Australia’s AUKUS Submarines: Turning the Screws on China

21 September 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

The nuclear submarine technology that Australia will acquire through the AUKUS alliance is only one element of a major recalibration of Australian and US strategies to counter China.

 

Background

In a joint statement, the prime ministers of Australia and the UK and US President Biden ‘announce[d] the creation of an enhanced trilateral security partnership called “AUKUS” – Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.’ Through AUKUS, the three countries will ‘strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defence interests, building on our longstanding and ongoing bilateral ties. We will promote deeper information and technology sharing. We will foster deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. And in particular, we will significantly deepen co-operation on a range of security and defense capabilities.’ The statement continued, ‘As the first initiative under AUKUS, recognising our common tradition as maritime democracies, we commit to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. Today, we embark on a trilateral effort of 18 months to seek an optimal pathway to deliver this capability. We will leverage expertise from the United States and the United Kingdom, building on the two countries’ submarine programmes to bring an Australian capability into service at the earliest achievable date.’

Nothing is free, however. In a joint press conference statement, Defence Minister Peter Dutton noted that the AUKUS partnership would result in larger numbers of US troops in Australia. As he put it:

So I do have an aspiration to make sure that we can increase the numbers of troops through the rotations. The air capability will be enhanced, our maritime capability enhanced, and certainly the force posture enhanced. And if that includes basing and includes the storage of different ordnances, I think that is in Australia’s best interest, in our national interest, at this point in time. And that’s something that I’ll be continuing, to be sure, and we have in-principle agreement around a number of issues related to this now as a result of these discussions.

Australia’s decision to enhance its co-operation with the US, it would appear, has led it to set aside any ambiguity in its choice of a strategic partner; Mr Morrison has overturned his own statement that Australia could maintain its trade links to China while it upheld its security ties to the US. National security has prevailed over commerce; its ties to the US have prevailed against its links to China.

 

Comment

That choice of national interest over commercial ties is hardly novel. Germany’s largest trading partner in 1914, for instance, was Great Britain, a relationship that obtained again, interestingly, after World War I ended. There is a good deal of pragmatism in the decision to fall in with the US, too. Australia has invested much of its wealth in the US and a far lesser amount in China, as the table below shows. As the table also shows, Australian investment in China fell by 25 per cent between 2019 and 2020, no doubt as a result of the growing trade and political tensions between Beijing and Canberra. The five-year investment trend shows a growth rate of 0.6%, compared to 6.0 per cent in the US.

Be all of that as it may, the fact remains that Australia has opted to throw in its lot with the US. It will see, as a consequence and despite the protestations of US officials against charges of a quid pro quo arrangement, increased numbers of US military personnel, fighter aircraft and the ‘basing and … the storage of different ordnances’. “Basing” refers to the facilitation of an extended presence of, in this instance, US troops and other military personnel in Australia. The rewards for making that choice are, however, profound. Washington has agreed to transfer nuclear submarine technology to Canberra. Additionally, as one report noted,

… a pair of senior Biden Administration officials said the agreement will cover a range of security technologies and policies, including what one official called a “new architecture” of meetings and engagements among senior defence and foreign policy officials, one that represents the “biggest strategic step that Australia’s taken in generations.”

Technologically, the agreement will also include efforts to “spur co-operation across many new and emerging arenas: cyber AI, particularly applied AI, quantum technologies, and some undersea capabilities as well,” the official said. “We’ll also work to sustain and deepen information and technology sharing, and I think you’re gonna [sic] see a much more dedicated effort to pursue the integration of security and defence-related science technology and industrial bases and supply chains.”

The official added that it “will be a sustained effort over many years to see how we can marry and merge some of our independent and individual capabilities into greater trilateral engagement as we go forward.”

For the US, AUKUS is the perfect signal to the Indo-Pacific region and beyond that, despite previous signs of hesitation in acting in proportion to its statements, it is now ready to prove that it will stand by its regional allies. This is arguably the most momentous decision and undertaking for Australia since it entered into the ANZUS Treaty. AUKUS elevates Australia’s role regionally and as an ally of the US and UK. Australia also now becomes the central point of the Quad and, likely, a major staging point for allied efforts to counter China’s expansionism.

While Australia’s security will be enhanced by an order of magnitude because of this agreement, Canberra will need to re-evaluate its relationship with at least one of its neighbours, New Zealand. Wellington decided not to allow nuclear-armed or -propelled ships into its ports, effectively suspending the ANZUS Treaty, close to forty years ago. The joint announcement of AUKUS mere weeks after the ANZUS Treaty turned seventy likely rankled Wellington, leading Prime Minister Ardern to announce that Australian nuclear-powered submarines would be banned from its ports as well. That ban, coupled with Ms Ardern’s refusal to countenance any decision by New Zealand’s Five Eyes partners to criticise China, could see the Australia-New Zealand relationship diminished to an extent or, at the very least, placed on the backburner. In either case, New Zealand is now in danger of being sidelined in its own region, but PM Ardern’s apparent interest in more closely aligning New Zealand with the US camp gives the appearance that she is preparing to gradually move NZ towards a less neutral stance.

For Australia, however, AUKUS represents a major leap forward in its relationship with the US and in its national security. And that is a good outcome for it.

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