the Indo-Pacific by Bruno Tertais

PacNet 44, 09/29/2021. How AUKUS advances Australia’s commitment to collective defense by Ashley Townshend

PacNet 46, 10/05/2021. After AUKUS, “present at the creation” in the 21st century by Brad Glosserman

PacNet 48, 10/19/2021. New Zealand and AUKUS: Affected without being included by Robert Ayson

PacNet 50, 10/26/2021. Fold, call, or raise? China’s potential reactions to AUKUS by Yun Sun

PacNet 51, 11/03/2021. What AUKUS means for European security by Marie Jourdain

PacNet 54, 11/22/2021. What AUKUS means for Malaysia’s technological future by Elina Noor

PacNet 57, 12/10/2021. Building on AUKUS to forge a PAX Pacifica by Henry Sokolski

PacNet 58, 12/14/2021. Why the UK was the big winner of AUKUS by David Camroux

PacNet 59, 12/21/2021. “JAUKUS” and the emerging clash of alliances in the Pacific by Artyom Lukin

PacNet 60, 12/28/2021. AUKUS’ short- and long-term implications for Taiwan by Fu Mei

PacNet 05, 01/21/2022. AUKUS’ opportunities and risks for Indi by Manpreet Sethi

PacNet 11, 02/24/2022. Nuclear submarines for our Pacific Allies: When to say yes by Henry Sokolski

PacNet #54 – Comparative Connections Summary: September 2022

Comparative Connections Summary:
May-August 2022

REGIONAL OVERVIEW

Washington “Pivots” to Asia

BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC   FORUM

The Biden administration has rediscovered Asia. And, for better or worse, so has the US Congress. While the administration’s national security documents (or at least their unclassified sneak previews) have identified the Indo-Pacific as a priority theater vital to US national security and China as “our most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge,” Europe continues to steal headlines and the lion’s share of the administration’s (and international media’s) attention, thanks to Vladimir Putin and his unwarranted (and so far unsuccessful) invasion of Ukraine. While many eyes remain on Putin’s war (and NATO’s US-led solid support for Kyiv), this reporting period saw President Biden finally make his first trip to Asia to visit longstanding US allies and attend the second in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) Summit. Prior to his trip, Biden hosted his first US-ASEAN Summit in Washington. Meanwhile Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were both in Southeast Asia, respectively for the Shangri-La Dialogue and for various ASEAN-driven ministerials. These administration trips were largely overshadowed, however, by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taiwan, the first by a House Speaker in 25 years, which was sure to—and clearly did—draw Beijing’s ire.

 

US-JAPAN RELATIONS

Abe’s Legacy and the Alliance Agenda

BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, YALE MACMILLAN CENTER

It was a busy summer for the United States and Japan. President Joe Biden visited Asia, stopping first in Seoul to meet new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and then spending two days in Tokyo for a bilateral summit with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and a follow-on meeting with the two other leaders of the Quad, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese. Biden announced his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Tokyo with Kishida by his side. Economic security legislation in both Japan and the United States revealed the unfolding strategic calculations for the alliance. National efforts to enhance economic productivity and resilience included efforts to ensure reliable supply chains for Japanese and US manufacturers as well as the desire for greater cooperation among the advanced industrial economies to dominate the next generation of technological innovation. State investment in attracting semiconductor suppliers to Japan and the United States demonstrate the urgency with which both governments seek to diminish reliance on critical technology imports.

 

US-CHINA RELATIONS

US-China Relations Sink Further Amid Another Taiwan Strait Crisis

BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US

Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan—the first visit by a speaker of the US House of Representatives in 25 years—was met by a strong response from China that included provocative military exercises, punitive economic measures against Taiwan, and the suspension and cancellation of a series of dialogues with the United States. Just prior to Pelosi’s visit, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping held their fifth virtual conversation since Biden’s inauguration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a comprehensive speech on the administration’s China strategy in late May. Biden officials debated whether to lift some of the tariffs imposed on China under the Trump administration, but as of the end of August, there was no decision to do so. Human rights remained on the US agenda, with statements issued on the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre and on the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC, and a ban imposed on imports into the US of products made by forced labor in Xinjiang. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

 

US-KOREA RELATIONS

Split Images

BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM

Lopsided: such was the state of US relations with the two Koreas during May-August 2022. The Washington-Seoul axis mostly flourished on the military/security, diplomatic, economic, and cultural fronts, while Washington and Pyongyang deepened doldrums whose depths had been plumbed in prior reporting periods. For the former, the most significant items included the May inauguration of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and quick follow-on summit with US President Joe Biden, increasing trilateral US-South Korea-Japan cooperation, a raft of announcements on US-South Korea economic and technology cooperation, the resumption of field maneuvers in US-South Korea joint military exercises, and South Korea’s continuing growth as a serious middle power player in foreign policy, including stepped-up engagement with NATO. In US-North Korea relations, a COVID-19 outbreak failed to lead the Kim Jung Un regime to open up to outside humanitarian assistance, as Pyongyang remained content to keep borders mostly closed and allow the virus to course through the population with only basic prophylactic measures. On the positive side, Pyongyang’s hyperactive missile testing in spring slowed during summer, and a feared (yet still expected) seventh nuclear test failed to materialize.

