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 #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 #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.

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PacNet #48 – New Zealand and AUKUS: Affected without being included

Seventy years ago Australia and New Zealand cut a deal with the United States. In exchange for accepting Washington’s generous peace agreement with Tokyo while they were still concerned about Japan’s intentions, Canberra and Wellington got a security treaty. A side-deal, at America’s insistence, was that the new alliance would not include the United Kingdom. Even the legendary UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had returned to 10 Downing Street before the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (or ANZUS) went into effect, was unable to get the United Kingdom added to the threesome.

In 2021 the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security pact appears to have turned the tables. This time the United Kingdom is one of three, alongside Australia and the United States, and it is New Zealand’s turn to be left out. As the feelings of surprise wear off, some New Zealand commentators have found an easy explanation for their country’s exclusion. AUKUS means that Australia was in line to get nuclear-propelled submarines. New Zealand couldn’t belong because of its nuclear-free policy, which includes propulsionin addition to weapons.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appeared to confirm this hypothesis. While signalling her government’s support for “the increased engagement of the UK and US in the region,” she also confirmed that nuclear-powered Australian submarines would not be permitted to operate in New Zealand’s internal waters (i.e., within the 12-nautical-mile zone).

But there are other, more convincing explanations. First, New Zealand isn’t in the submarine operating game. When (and if) the new subsurface vessels arrive, they will join a list of Australian commitments to advanced maritime combat capabilities for which New Zealand has no equivalents. The existing (conventionally propelled) Collins Class submarines, Air Warfare Destroyers, and Joint Strike Fighters are three other examples of this long-standing trend. New Zealand isn’t in the same capability league that Australia is set to play in with its two AUKUS partners. From a military technological standpoint, it would have made more sense to include Japan or the Republic of Korea than to contemplate a place for New Zealand.

Second, AUKUS will enhance Australia’s already extensive military integration with US forces. That’s a position only a very active ally of the United States could occupy. For the United Kingdom, another close US ally, AUKUS helps build London’s Indo-Pacific and trans-Atlantic credentials after Brexit. It’s true that New Zealand has been enjoying much warmer security relations with Washington since deploying forces to Afghanistan after 9/11.  There is the Five Eyes relationship as well. But formal ANZUS alliance relations between the United States and New Zealand have been suspended for more than three decades.

Third, AUKUS represents an elevated commitment among its three members, and especially between the United States and Australia, to confront China’s growing power in maritime East Asia. Any nuclear-powered submarines based in Australia, whether leased or owned by Canberra, will be an intrinsic part of a US-led order of battle for missions focused on China’s People’s Liberation Army. Concerns about China’s impact on regional stability have been growing in New Zealand’s national security community for much of the past decade. But Wellington still wants some separation from US-led efforts to treat China as an adversary, and from Canberra’s most strident criticisms of Beijing.

AUKUS would be a step too far in that context. But that’s still where the rub will hit New Zealand. Since the ANZUS crisis with Washington in the mid-1980s, governments in Wellington have come to see Australia as New Zealand’s one and only formal military ally. Their major statements of defense policy routinely include a commitment to respond should Australia come under armed attack. This does not mean that wherever Australia goes, New Zealand is bound to follow, but it does mean that Australia’s defense policy has an oversized impact on New Zealand’s choices.

Even before any new submarines arrive on the other side of the Tasman Sea (and they could be nearly two decades away), AUKUS could bring more of the US competition with China closer to New Zealand’s neck of the woods. There will be a greater presence of US warfighting platforms and personnel at Australian bases and ports. There is likely to be an even deeper integration of warning and strategic intelligence systems. More Australian targets are likely to feature in China’s war plans. Year by year New Zealand’s alliance commitment to the defense of Australia will carry bigger implications.

Wellington’s public expressions of alliance unity across the Tasman don’t entertain coming to Australia’s aid in a great power conflict further north. But this doesn’t necessarily forestall the possibility of an unwanted entanglement. When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in Queenstown for a May summit with Ardern, he was asked what his government would expect from New Zealand if Australia got caught up in a war over the South China Sea or Taiwan. He indicated the answer lay in the ANZUS Treaty.

Australia’s latest partnership may give New Zealand’s extra reason to be concerned about Canberra’s approach to China in East Asian hotspots. Barely a day after the AUKUS announcement, Australia’s Foreign and Defence Ministers were in Washington for their annual AUSMIN meeting with US counterparts. The resulting statement broke new ground for US-Australian expressions of support for Taiwan. In a television interview conducted while he was still in Washington, and which was reported in one of New Zealand’s leading newspapers, Peter Dutton intimated that Australia would follow the lead of its US ally in the event that China sought to absorb Taiwan.

