British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is joined virtually by US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for the launch of the AUKUS Partnership in London on September 15, 2021. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

The agreement among Canberra, London and Washington to supply nuclear-powered submarine and underwater-drone technology to Australia (AUKUS) has caused a ruckus in Australia, Europe and Asia. 

An underreported but strategically significant part of the agreement calls for “rotations of US fighters and bombers to northern Australia” and potentially “more rotational basing for its submarines in Perth.” Thus AUKUS enables Australian and American deployment of advanced military assets for surveillance and deterrence of China in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. 

Reactions to this deal depend in part on where a country is located geographically and its position regarding the burgeoning US-China struggle. 

American and Australian ally nuclear-free New Zealand immediately told neighboring Australia that the nuclear-powered submarines would not be welcome in its waters.

Some praise it like its progenitors the US, the UK and Australia, and another US ally, the Philippines – although Manila may be reconsidering its position. Others like Malaysia and Indonesia are “concerned.” To France, which was left out of the deal, it is a “betrayal.” And for its target, China, it is a crossing of the Rubicon. 

The leaders’ AUKUS announcement stated that the alliance was “guided by our enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order” and that “the endeavor we launch today will help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Canberra claims the arrangement will show the world that countries like Australia can stand up to China (with US backing). Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the intent was “to develop Australia’s capability to protect its territory as well as that of friends in the region” (from China’s aggression).

Not said but obviously a factor is the national pride in joining the small elite group of six countries (China, France, India, Russia, the UK and the US) with nuclear-powered submarines. It thus raises the status of, and respect for, Australia in the region and the world.

But there is some strong opposition to the deal in Australia, including by at least two former prime ministers, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.  

Keating declared: ”The announced agreement … will amount to a lock-in of Australian military equipment and thereby forces, with those of the US with only one objective: the ability to act collectively in any military engagement by the US against China….

“This arrangement would witness a further dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty, as material dependency on the US robbed Australia of any freedom or choice in any engagement Australia may deem appropriate.”

Rudd concurred. He asked if the agreement meant that the submarines will be “interoperable with the Americans in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea or even the East China Sea in China’s unresolved territorial disputes with its neighbors? If so, this is indeed a slippery slope to a pre-commitment to becoming an active belligerent against China in a future war….”

Indeed, some say Australia has traded its strategic and foreign-policy independence to the US in return for protection against China. They also say it makes Australia a target in the event of a conflict between China and the US. Some anti-nuclear activists raise the possibility of nuclear proliferation as well as storage of nuclear weapons on its soil. Moreover, other countries like South Korea may now want a similar deal.

Australia’s leaders see it as complementary to the Quad, an informal anti-China security dialogue comprising Australia, India, Japan and the current driver, the US. 

Morrison claimed the deal was warmly received by India and Japan. But some say India may be wary because it does not want to aggravate tensions with China further. Moreover, it is a strategic ally of France, which is outraged about the loss of a US$90 billion contract with Australia for conventional submarines and how the deal was reached behind its back.

Southeast Asian concerns

The agreement has certainly ruffled Australia’s relations with South China Sea littoral countries. Some see it and the Quad as further undermining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ “centrality” in regional security affairs. Others think the agreement may even drive some Southeast Asian countries away from the US for fear of further angering China.

Malaysia is concerned that the agreement could lead to more conflict and an arms race in the region. But it is Indonesia that may present a significant potential complication to the US and Australian use of nuclear-powered submarines and drones to patrol the South China Sea. To get there and back from their likely bases in Australia, the shortest and most convenient route is through Indonesia’s straits and archipelagic sea lanes. 

Approval of the use of Indonesian waters for such missions in the South China Sea would undermine Jakarta’s carefully constructed “dynamic equilibrium” foreign policy. Also, Indonesia does not want to be in the middle of a possible US-Australia-China military dust-up.

Besides that, because of its history of being divided by and attacked from the sea, it is very sensitive about military vessels in or under its waters. Accordingly it has its own view of the relevant provisions in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and what constitutes infractions thereof. 

After the announcement of AUKUS, Jakarta reiterated its deep concern “over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region” and called on Australia to comply with UNCLOS. 

For France and other US allies in the European Union, it was a “stab in the back” by a mini Anglophone cabal that confirms the US pivot away from Europe toward Asia. They point out that AUKUS is counterproductive to the supposed US goal of enhancing a coalition of democracies to oppose China’s regional aggression and bullying.

But the US emphasizes military force or the threat thereof while the EU prefers to influence China through economic cooperation. AUKUS could be the push that combines with the  pull of opportunity for the post-Brexit French- and German-led EU to go its own way and navigate between its values and security partner – the US – and its economic partner – China. This is increasingly being advocated by EU thinkers.

But it is the reaction of China that is being most closely watched. To China’s military it means that the US and Australia are preparing to use the threat of force to contain it. If that is the assumption, then it must prepare for military conflict. 

When they come on line, the nuclear-powered submarines will enable Australia, on behalf of the US, to patrol the South China Sea stealthily and detect, track and, if necessary, target China’s nuclear-powered and -armed submarines based in Yulin on Hainan. This is particularly threatening to China because one of its military weaknesses is anti-submarine warfare. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the agreement would “seriously damage peace and stability [and] exacerbate an arms race.” Obviously China will try to improve the stealth of its submarines as well as its anti-submarine warfare capabilities. 

It will also probably counter these strategic US moves by drawing closer militarily to Russia and other potential allies in the region, such as Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos and possibly Vietnam, which is the focus of the current soft-power contest between the US and China.

It may even try to negotiate the “rotational” basing of its naval and air forces in friendly regional countries, following the US example.

Many view AUKUS as another neo-imperialist step closer to a cold war – which will generate demands on them to choose as well as proxy wars – and perhaps even Armageddon. A common concern is, “What does this mean for us?” Many may not be willing to risk a nuclear war and its collateral damage “just so the US can maintain its regional dominance.”

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.