 

US-INDIA RELATIONS

Relations at 75: Hawaii to the Himalayas

BY AKHIL RAMESH, PACIFIC FORUM

Like the saying, “after the storm comes the calm,” US-India relations witnessed four months of productive talks, cooperation, and collaboration. This contrasted with the previous trimester, mired as it was by Cold-War era differences brought about by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. There were thriving Indo-Pacific synergies and the decline of Cold War-era differences. The US and India continued and expanded cooperation on a wide array of regional and global issues, such as climate change, supply chains, and the Sri Lankan crisis. They solidified their defense partnership from Hawaii to the Himalayas through navy and military exercises. The US turned down pressure on India over Russian oil purchases and recalibrated the dialogue to address other pressing challenges. They did not avoid tough conversations, however. India reinforced its view of the US and other Western nations’ role in keeping the Indo-Pacific a safer and more open region.

 

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

Washington Revs Up Diplomacy with Southeast Asia

BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY

The Biden administration’s diplomatic campaign in Southeast Asia kicked into high gear in the late spring and continued through the summer. On May 12-13 President Biden co-hosted, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as the 2022 ASEAN chair, the first-ever US-ASEAN Special Summit to be held in Washington, DC. US relations in the region were also boosted when the Biden administration launched the long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) on May 23; seven Southeast Asian countries indicated interest in joining, although few are likely to accede to all four pillars of the framework in the near-term. Two Cabinet officials made visits to two US treaty allies: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Thailand in June and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to the Philippines in August. Notwithstanding continuing differences over human rights, the visits served to reaffirm the bilateral alliances. However, global and regional tensions remained high, over the persistent crisis in Ukraine; brinksmanship in the Taiwan Straits; and the internal conflict in Myanmar which has only deteriorated further. These pressures only divided ASEAN further as the region looks ahead to a trifecta of international meetings—APEC, East Asia Summit, and the G20—in the fall.

 

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS

Countering US Initiatives, Taiwan Crisis Complications

BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE

Chinese enhanced activism in Southeast Asia in this reporting period focused on countering Biden administration efforts to enhance influence in the Indo-Pacific. The Chinese government intensified its depiction of the United States as disrupting regional order and portraying itself as the regional stabilizer. Beijing’s effort faced complications and uncertain prospects as Chinese military forces in August launched large-scale provocative shows of force amid strident media warnings targeting the United States over Taiwan.

 

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS

Pelosi’s “Ironclad Commitment” or “Political Stunt” Leads to Crisis and Promises Instability in the Taiwan Strait

BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

Between May 1 and Sept. 1, tensions between Taiwan and China exploded in ways few anticipated but were in retrospect the culmination of well-established dynamics. The US once again was right in the middle. On Aug. 2, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, which Taiwan’s government celebrated as the most important visit in at least 25 years by a US politician. She promised Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen that US support for Taiwan’s security would remain “ironclad.” On Aug. 4, the day after Pelosi departed Taiwan, China signaled its displeasure by conducting the most extensive military exercises ever conducted near Taiwan, closer to the island than any before, and launching ballistic missiles over Taiwan’s capital to land in waters east of the island. Throughout these exercises, the Chinese, Taiwan, and US militaries avoided any interactions that might have provoked confrontation. On Aug. 10, the Chinese military announced that the exercises had concluded, achieving their objectives, but that the military would continue its activities around Taiwan.

 

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS

An Inauspicious Start

BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK

On May 10 Yoon Suk Yeol took office as ROK president, and rapidly lost popularity. While talking tough on North Korea, he also offered aid to fight COVID-19—but was ignored. His “audacious plan,” wholly unoriginal, to reward Pyongyang materially if it denuclearizes, had very little detail. For months the DPRK did not even mention Yoon. In late July Kim Jong Un sharply warned him against any pre-emptive strike. In August, his sister Kim Yo Jong put the boot in: ludicrously blaming materials sent by ROK activists for bringing COVID-19 into the DPRK, savaging Yoon’s proposal as insulting and unoriginal, and saying the North will never talk to him. At home, meanwhile, the new government chose to reopen two contentious inter-Korean episodes from the recent past, seemingly to punish its predecessor’s policies. It was hard to see how good could come of that, or to hold out hope for any thaw on the peninsula.