A few days later, New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta refused to be drawn in by a New Zealand journalist on Taiwan hypotheticals involving China, the United States, and Australia. But she emphasised New Zealand’s close relationships with traditional partners and noted that New Zealand vessels were presently exercising in East Asian waters. In a later write up, the New Zealand Defence Force explained that it had been operating “in the South East Asia region for decades as part of bilateral and regional defence engagement,” including with its partners in the [50-year-old] Five Power Defence Arrangements. But this was no ordinary trip. The NZDF also indicatedthat New Zealand forces had been working “off Guam” alongside the United Kingdom’s Carrier Strike Group led by the (conventionally powered) HMS Queen Elizabeth and had been exercising and training with US carrier battle groups led by the nuclear-propelled USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson).

How do you stay connected but retain autonomy? Ardern’s government argues that New Zealand sees AUKUS through a “Pacific” lens, intimating some separation from the great power competition which the new partnership intensifies. While New Zealand now refers to its wider region in Indo-Pacific terms, Ardern’s definitive speech on the subject emphasized inclusiveness, multilateralism, and regional cooperation. But Wellington doesn’t get to write the region’s overall narrative. All manner of interpretations and connections will be made by others when the atmosphere is feverish. Bit by bit, New Zealand is getting closer to the flame. It doesn’t have to be a member to be affected by the bow waves that are likely to grow now that AUKUS is here.

Robert Ayson (robert.ayson@vuw.ac.nz) is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

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PacNet #46 – After AUKUS, “present at the creation” in the 21st century

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

Announcement of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) “enhanced trilateral security partnership” has generated a lot of attention—good and bad. Most has focused on the decision to provide US nuclear propulsion technology for submarines to Australia; it’s a historic move for sure, but it’s only part of the AUKUS agreement. More important still is fitting AUKUS within the larger mosaic of Indo-Pacific security. This could be—should be—the beginning of a deep, structural modernization of regional security architecture, akin to the emergence of the trans-Atlantic community after World War II.

The submarines (and their contracts) have dominated discussion of AUKUS. They’re important—they transform Australia’s undersea capabilities, shift strategic calculations, raise nonproliferation issues, and mark a genuinely historic technology transfer—but the deal is much more than that. It includes munitions, as well as cooperation in other areas: cybersecurity, space, and new technologies like artificial intelligence. The initiative will, the three leaders declared, “foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. And … significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities.”

The following week, President Biden hosted the first in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) leaders’ summit. The four leaders—from the US, Japan, Australia, and India—reiterated their commitment to “a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”

While attention has focused on Quad’s military dimension—and the exercises are important – this meeting, like the virtual summit in March, devoted its energy to nonmilitary components. The leaders pledged to continue their cooperation in health security, and related vaccine diplomacy, plus climate change and new technologies, as well as in cyberspace, infrastructure development, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Significantly, the emphasis is on the provision of public goods, not merely forging an “anti-China coalition.”

The Quad language echoes the declarations issued after the G7, US-NATO, and US-EU summits that were held in June. Each noted sharpening geopolitical competition with China and endorsed a wider spectrum of engagement, with emphasis on climate, vaccine diplomacy, and technology, as well as infrastructure development, embodied by the Build Back Better World Initiative. It sure looks like the Biden team has a template that they are using for regional engagement, whatever the forum.

Bilateral alliance modernization efforts are underway as well. After the AUKUS meeting, senior defense and foreign affairs officials held the US-Australia Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), which announced a slew of initiatives to enhance force posture cooperation and alliance integration. When completed, they will significantly improve alliance defense and deterrence capabilities.

The US and Japan and the US and the ROK held their own “2+2” meetings in the spring. Coming so early into the new US administration, both were designed to reaffirm the governments’ commitment to their respective alliances and a warmup for more systematic modernization efforts that would follow once the Biden administration got its team in place and concluded its policy reviews. Those fine intentions were repeated when the two alliance leaders, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, met Biden during their respective visits to the White House. (The schedule may be delayed given the change in administration in Tokyo and Korea’s national elections next spring.)

The weave is thickening. Alliances are modernizing, allies are developing more robust ties between themselves, and all are beginning to institutionalize ties with nonalliance partners, such as India. Extra-regional powers are increasingly engaged. In addition to its role in AUKUS,  the British Royal Navy has announced that it will station two new patrol vessels in the Indo-Pacific region for “at least the next five years.” As a senior US official explained on background, the deal will “link Europe and particularly Great Britain more closely with our strategic pursuits in the region as a whole.” Several European nations have unveiled Indo-Pacific strategies; the EU’s effort was overshadowed by the AUKUS tempest. Once it gets over its anger at the submarine deal, France will be a factor; it has a genuine regional presence and a real role to play in security affairs.

