The USS Indiana, a nuclear-powered Virginia-class fast attack submarine, leaves Port Canaveral in Florida. Photo: AFP / Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto

Much of the outrage around AUKUS, the new trilateral strategic technology-sharing framework involving Australia, the UK and the US in the Indo-Pacific region, has been on France’s part.

France was contracted by Australia to build a dozen units of a smaller conventional variant of its newest nuclear-propelled Barracuda class, christened the Attack class. The Attack-class program is now set to be canceled and will be replaced by a class of fast attack nuclear submarines built with the help of the US and the UK. 

France sees the new AUKUS deal as its traditional allies US, UK and Australia undermining its interests in the Indo-Pacific with schemes of their own behind its back – in an almost adversarial, exclusionist and secretive way. According to some reporting in the Western press, the “secretive” aspect may indeed be true.

France has, besides issuing scathing communiqués around the implications on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the unreliability of the UK, recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia. 

France has no moral standing

It is interesting that France had proved “duplicitous” at a very important juncture during the Falklands War in 1982 to both belligerents, the UK and Argentina, thus securing a very special reputation internationally for being an unreliable independent actor.

Another blow to France’s reliability came with the 2016 Scorpene data leak, which may have potentially affected all countries operating French-origin submarines of the type.

With the background of these events, it is hard to take seriously any moral or ethical concerns Paris may be trying to gain sympathy with.

France’s cognitive dissonance in proclaiming the Attack-class project as one of the prestige points in its recently updated Indo-Pacific strategy document is strange, especially with the background of the deal being the target of much controversy and skepticism in the Australian press for years.

Obviously, losing such a substantial contract is very unpleasant, but Paris should recall its deal with Russia for the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship. The two almost ready to be delivered ships (Vladivostok and Sevastopol) were transferred to Egypt after sanctions were imposed on Russia in the wake of Crimea being re-integrated with Russia.

Perhaps what goes around comes around in international relations and karma alike.

Path to realization is uncertain

A key question is where the needed shipyard capacity would come from for the Australian boats to be constructed. As many have rightly pointed out it would require elaborate infrastructure and human resources to be raised in Australia, even if not for the construction then for the maintenance and refit capabilities – which would be indispensable for operating the submarines. 

Were Australia to choose the US Virginia class, then it would have a direct impact on America’s own capacity to field new Virginia-class hulls, as the existing US shipyard capacity for submarines is nearly saturated. The British Astute class may be an alternative too, but it’s unclear whether the UK shipbuilding industry is capable of fulfilling an order of potentially a dozen extra hulls either. 

Some specialists argue that these new Australian submarines will use propulsion based on low-enriched uranium to comply the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements for non-nuclear-weapons states cemented in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nevertheless, Australia isn’t expected to obtain nuclear weapons or illegally exploit fission material so far.  

Inviting Beijing’s ire 

Procurement of nuclear-powered submarines and sea-based Tomahawk cruise missiles (perhaps even some hypersonic weapons in future) would seriously enhance Australian sea power and contribute to force-projection capabilities. 

It is worth noting that Australia has not designated China as a “foe” explicitly in its 2020 defense strategic update and only pays due attention to the emerging competition between the US and China and the latter’s “more active pursuit of greater influence in the Indo-Pacific.”

However, operating Virginia-class submarines and Hobart-class destroyers out of Australia in the Pacific (including the South China Sea) and eastern Indian Ocean (up to the Malacca Strait) would be perceived by China as a clear and present danger for its PLA Navy and strategic interests.

Beijing will inevitably reciprocate asymmetrically and Australia may suffer some economic consequences, though these may be offset by financial assistance from allies that will cover any losses and shortfalls.

US should take the right approach with India

Previously, the role now to be assigned to AUKUS was envisaged to be undertaken in part by the Quad. However, several factors including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s broader focus than just the military dimension perhaps made it unsuitable for the purpose. Some commentators have already noticed the absence of other important countries in the US-led anti-China bulwark – India and Japan – in this new AUKUS grouping. 

Perhaps to prevent any fissures in its relationships with those countries and the Quad, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to make presumably reassuring phone calls to the leaders of both India and Japan. The Australian high commissioner in India, Barry O’Farrell, also spoke of India being in the loop before the AUKUS announcement was made public. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato also conveyed a positive reaction to the announcement.

However, the resultant chaos around the exclusion of France, India and Japan is reminiscent of a game of geopolitical musical chairs – where at the drop of a hat rebalancing may occur and those in the fold may be ousted. This will inevitably bring chaos and uncertainty to the balance of power in the region.

India for its part has developed closer and closer ties to the US in the domain of strategic and defense cooperation, including the signing of such agreements as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement), COMCASA (the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) and the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA).

These agreements are significant to Indian strategic and military capabilities by virtue of providing unprecedented access to key communications technology and data streams that can vastly improve the accuracy of India’s missile arsenal. However, they are not likely to give India autonomous capabilities to benefit from or use as New Delhi wishes. This is in direct contrast to Russia’s willingness to lease sensitive military hardware like its advanced nuclear-propelled submarines of the Akula class. 

Russia has also aided the development of India’s indigenous nuclear-submarine program, particularly its miniature onboard nuclear power plants. Washington’s broader strategic aim of dissuading India away from Russia has been characteristic of the “stick” approach, as evident from it mulling the imposition of sanctions over India’s S-400 purchase under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). 

Washington would find much more success in this endeavor were it instead to follow a “carrots” approach by offering India one of its Seawolf-class advanced fast attack nuclear submarines on the same 10-year lease terms as the Russian Akulas. This scenario has the potential to draw India much closer to the US and might serve as a watershed move that could weaken Russo-Indian defense ties further. 

According to Western media reporting, the AUKUS nuclear-submarine deal may also involve a potential lease of US or UK nuclear submarines as a stopgap measure, thereby introducing a precedent after which India can also make a case to become a potential beneficiary of such a lease until its own indigenous fast attack submarines are in service.

In conclusion, the ripples in the Indo-Pacific strategic balancing and counterbalancing will continue, but the US has much to offer its allies Australia and India to bring them closer to its envisaged security posture in the region.  

In the more realistic case, however, Washington will likely continue to rely on “sticks” as well, for instance introducing trade limitations and political pressure on its allies, not unlike how it dissuaded South Korea and Japan from more persistent positions on North Korea and pushed them further away from China.

All views expressed here are personal.

Andrey Gubin

Andrey Gubin is an associate professor at the Department of International Relations, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.