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China Has Only Itself to Blame for AUKUS

The trilateral partnership was an inevitable result of Beijing’s military growth.

Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Sheean
Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Sheean arrives for a logistics port visit in Hobart, Australia, on April 1. LSIS Leo Baumgartner/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images

Late last week, the White House announced the creation of a new trilateral defense partnership among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. At the heart of this new partnership, known as AUKUS, was the announcement that Washington and London would help Canberra develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines.

China was not mentioned in this announcement, although the exponential growth of Beijing’s military power over the past decade was clearly the animating force behind the agreement. France was also not mentioned, even though Australia’s new agreement meant that it was dropping the 2016 contract it had with France for the delivery of French submarines. Not surprisingly, the announcement was met with bombast from Beijing and indignation from Paris.

But nobody should have been that shocked by the decision. It represented the convergence of three long-standing trend lines: the exponential growth and assertive use of the Chinese military; the drastic increase in political and economic pressure imposed on Australia by China; and the steadily growing American concerns about China, the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, and Washington’s determination to align its strategy with the scale of that challenge.

Late last week, the White House announced the creation of a new trilateral defense partnership among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. At the heart of this new partnership, known as AUKUS, was the announcement that Washington and London would help Canberra develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines.

China was not mentioned in this announcement, although the exponential growth of Beijing’s military power over the past decade was clearly the animating force behind the agreement. France was also not mentioned, even though Australia’s new agreement meant that it was dropping the 2016 contract it had with France for the delivery of French submarines. Not surprisingly, the announcement was met with bombast from Beijing and indignation from Paris.

But nobody should have been that shocked by the decision. It represented the convergence of three long-standing trend lines: the exponential growth and assertive use of the Chinese military; the drastic increase in political and economic pressure imposed on Australia by China; and the steadily growing American concerns about China, the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, and Washington’s determination to align its strategy with the scale of that challenge.

The United States does not share its world-leading naval nuclear propulsion freely. In fact, the only other country with access to such technology is Britain, which gained access in 1958 due to Cold War concerns. Washington has consistently denied entreaties by other allies over the years, largely driven by concerns that doing so would encourage nuclear proliferation.

Last week’s announcement does not amount to a change in Washington’s nuclear nonproliferation policy or in how widely it wants to share that technology. It was driven instead by unique circumstances and the extraordinary closeness of the U.S.-Australian relationship. Nonetheless, it is indicative of a larger shift in U.S. strategic thinking toward empowering its allies, forging a coalition of nations willing to push back against Beijing, and redistributing its force posture around the Indo-Pacific region in new ways.

For Australia, this is no less of a sea change. It is certainly big news that Australia canceled its contract with the French, who were slated to design and deliver 12 diesel-powered submarines by the 2030s. However, Canberra had been growing anxious for the past several years about cost overruns and delays on the delivery of those subs. Yet ultimately neither of those concerns proved to be the deal breaker for the Australians. Rather, it was the increasingly clear realization by the Australian government that China’s rapid military buildup of its naval and missile forces and the aggressive use of its military and economic power that were a direct threat to Australia and called for a more significant deterrent.

Nuclear-fueled submarines—with their ability to stay hidden longer, range further, and carry more significant capabilities—provide one such deterrent. It is not the submarines themselves but rather what they represent that underscores the change in Australia’s thinking. Moving forward, Australia will expand its role in the region by fielding greater capabilities, hosting more allied and partner forces, exhibiting a greater presence, and taking on an enlarged role for ensuring regional stability.

Meanwhile Britain, in the wake of Brexit and diminishment of its involvement in European affairs, has been eager to redefine its role in global affairs. London adopted the language of a “global Britain in a competitive age,” and it has repeatedly signaled its newfound focus on the Indo-Pacific region. And while there has been talk of Britain joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership or perhaps augmenting Japan, Australia, India, and the United States in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, this new arrangement has the potential to lock in and incentivize a greater and more sustained British presence in Asia.

AUKUS fundamentally steps up cooperation among its members—which was already at a strong baseline. There are few countries whose militaries and strategic cultures are quite as synched. Not only have the United States and Australia fought together in every major conflict of the past century—even, to most Australians’ regret, Vietnam—but Australia also hosts a rotational deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin and serves as the location for key intelligence facilities. Moreover, combat training, interoperability, and intelligence coordination between the two nations are as close today as they have ever been.

But, as close as this relationship is, AUKUS will push the two countries even closer. This includes an expansion of Australia’s maritime and air force bases, an enlargement of allied logistical capacity, a shift and augmentation in the type of American military presence in Australia, an increase in allied maritime and aerial presence in the region, the integration of supply chains for defense production, the growth of a defense industrial base in both countries, and the deeper integration of strategic technologies. Some of these policy shifts were mentioned explicitly; others were implied in last week’s joint leaders’ statement on AUKUS. In fact, the groundwork for many of these was undertaken not just in the run-up to last week’s dramatic announcement but over the past 18 months.

Looming over all this are the questions of whether this new partnership can deter further acts of Chinese aggression and enhance regional security. Some analysts have noted that this move is likely to heighten tensions with Beijing. That assessment is likely correct, and yet the agreement was deemed necessary. Other commentators have gone further, declaring AUKUS an unnecessary and counterproductive provocation of Beijing. Such claims are harder to justify, as they reverse cause and effect, ignoring that AUKUS is a direct result of China’s increasingly provocative actions.

Whether the new defense partnership among Canberra, Washington, and London can actually deliver on its promise will partially be dictated by the momentum and speed of the partners’ follow-up. But it will also be determined by the degree to which other countries join in similar efforts, develop nonmilitary collaborations, and play a more active role pushing back against Beijing’s destabilizing actions.

Increasing allied military and technological cooperation in such a dramatic fashion demonstrates that the United States takes the region’s security seriously. But as bold as it is, it is still only a partial strategy. The military balance in the Indo-Pacific might well rest on how quickly AUKUS can move from concept to reality. But the challenges posed by China will go far beyond that.

Charles Edel is senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and co-author of The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.

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