Geographic expansion is complemented by efforts to broaden cooperation and better compete in geopolitics, evident from the establishment of vaccine, climate and technology working groups in almost every forum, to extensive cooperation on cybersecurity, space, supply chains, and infrastructure development. Martijn Rasser, a technology expert at CNAS, was describing the Quad’s efforts but he could have been speaking more generally when he said they mark “a major step in achieving a comprehensive strategic technology partnership,” adding that “by also emphasizing principles rooted in shared values, the Quad countries are shaping the contours of a new techno-democratic statecraft.”

Together, this will force a rethink of regional defense and deterrence. The US and its partners will acquire new capabilities, which will demand a recalibration of roles and responsibilities. The US-Australia alliance is a model and other institutions will have to change to keep pace. So will the rhetoric. I continue to believe that we should abandon the phrase “extended deterrence” and instead talk about networked, layered, or cooperative deterrence. Whatever the phrase, the concept is the same: the more that deterrence is integrated among allies and partners, the less it will be “extended.” (As always, this refers only to deterrence broadly; the US will continue to extend its nuclear deterrent.)

There will be difficulties. China is going ballistic: Literally, by threatening Australia with nuclear attacks, and rhetorically, with blistering commentary. Even more worrisome is the prospect of actions to show that Beijing is not intimidated and to warn other governments that they should not consider emulating Canberra. The record number of Chinese military aircraft that entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in recent days is one such tactic. Regional tensions may well rise in the interim.

Southeast Asian governments are troubled by that possibility, and some experts, quietly, credit the observation of Chinese Ambassador to the US Qin Gang that “security affairs of the Asia-Pacific should be jointly decided by people in the region and not dominated by the Anglo-Saxons.” Ironically, the prospect of a new “Caucasian Club” in the region could spur still more for reform, such as expanding the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement, which would entice Tokyo and Paris.

The organization, coordination, and (perhaps) eventual integration of these many efforts will be difficult. There are many moving parts and the number continues to expand. There is no forum that could begin the task of making sense of it all—and any effort to create one will make China’s reaction to AUKUS look like a warmup.

Cumulatively, momentum is gathering for a transformation in Indo-Pacific security. Regional governments are adopting more comprehensive strategies, in which security is being defined more broadly and is drawing in a wider array of actors. A key element is trade, and the US failure to reconsider membership in CPTPP is a huge shortcoming. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the eventual outcome, but this moment is rich in opportunity—and risks.

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), which was translated into Korean last year.

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.

Issues & Insights Vol. 21, CR 2 — The United States and Indonesia: Re-converging Security Interests in the Indo-Pacific

About this Report

Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia (CSIS), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue on June 1-3, 2021. Thought leaders from the United States and Indonesia, including scholars, policy experts, and retired military and government officials, participated in the dialogue. This report contains the general summary of the discussions.

The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by the Principal Investigators. This is not a consensus document. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.

The statements made and views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Pacific Forum, the project sponsors, or the dialogue participants’ respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email jeffrey@pacforum.org.


Key Findings and Recommendations: U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue

The United States and Indonesia, the world’s second and third largest democracies, form a consequential relationship in the Indo-Pacific. However, despite common values and shared interests, U.S.-Indonesia relations have yet to realize their full potential, especially on the security front. Many strategic imperatives should drive closer U.S. security engagements with Indonesia. These include Jakarta’s leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other key regional institutions, its outsized role in promoting the security of vital sea-lines of communications and trading routes, its location as the archipelagic nation connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, its shared interest with the United States in countering violent extremism and other trans-national threat networks, and its activist and independent foreign policy. These realities, when leveraged, can facilitate a more coordinated and effective response to a multitude of geopolitical, economic, and security challenges in the region, and can advance the United States’ Indo-Pacific vision.

The Biden Administration has made clear that the Indo-Pacific is a “top priority,” an enduring theme through several U.S. administrations. U.S. officials have also stressed that the United States will seek to “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.” While this framing alone is unlikely to generate in-depth Indonesian cooperation, Jakarta is interested in working with the United States to stand up to China when needed and take a leading role in ensuring Southeast Asia’s strategic autonomy.

To this end, Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS Indonesia), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Indonesia Security Dialogue on June 1-3, 2021. The dialogue was aimed at building a body of knowledge on the bilateral security relations that DTRA and other interested U.S. Government agencies could use to conduct better military engagements, and provide a more responsive and complementary capacity-building, with greater impact to improve deterrence. The organized panels were aimed at increasing awareness and understanding in Indonesia and in the United States of the two countries’ converging and diverging interests, defense and foreign policy doctrines, and views on key regional and global security issues. Doing so would achieve:

  1. increased awareness and understanding in the United States about Indonesian thinking related to regional security issues such as maritime security threats brought about by China’s expansive claims and assertiveness; nonproliferation; and nuclear security;
  2. increased awareness among Indonesian policy circles of U.S. security priorities related to the Indo- Pacific in general, and Indonesia and Southeast Asia in particular. In sum, these new expert insights and contextual recommendations advance the security relations of the two countries.

