Colombo, October 23 (Counterpoint): The trilateral security partnership between Australia, UK, and US, known by the acronym AUKUS, is meant to uphold peace, democracy, rule of law and transparency in the Indo-Pacific region now said to be under threat from an aggressive China.
Under AUKUS, the US and UK will supply Australia nuclear-powered submarines to face challenges from the Chinese navy. Writing in his blog, Robert Schuman says that Australia would also purchase or develop, a range of missiles from the US, such as Tomahawk cruise missiles, to equip its Hobart-class destroyers. Australia has said that the acquisition of such military capabilities will allow it to manage the transition to nuclear submarines. Schuman further points out that the US and Australia have announced that they will increase their joint military exercises and that the US may be given greater access to Australian infrastructure to facilitate its military operations in the Indo-Pacific region.
Nicole Camarillo and Oliver Lewis, writing in Defense One quote US President Joe Biden to say that AUKUS will help expand the West’s edge in military capabilities and critical technologies, such as cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technologies and undersea domains.
But the questions that remain to be answered are: Will AUKUS be able to stop China? Is it strong enough? Is it a blessing or a bane?
AUKUS is a limited alliance. It is confined to three English-speaking, essentially Anglo-Saxon, nations. It does not include Japan and India, which are members of the Indo-Pacific group called QUAD along with the US and Australia. Japan and India have serious security issues with China and these have been ignored. AUKUS does not include key South East Asian nations like Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, which are troubled by China’s attempts to dominate the Indo-Pacific.
AUKUS has triggered dismay in Europe, and anger in France. Because of AUKUS, France lost a Euro 56 billion contract to build non-nuclear submarines for Australia. The secrecy behind the AUKUS deal damaged the trust France (and also Europe) had in the US. The AUKUS pact “only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy,” many European leaders feel.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told CNN that the way France had been treated by its long-standing alliance partners US and Australia, was “unacceptable”. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, noted a “lack of loyalty” on the part of the United States. After an informal meeting of the 27 foreign ministers on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly recently, High Representative Josep Borrell expressed the Member States’ “disappointment” at the lack of consultation on AUKUS and their “solidarity” with France.
Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton regretted that “there is a growing feeling in Europe that something is broken in our Trans-Atlantic relations”. He called for a “pause” and a “reset” of the relationship between the EU and the US. In Germany, meanwhile, the State Secretary for European Affairs, Michael Roth, saw the Australian submarine affair as “an alarm signal for everyone in the Union”. The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, said he “understands the anger of our French friends because what has been decided – and the way it has been decided – is irritating and disappointing, not just for France.”
There is also a strong feeling among Western liberals that the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal goes against the spirit of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). New Zealand, a close ally of the US and Australia, has said that it will not allow Australian nuclear submarines into its waters.
Some have said that AUKUS could trigger a widespread demand for nuclear submarines and nuclear power for military purposes, thus completely undermining the moral goal of nuclear disarmament.
China May Gain
China could well use this “moral” issue to gain legitimacy for its actions and systems. International Relations Professor Robert G Patman of the University of Otago in New Zealand warns there is a real risk of the debate over AUKUS dividing the anti-China democratic world to the advantage of China and helping Chinese President Xi Jinping promote his non-democratic economic and political brand.
AUKUS will heighten the China-US arms race. Just like the US, the Chinese are preparing for “intelligentized warfare.” China has declared its intention to dominate the world in Artificial Intelligence by 2030. To counter it will require democratic countries to pool their efforts, both in AI research and in the collection of the largest possible data sets on which to train their AI. But the divisions created by AUKUS will not help this cause.
The AUKUS agreement would inevitably make Australia even more dependent on Washington than it has been since World War II. AUKUS will reduce its room for manoeuvre on the international stage, an expert warned.
AUKUS has elicited a negative reaction in Southeast Asia. Anticipating this, Australian and US released a joint statement reaffirming their continued commitment to “Southeast Asia, ASEAN centrality, and ASEAN-led architecture.” But this did not prevent ASEAN states from registering their concern.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob feared that AUKUS would “provoke other powers to act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea.” Yacoob confirmed that “ Malaysia holds the principle of maintaining ASEAN as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality.” The Indonesian Foreign Ministry said that Indonesia was “very concerned about the continued arms race and projection of power in the region.”
However, there are dissenting voice in ASEAN. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcomed the AUKUS arrangement, expressing the hope that it would “contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.” Vietnam has been cautious. But it has signed a defense transfer deal with Japan aimed at countering China’s maritime military influence.
AUKUS has in fact exposed this lack of cohesion in ASEAN. Many states in ASEAN hope to maintain a balance between China and the US. This way they hope to continue to reap the economic benefits of relations with China while benefiting from a US security umbrella.
However, with the creation of AUKUS, the status quo becomes more difficult to maintain because AUKUS will fan the fires of conflict with China and even war at some stage. The US, in its search of regional allies, may force countries in ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific region to take sides openly. Some ASEAN states may enter into military alliances which will defeat the collective goal of keeping ASEAN free from external forces.
ASEAN is essentially an economic outfit. It has no strategic dimension and therefore it is incapable of settling disputes arising from strategic considerations. Its influence is likely to wane rather than wax in the post-AUKUS scenario.