AUKUS: what is new about this trilateral security agreement?

What is AUKUS?

On 15 September, the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) announced an enhanced trilateral security pact called AUKUS. The historic security partnership focuses on deepening diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

What is new about AUKUS?

The last week or so has seen an enormous amount of time and energy dissecting AUKUS and what it means. It can be argued that the AUKUS pact does not necessarily represent a significant shift in Australian foreign policy, but rather institutionalises existing relationships to more comprehensively address shared security concerns. In this sense, it augments existing alliances and treaties to deepen security and defence collaboration. All three countries are liberal democracies with deep military ties, shared history and common values, and a mutual commitment to an international rules-based order. The UK and US are already our long-term strategic and security friends and allies. We are all part of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance forged after the Second World War, along with New Zealand and Canada. The US and Australia are part of the ‘Quad’, which, with Japan and India, has a shared focus on maintaining stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Australia, New Zealand and US (ANZUS) Treaty, a mutual defence pact established to counter the spread of communism in the Asia and Pacific region, and protect against Japanese military resurgence.

The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines

A key component of the new agreement is technology transfer through the acquisition of nuclear propulsion as part of our next generation submarines. The strategic advantage of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) is that they can stay submerged for much longer than conventionally powered submarines which do not have the same range without exposing themselves to detection by coming to the surface. SSNs are much more stealthy than conventional submarines – they operate quietly, are harder to detect and can carry enough fuel for 30 years of operation. The decision to acquire Tomahawk missiles – which can be fired from either ships or submarines – also marks a major addition to Australia’s capabilities.

The announcement means that the Australian Government will no longer proceed with procuring French Naval Group Australia (NGA) designed Attack Class submarines – a program estimated to be worth approximately AU$90 billion. In response to the sudden change of plans France’s Ambassadors in Canberra and Washington were recalled to Paris.

The technology-sharing dimension of AUKUS leverages decades of expertise in the US and UK nuclear industries. Historically, the US has only ever shared this strategic technology with the UK – Australia will be joining an exclusive group of six countries that operate SSNs, and the other six have civilian nuclear power industries and nuclear weapons programs. Australia will be the exception to this historic norm.

Opportunities from AUKUS

According to the Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS, the partnership will promote deeper cooperation on a range of security and defence capabilities, including information and technology sharing. There will also be a deeper integration of security and defence-related science and technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. There will be new economic opportunities that flow from the increased defence spending, training and expansion of naval bases.

These long-term aspirations of AUKUS could see it become a mechanism for all sorts of parallel investments, academic collaborations, industrial partnerships, workforce secondments and exchanges. Significantly, the pact includes cooperation in areas such as long-range strike capabilities, cyber warfare, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. The strategic potential of AUKUS lies in how the new grouping can be leveraged in the long term to share strategic technology, information and expertise to help members deal with the profound technological disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and hybrid threats such as cyber-attacks and data theft, supply-chain disruption, disinformation and propaganda, and foreign interference.

AUKUS and geopolitics

The next steps in relation to the SSNs will involve an 18-month establishment phase – a scoping exercise to determine exactly what could be built where, by whom and when. While the building of SSNs with American and British help could take years to bring direct military dividends, there are immediate symbolic geopolitical impacts.

As has been well-reported, France is highly displeased with the cancellation of its submarine provision arrangement with Australia. There is now the possibility that Australia-European Union (EU) trade talks could be disrupted. On the same day that AUKUS was announced, the EU released its own Indo-Pacific strategy. The EU’s strategy calls for a deepening of the union’s engagement “with partners in the Indo-Pacific to respond to emerging dynamics that are affecting regional stability.” EU representatives have expressed frustration over a lack of consultation by the US before announcing AUKUS. Despite these tensions, there is a need for the US and the EU to work together on a more coherent Indo-Pacific strategy that strengthens the transatlantic alliance.

Closer to home, it is essential to consider what the trilateral agreement means to our regional neighbours. China has denounced the AUKUS pact – Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the alliance risked “severely damaging regional peace and intensifying the arms race”. The Philippines have been supportive of the AUKUS pact, with the Philippine Foreign Secretary stating that it addresses a military ‘imbalance’ in Southeast Asia. In contrast, Indonesia and Malaysia, have expressed concerns about over nuclear submarines operating in regional waters.

Some experts have suggested that the AUKUS agreement signals a paradigm shift in US strategy and policy across the Indo-Pacific region. The SSNs certainly suggest a shift in Australia’s approach to securing regional security, if not a recalculation of the challenges being faced. In that respect, the AUKUS security pact is part of a quest for security and stability in increasingly volatile geopolitical times.

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