The dialogue’s agenda underwent extensive pre-dialogue “socialization” with key stakeholders from both the United States and Indonesia to ensure that topics for discussions and eventual actionable recommendations generated are relevant to the national security interests and priorities of both countries.

The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by the Principal Investigators. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.


Click here to download the full report. 

Issues & Insights Vol. 21, CR1 — The United States and Viet Nam: Charting the Next 25 Years in Bilateral Security Relations

About this Report

Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam (DAV), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue on May 18-20, 2021. Strategic thinkers from the United States and Viet Nam, including scholars, policy experts, and retired military and government officials, participated in the dialogue. This report contains the general summary of the discussions.

The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by the Principal Investigators. This is not a consensus document. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.

The statements made and views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Pacific Forum, the project sponsors, or the dialogue participants’ respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email jeffrey@pacforum.org.


Key Findings and Recommendations: U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue 

Washington and Hanoi left behind their past as Cold War adversaries and upgraded their relations into a comprehensive partnership in 2013. The relationship has since flourished considerably and rapidly. The next logical step is to elevate the relationship into a strategic partnership, i.e., a deepened security engagement. That process has already begun, but more work is needed, and urgently, given the increasingly tense situation in the South China Sea. The region continues to face growing security challenges – from irredentist claims and blatant sidestepping of the rule of law in many of the region’s maritime spaces, to the threat of pandemics and cybersecurity. So far, most Track 2 U.S. engagements with Viet Nam have centered on issues pertaining to development, empowerment, and historical reconciliation. The time is now ripe for a security-focused dialogue involving the two countries’ top strategic thinkers to build on current gains, underscore opportunities for deeper defense cooperation, generate sound and actionable policy and operational recommendations, and highlight the importance of a tighter partnership to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia and the broader region.

To this end, Pacific Forum, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and in collaboration with the Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam (DAV), organized the inaugural Track 2 U.S.-Viet Nam Security Dialogue on May 18-20, 2021. The dialogue was aimed at building a body of knowledge on U.S.–Viet Nam security relations that DTRA and other interested U.S. Government agencies could use to conduct better military engagements, and provide a more responsive and complementary capacity-building, with greater impact to improve deterrence.

Moreover, the organized panel sessions were aimed at increasing awareness and understanding in Viet Nam and in the United States of the two countries’ post-Cold War security cooperation, and increasingly aligned strategic interests. Doing so would promote understanding of regional security issues with implications for bilateral relations through:

  • Increased awareness and understanding in the United States about Vietnamese thinking related to regional security issues such as maritime security threats brought about by China’s expansive claims and assertiveness, cybersecurity, nonproliferation, and economic security.
  • Increased awareness among Vietnamese policy circles of U.S. security priorities related to the Indo-Pacific in general, and Viet Nam and Southeast Asia in particular.

In sum, these new expert insights and contextual recommendations advance the security relations of the two countries.

Strategic thinkers from the United States and Viet Nam, including scholars, policy experts, and retired military and government officials participated in the dialogue. The dialogue’s agenda underwent extensive pre-dialogue “socialization” with key stakeholders from both the United States and Viet Nam to ensure that topics for discussions and eventual actionable recommendations generated are relevant to the national security interests and priorities of both countries.

The recommendations contained in this report, unless otherwise specifically noted, were generated by the discussions as interpreted by the Principal Investigators. Both the agenda and participant list are included in the appendix; all participants attended in their private capacity.


Click here to download the full report.

PacNet #44 – How AUKUS Advances Australia’s Commitment to Collective Defense

An earlier version of this article was published at The Strategist.

Canberra’s announcement that it will acquire nuclear-powered submarines through its new defense pact with London and Washington, AUKUS, has generated considerable scrutiny. The decision to expand the basing and rotational presence of US forces in Australia has added to the heat. But in the breathless commentary on these moves, what they tell us about Australia’s foreign and defense policy has been largely misunderstood.

These announcements don’t signal a new direction in Australian strategic policy or a reorientation of our alignment preferences away from the region.

To the contrary, they mark an acceleration of Australia’s push to assume a larger and more active geostrategic role in upholding a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific—both by acquiring advanced military and defense industrial capabilities and by supporting the strongest possible US security presence in our region, including through longstanding efforts to deepen high-end military integration between Australia and the United States.

The strategy behind these announcements isn’t new either. It’s articulated in Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper and 2020 defense strategic update. Underscored by deep anxieties over China’s growing power and assertiveness, and a clear-eyed assessment of America’s eroding regional military position, these documents recognize that Washington can no longer defend the Indo-Pacific strategic order by itself. Together, they lay out the case for a stronger Australia and our pursuit of a collective regional strategy to supplement America’s position and constrain Chinese power.

