AUKUS is sabotaging a nuclear-free Southeast Asia
When AUKUS, a defense partnership formed by the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, was announced in September 2021, the world was caught off guard. The US' ally France was furious and called the act a stab in the back, for by forging the AUKUS, Australia reneged on the more than $60 billion diesel submarine deal it had signed with France in 2016 for the sake of acquiring nuclear-powered submarine technology from the US and the UK.
Why is Australia seeking nuclear-powered submarines instead of diesel ones even at the cost of alienating its relations with France? Why have the US, the UK and Australia decided to establish a quasi-defense alliance in peacetime, it being the first of its kind since the end of the Cold War? What impact will AUKUS have on the regional order?
The apparent explanation behind Australia abandoning its submarine deal with France is that nuclear-powered submarines have huge advantages over conventional diesel-powered ones. They are quieter, more powerful, and can stay under water much longer. But these seemingly powerful reasons still beg the question: why did Australia decide to sign a diesel submarine deal with France in the first place? So the answer lies not in the superior performance of nuclear-powered submarines per se, but somewhere else. John Blaxland, an international relations professor at Australian National University, hit the point when he said that the nuclear submarines will at least incrementally add to the deterrence against China, given China's increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea, and its proactive foreign policy toward the Pacific islands, which Australia views as being in its own backyard.
Besides, by setting up AUKUS and acquiring nuclear submarine technology from the US and the UK, it will more tightly enmesh Australia into the US orbit at a time when Australia-China relations are at a new low and US-China competition has hit a new high.
From the US perspective, closer relations with its Asian allies and partners, and layered interwoven networks besides its traditional spoke and hub bilateral alliances in the Indo-Pacific, are one of the pillars of the Joe Biden administration's ongoing Indo-Pacific strategy. By means of AUKUS, the Biden administration hopes it will not only bind Australia more closely to its side in its stiff competition with China, but also gain extra power by getting European powers, in this case, the UK, to participate in its Indo-Pacific strategy, at a time when the US is plagued by domestic partisan polarization, political chaos, and social convulsions, which are casting a long shadow over its international leadership and foreign commitments.
For the UK, after its disorderly exit from the European Union, AUKUS not only enhances its special relations with the US, but by showing up in the Indo-Pacific, it also promotes its image as Global Britain. In addition, by providing nuclear submarine know-how to Australia, it can showcase its technological prowess and strengthen the bond with its commonwealth to make it relevant in a world where the old powers are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Whatever the motivation behind the deal, AUKUS is threatening to seed anxiety, drive an arms race, and intensify the great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.
First, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are especially perplexed and worried by AUKUS and Australia's desire for nuclear-powered submarines. Since 1987, ASEAN countries have preached a nuclear free Southeast Asia and signed the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (ASENWFZ Treaty) as a commitment to preserve the Southeast Asian region as a region free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Even though AUKUS maintains that nuclear-powered submarines are not nuclear weapons, and Australia says that it will not pursue nuclear weapons, ASEAN countries' suspicion and worries have not been assuaged, given the submarines' obvious military use. Malaysia and Indonesia have expressed their anxiety and complained to Australia of the potential negative impacts on regional peace and a nuclear-free Southeast Asia. What's more, ASEAN countries also worry that AUKUS, together with the Quad, which was revived in 2017 by the Donald Trump administration as a quadrilateral security dialogue mechanism to counter China's influence in the region, will dilute the ASEAN centrality in regional affairs.
Second, AUKUS may drive an arms race in the region. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have expressed worries about the potential spillover effects of Australia's pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines and warned that it might heighten military tensions in Asia. A spokesman for Indonesia's foreign ministry issued a statement saying it was deeply concerned about the continuing arms race and power projection in the region triggered by AUKUS' decision. Interestingly, Japan, which is on the track to double its military expenditure, welcomed the move and praised the AUKUS defense pact as allowing Washington and London to share the technology which will power the new submarines.
Third, AUKUS will heat up the China-US competition. The Biden administration has claimed that it does not seek to change China, and instead it will try to shape the strategic environment in which China operates. By establishing AUKUS, the Biden administration has added another layer to its Spaghetti bowl of security networks in the Indo-Pacific to balance against China. Furthermore, a nuclear-powered Australian submarine fleet integrated with the US navy in the Indo-Pacific region will pose a threat to China's sea lines of communications and China's navy operations in the region. Two Chinese think tanks, the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association and China Institute of Nuclear Industry Strategy, say in a report that AUKUS sets a dangerous precedent by allowing nuclear states to transfer weapons-grade nuclear materials to a non-nuclear state for the first time, and fermented potential risks and hazards in multiple aspects……, with a profound negative impact on global strategic balance and stability. In a word, AUKUS only serves to exacerbate the already high mistrust and heat up competition between China and the US.
Whatever benefits the US, the UK and Australia may hope to harvest from AUKUS, they can only be achieved at the high cost of regional peace and stability.
The author is a professor of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.