 

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS

A Muted 30-Year Anniversary

BY SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY

Beijing and Seoul marked 30 years of diplomatic ties on Aug. 24 as South Korea transitioned to a new administration under President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May. Although early high-level exchanges reaffirmed partnership, the two leaderships confront growing pressures from US-China competition, economic uncertainty, and public hostility. Domestic priorities in China in light of the 20th Party Congress and South Korea’s shift to conservative rule amplify these concerns. The impact of US-China rivalry on the China-South Korea relationship extends from security to economic coordination, including approaches to THAAD and global supply chains, and export competition, especially in semiconductors, challenges new Xi Jinping-Yoon economic agreements. Moreover, public hostility is strongest among South Korea’s younger generation, raising pessimistic prospects for future China-South Korea ties. Despite mixed signals, false starts, and the continued absence of leader-level meetings marking the recovery of economic ties between China and North Korea, geopolitical developments have pushed the two countries closer together. Such engagement features mutual reinforcement of each other’s positions on issues of vital interest and solidarity in response to US policies.

 

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS

Few Positive Signs and Much Negativity

BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

The tone of China-Japan relations became more alarmist on both sides with long-anticipated plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations still clouded with uncertainty. Several related events were canceled or postponed sine die. Internationally, Prime Minister Kishida was exceptionally active, attending meetings of the Quad, the G7, NATO, and Shangri-La Dialogue, where he delivered the keynote address. A common theme was attention to a Free and Open Pacific (FOIP) and the need for stability in the region, both of which Beijing sees as intended to constrain China. At NATO, Kishida met with US and South Korean representatives for their first trilateral meeting in nearly five years and suggested the possibility of joint military exercises. Meanwhile, China continued pressure on Taiwan and the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Although Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jieqi were active internationally, Xi Jinping himself has not ventured outside the Chinese mainland since January 2020 save for a brief, tightly controlled visit to Hong Kong, which is unquestionably part of China.

 

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS

The Passing of Abe and Japan-Korea Relations

BY JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY & ANDY LIM, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

How might the passing of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo impact Tokyo’s approach to Seoul? This unexpected turn of events loomed large in the minds of many who have been cautiously optimistic that Japan and South Korea would take steps toward a breakthrough in their stalled relations. In our last issue, we discussed how this summer could provide good timing for Seoul and Tokyo to create momentum in this direction after Yoon Suk Yeol’s inauguration as president in South Korea and the Upper House election in Japan. However, the results from this summer were mixed. Seoul and Tokyo have not yet announced whether Yoon and Kishida will hold a summit any time soon. Both leaders ended the summer juggling domestic politics amid declining approval ratings. However, there were some meaningful exchanges between the two governments, signaling that both sides were interested in improving relations.

 

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS

Embracing a Longer and/or Wider Conflict?

BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY

Unlike in 1914, the “guns of the August” in 2022 played out at the two ends of the Eurasian continent. In Europe, the war was grinding largely to a stagnant line of active skirmishes in eastern and southern Ukraine. In the east, rising tension in US-China relations regarding Taiwan led to an unprecedented use of force around Taiwan. Alongside Moscow’s quick and strong support of China, Beijing carefully calibrated its strategic partnership with Russia with signals of symbolism and substance. Xi and Putin directly conversed only once (June 15). Bilateral trade and mil-mil ties, however, bounced back quickly thanks to, at least partially, the “Ukraine factor” and their respective delinking from the West. At the end of August, Mikhail Gorbachev’s death meant both much and yet so little for a world moving rapidly toward a “war with both Russia and China,” in the words of Henry Kissinger.

 

AUSTRALIA-US/EAST ASIA RELATIONS

Australia’s New Government: Climate, China and AUKUS

BY GRAEME DOBELL, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE

Australia has changed government and the political war over climate change draws to a close after raging for 15 years. The new Labor government led by Anthony Albanese promises continuity on foreign and defense policy, delivered with a different tone. In the government’s first 100 days, it chipped some ice from the frosty relationship with China. Ending a Beijing ban on meetings with Australian ministers that was in its third year, Chinese ministers had face-to-face talks with Australia’s foreign minister and defense minister. Albanese’s observation that dealing with China will continue to be difficult was demonstrated by a diplomatic duel in the South Pacific, as Canberra pushed back at Beijing’s ambition for a greater security role in islands. Two major defense announcements are due in the first months of 2023: the plan for an Australian nuclear submarine, based on the AUKUS agreement with the US and UK, plus a re-set of Australia’s military and strategic posture because of the toughest security environment in decades. Labor says the alliance with the US should go “beyond interoperability to interchangeability” so the two militaries can “operate seamlessly together at speed.”

 

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors

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 #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 #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.

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.