Look at the language. The white paper talks about “building a more capable, agile and potent Australian Defence Force” and working collectively with the United States and like-minded partners to “limit the exercise of coercive power” and to “support a balance in the region [favorable] to our interests.” The defense update says that “Australia [will] take greater responsibility for our own security” by growing our “self-reliant ability to deliver deterrence effects,” enhancing “the lethality of the ADF for … high-intensity operations,” and being more capable of “support[ing] the United States and other partners” in our region “if deterrence measures fail” and “Australia’s national interests are engaged.”

Both documents call for broadening and deepening Australia’s cooperation with the US, including by enhancing force posture initiatives and military interoperability and by “selectively increasing interdependence with the US and other partners” to assure our shared defense industrial, munitions and logistics supply chains.

Those surprised by Australia’s decisions haven’t been paying attention.

Of course, there is—or should be—much more to Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy than this high-end alliance integration agenda. Shaping our strategic environment, deepening our regional partnerships and building our influence by supporting regional countries’ own priorities are critical. Some of these elements are progressing well, like our security networking with Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore. Others are worryingly underdone, such as our investment in diplomacy, economic engagement, and development assistance in Southeast Asia.

But just because these issues and partnerships weren’t at the center of last week’s announcements doesn’t mean AUKUS or the US alliance are displacing the other elements of our strategy.

Indeed, it’s worth remembering that the only revolution last week was Washington’s once-a-century decision to share its submarine nuclear-propulsion technology with an ally—something Canberra has quietly wanted for years, and a decisive capability upgrade, but not a sea-change in the trajectory of Australian strategy.

So why the hype about a purported Anglospheric pivot and new dependency on the alliance?

One explanation lies in the confusing pomp and ceremony that accompanied the made-for-television AUKUS announcement. Amid the flags and mawkish talk of a “forever partnership,” it looked very much like a new alliance and conjured unhelpful images of English-speaking nations throwing their weight around the Indo-Pacific.

But AUKUS is neither an alliance nor a vehicle for strategic policy coordination. It’s basically a memorandum of understanding for sharing advanced technology, defense industrial capabilities, and technical know-how—one that will hopefully build on the expanded US national technology and industrial base that has struggled to break down export controls between the US and Australia. If effective, it should provide two-way benefits akin to a defense free-trade zone, empowering Australia’s pursuit of cutting-edge capabilities and filtering Australian innovation into US (and UK) defense projects—the kind of defense industrial integration Canberra has wanted for some time.

This raises a second reason for heightened concern: the risk that we will become gravely reliant on US technology by buying nuclear-powered submarines and other new kit. It’s true that co-developing a boat with the US and UK will require their support to design, build, and service it. But this was also true of the French submarine, which was to be outfitted with US weapons and sensors.

More to the point, the ADF is already irreversibly dependent on American technology. The engines on our P-8A anti-submarine warfare aircraft (and most others) are maintained in the US, our F-35s and EA-18G Growlers rely on sensitive US data, most of our munitions are made in America, and our entire military depends on US satellites and other systems to talk to itself. An AUKUS-built submarine hardly poses a new problem.

Nor is it the case that buying US technology will necessarily leave us vulnerable to abandonment or entrapment. The suggestion that America must be prepared to fight for primacy in Asia to keep servicing our submarines is far-fetched to say the least. On the flipside, those who argue Australia’s pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines will bind us to US war plans over Taiwan fail to appreciate how hard that would be in practice. We’re not doing freedom-of-navigation patrols now, despite persistent US requests.

Indeed, one reason Washington has been reluctant to share nuclear-propulsion and other exquisite technology with allies is precisely because such capabilities provide independent options, making allies potentially less pliant. Australia currently enjoys, and must protect, a high degree of self-reliance within the alliance. Rather than jeopardizing that, AUKUS could support the establishment of deep maintenance and sustainment facilities for the new submarines in Australia, along with a “sovereign guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise” so that we can build high-end munitions, thereby increasing our sovereign industrial capabilities. This may not be a given, and Canberra must push for it. But it’s simply not true that AUKUS is categorically riskier or all one-way in a dependency sense.

A final cause of concern relates to the Australia-US decision to advance new air, land and sea force-posture initiatives on Australian soil, which many worry will turn us into a US military outpost. In addition to increasing the already high number of US warplanes rotating through Australia, the real significance of this decision will be the establishment of a combined maritime logistics, sustainment, and maintenance facility. This will enable Australian, US, and other allied warships and submarines to rotate through Western Australia on a more regular basis, and undertake deeper refurbishment work there, allowing for expanded operations and more time spent in the Indo-Pacific—which is particularly important given that American dry-dock and maintenance facilities are strained and distant.

These decisions aren’t to be taken lightly and do position Australia to be a staging post for US power projection and military operations. But they are not new choices. They represent sovereign decisions expanded by Canberra with bipartisan support ever since Prime Minister Julia Gillard launched the 2011 Australia-US force posture initiatives. And they get us back to the core purpose of Australia’s increasingly active defense strategy: sustaining the strongest possible US military presence in the region and playing a more significant collective defense role ourselves.

Critics of AUKUS and the alliance need to be more responsible. Australia is about to acquire one of the world’s most potent military capabilities because of the alliance and Washington’s readiness to empower our armed forces. The capability itself is a big deal—lethal and high-endurance submarines are the best way to deter Chinese aggression. But in form the AUKUS deal is little different from the way we’ve got US defense technology in the past, save for the fact that we now have an opportunity for more transfers of technology and technical know-how to Australia. Negotiating appropriate terms and conditions for this pact is crucial. But we must remember that AUKUS and the new force posture initiatives aren’t a break with the past—they’re part of our ongoing push to accelerate Australia’s contribution to collective defense in the region.

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 #42 – Has Washington Found its Feet in Southeast Asia?

This article summarizes the author’s chapter in the new issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety here.

In the months following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy. Starting in May, however, the administration heeded calls for a more active role with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region as vice president. One key “deliverable”—renewal of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success.

The administration also responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia. Southeast Asia’s continuing economic crisis, a direct result of COVID-19, has raised concerns over Southeast Asia’s place in global supply chains, an issue Harris addressed on her trip.

Diplomatic Surge

For the first half of 2021 Southeast Asians were uncertain about the new administration’s approach to China. The previous administration had failed to forge a coherent trade policy with the region, and half of Southeast Asian countries lacked a US ambassador confirmed by the Senate.

However, in late May and early June, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. Making Jakarta the first stop on Sherman’s itinerary signaled continued US support for “ASEAN centrality” in the face of Biden’s growing support for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) as a key element of Asian regional architecture.

In late July Secretary of Defense Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Then, in late August, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield made a brief stopover in Bangkok. And in late August, Vice President Kamala Harris visitedSingapore, and became the first US vice president to visit Vietnam.

With Southeast Asia in the grip of a new and more serious surge of COVID-19, US officials also underscored Washington’s position as a major vaccine donor. In Hanoi, Harris announced the opening of a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) office in Vietnam to help coordinate US efforts in Southeast Asia, and also pledged 1 million doses of COVID vaccine to Vietnam, to be delivered within 24 hours. China increased its own vaccine pledge to Vietnam prior to her arrival in Hanoi, but Vietnamese officials attempted to derail the brewing competition with a public reminder that Hanoi “does not ally with one country against another,” one of its longstanding “Three No’s” (along with no military alliances and no military bases in Vietnam).

Renewing the VFA

The most important deliverable of these visits was the renewal of the 1998 US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) facilitating military-to-military cooperation. Signed during a period of relative peace, the VFA has become increasingly relevant, both to the Philippines’ defense against Chinese maritime aggression and as a vehicle for cooperation on counter-terrorism in Mindanao. On July 30, when Austin was in Manila, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that President Rodrigo Duterte had consented to the renewal, and also signaled that he and Austin were discussing a side agreement governing conduct of US forces in the Philippines (an expected long-term effort).

Duterte had dragged out negotiations for renewal of the VFA for more than a year in protest of criticism in the US Congress of human rights violations connected to his anti-drug campaign. The Biden administration demonstrated patience in the face of demands, aided by careful choreography between Austin and Lorenzana. Although the renewal is expected to stick, Duterte will likely remain a thorn in the side of US-Philippine security relations. On Aug. 25 he announced that he would run for vice president in the 2022 general elections, presumably with a hand-picked presidential candidate.

Duterte has publicly linked his agreement to the renewal to Washington’s steady supply of COVID vaccines—nearly 3 million doses of Johnson & Johnson in July, and an equal number of Moderna in early August. He was also likely influenced by growing public disapproval of his handling of Chinese incursions into Philippine territorial waters, despite his overall public support.

Allies, Partners, and Strategic Partners

VFA renewal is a return to the status quo ante and it will mitigate China’s narrative that the United States is losing strength and resolve in the region. The Thai press, however, was quick to view the Austin and Harris trips as snubbing Bangkok and questioned the course of the US-Thailand alliance. Deputy Secretary Sherman and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s stops in Thailand were essentially placeholder visits without notable deliverables. Bangkok, and to some extent Manila, worry Washington is prioritizing newer security partners in the region, particularly Singapore and Vietnam.

But if US-Singapore military-to-military relations are solid, the same cannot be said for the emerging security relationship with Vietnam. Harris’ declaration in Hanoi that the United States was receptive to a strategic partnership with Vietnam got a cool response. Vietnamese officials offered no public comment; the near-term prospects for a strategic partnership appear slim. To be sure, US and Vietnamese officials acknowledge informally that the two often act together “strategically.” Hanoi has a number of strategic partnerships, including with China, and does seek to strengthen its relations with the United States.

However, with US-China tensions high, an announcement that Vietnam was willing to upgrade its comprehensive partnership with Washington to a strategic one would be a provocation to Beijing. Moreover, a strategic partnership applies across the board, and it is not clear what Washington is willing to offer in other areas, particularly trade. Vietnam’s strategic partnership with South Korea led to a bilateral free trade agreement, for instance. The Biden administration does not appear willing to commit to new FTAs yet.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of US-Vietnam relations is positive. In June, the two countries announced that they had settled US charges of currency manipulation with a pledge from Vietnam that it would refrain from devaluing the dong to gain an export advantage.

Still, Southeast Asian leaders also worry that the Biden administration will continue former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s harsh line against China and ASEAN states will be caught in the middle. Harris and Austin made strong speeches centered on China during their trips, and Sherman’s visit to Cambodia was perceived as a sign of concern over Chinese intentions to refurbish Ream Naval Base for their exclusive use. Harris’ address painted China as a regional bully; the Chinese surrogate press charged that the Biden administration was attempting to “create a chasm.” Southeast Asian states with claims in the South China Sea or otherwise challenged by China in maritime zones welcome a principled defense of their sovereignty from Washington. In their view, however, rhetorical jousting—particularly with ideological overtones—makes it difficult for ASEAN to maintain good relations with both sides.

Looking Ahead

The Biden administration has established a new baseline in relations with Southeast Asia, giving Washington greater traction for several fall events. This month, President Biden intends to convene an in-person summit of the Quad; Southeast Asian leaders will watch carefully for signs of an emerging anti-China bloc. Additionally, the administration intends to host a Summit for Democracy in December; the choice of invitations to Southeast Asian leaders will be controversial. Due to COVID, it is not clear whether there will be an in-person East Asia Summit. If there is, Southeast Asia will expect President Biden and Secretary Blinken to participate. If the United States is truly “back” in Southeast Asia, the region will expect Washington to move beyond diplomatic visits and articulate more solid policies, particularly on trade and US relations with ASEAN.

Catharin Dalpino (catharindalpino@earthlink.net) is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. She has also served as a deputy assistant secretary for democracy at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US Department of State, published several books on US policy in Asia, and has testified frequently before Congress on US relations with Southeast Asia.

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 #41 – After the Shock: France, America, and the Indo-Pacific

An earlier version of this article was published for L’Institut Montaigne. It has been edited and translated from French.

It felt like an earthquake. This isn’t too strong a word to describe the French feeling last week, when the rumor began spreading that the United States and Australia were about to announce a new strategic partnership to replace the cooperation that Paris and Canberra had worked hard to build over the past 10 years.

The French submarine contract was in trouble, but no one seemed to know that the United States had been cooking up an alternative option with the Australian government, and that negotiations had begun months ago. There is no hint of that in the Joint Communiqué issued by Paris and Canberra on the occasion of the first foreign affairs-defense ministerial meeting, which took place Aug. 30 and celebrated the strength of France-Australia cooperation. US strategists like to talk about the “shock and awe” strategy. Typically, though, this is to bomb an adversary.

To be sure, the announcement of the new trilateral Indo-Pacific security partnership is the result of both well-calculated strategic considerations, and US and UK political expediency. Beneath the crude new acronym “AUKUS” (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) lies a desire to up the ante in military and technological cooperation between the three countries to counter Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

A Strong Signal from the Anglosphere

AUKUS signals the rise of the Anglosphere, which in France is often, and wrongly, referred to as “Anglo-Saxon.” Its centrality is well-known, particularly in the discreet framework of intelligence exchanges within the Five Eyes Club (with Canada and New Zealand). AUKUS hurts the French, but there is a logic to it and it makes sense for a senior US official to claim that the United States has “no better allies than the United Kingdom and Australia.” Just a few days ago, Canberra, Wellington, and Washington commemorated the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) treaty with great enthusiasm. As for London, its participation in AUKUS is in line with its new post-Brexit Global Britain strategy.

Make no mistake, however: There will be a price to pay. How can France now take seriously the Biden administration’s desire for greater European involvement in the Indo-Pacific, and for more consultation and coordination among allies over China? French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defense Minister Florence Parly are right to talk about a “lack of consistency.” Note that the US announcement was made on the same day that the European Union published its strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Talk about good timing!

For France, the shock is similar to the one it felt after the US abandonment of August 2013, when President Obama reversed its decision to conduct a strike on Syria. The United States may have felt the same 10 years earlier, when in 2003 Paris decided not to support Washington at the United Nations Security Council over its planned intervention in Iraq.

Context matters. The AUKUS announcement comes only weeks after another crisis of confidence, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which proceeded with poor coordination with allies. French President Emmanuel Macron now feels vindicated, having argued for months that NATO is in a critical state. The traditional French narrative about America’s unreliability, then, is validated. In any case, these are Paris’ lines. Per Le Drian and Parly, Thursday’s event “only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy.” This is the French mindset as Paris is getting ready to assume the presidency of the European Union.

A Crushing Blow for France-Australia Cooperation

The “contract of the century” for 12 Shortfin Barracuda submarines—an adaptation to Australian needs of the French Barracuda—was worth 35 billion euros ($41 billion), of which 8 to 9 billion would have gone to the Naval Group (whose largest shareholder is the government, at 60%). The contract, signed in 2016, was already well underway and several hundred people were working on it, including many Australians in Cherbourg.

Implementation was difficult, but no one in France thought that Washington would offer Canberra an alternative, first because the major US defense contractor Lockheed Martin was involved and second because the United States does not traditionally sell nuclear-powered submarines.

Yet the American offer goes beyond this. Not only does the offer include submarines, but these submarines will also be armed with Tomahawk missiles, and the deal will proceed within the framework of a major trilateral cooperation on defense and security technologies. It is an attractive offer, especially given the regional security environment, which has worsened since the early 2010s. That’s why, for example, the Labor Party can now accept nuclear propulsion technology, which provides a real military advantage both in terms of durability and patrol discretion.

For France, the submarine contract was part of a broader logic: It was about building a long-term strategic relationship, a marriage for 50 years, as the French used to call it. Many had worked hard to lay the groundwork for this, including through informal dialogue between government officials and experts.

This union, however, was cancelled before it was consummated, hence the harsh official reaction, describing Canberra’s decision as being “contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia.” This relationship was meant to be one of the pillars of France’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which was walking on two legs, one Australian, and the other Indian (notably via the Rafale contract). The only advantage for Paris now is that its strategy for the region will be no longer be perceived as simply following the United States’ lead (which was never the case).

Nonproliferation Undermined

Nuclear propulsion has advantages, but it is a sensitive technology. That’s why, until now, no nuclear-armed state has sold it to a non-nuclear-armed state. Only six countries possess such technology, the five nuclear-armed states “recognized” by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), plus India. France has never sold such technology, despite requests (from Brazil, for instance) and significantly, back in the early 2010s, Australia did not ask for it. The United States has now broken this taboo. Imagine Washington’s reaction had it been France!

Even with access to this technology, Australia will likely not able to reproduce it. There will be a “black box,” which will remain closed to Canberra.

There is also no risk of nuclear proliferation. Still, the reactors will probably use highly enriched uranium (HEU), a technology used by the Americans (and the British), unlike the French, who have chosen the more proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium (LEU) option. Moreover, this technology could revive the debate in Australia about the need for a civilian or even dual (civilian and military) nuclear program.

The timing is also bad because of the next review conference of the NPT, scheduled for January 2022. HEU escapes international controls when it is used for propulsion alone; for practical reasons, because it is difficult to imagine foreign inspectors checking the rear part of national submarines. It is therefore possible, in theory, to remove HEU from controlled facilities to officially use it for nuclear propulsion. Iran could do this, for example. Moreover, other states could now sell similar propulsion reactors to non-nuclear-armed states, arguing that there is now a precedent.

The Way Forward

France should look forward. It should quickly settle the trade dispute and separate it from the unavoidable overhaul of its strategy for the Indo-Pacific. France is and will remain an important player in the region. Australia, for its part, will still need its “Pacific neighbor.” More importantly, no one wants China to exploit and sharpen the differences between Western countries. Hence the importance, for example, to continue not only official but also “track 2” (experts) and “track 1.5” (officials and experts) France-Australia conversations.

Over the next 18 months, the three AUKUS countries will have to answer important questions. Will France be allowed to join AUKUS periodically, for some projects or operations? Or will France be forced to seek greater alignment with Germany (in Europe) and Japan (in Asia), ironically its two competitors for the submarine contract with Australia?

France, too, will need to reflect on this experience, which will have major implications for its industrial and strategic interests. Was Paris just too trustful of its allies? Was it naïve? For now, however, Paris should steer clear of drawing hasty conclusions. The Biden administration is not the Trump administration. The latter did not care much for its allies. The former does, though not for all of them.

Bruno Tertrais (b.tertrais@frstrategie.org) is Deputy Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, the leading French think tank on international security issues. He is also a Senior Fellow for Strategic Affairs at the Institut Montaigne.

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.