Understanding AUKUS: The Submarine Deal, Restraining China and Geopolitical Implications

Despite its indifference towards AUKUS, India will welcome the arrangement to support a free and open Indo-Pacific in light of the increasingly assertive attitude of China in the region. India’s concerns regarding “encirclement” by China may also be partially mitigated by AUKUS.

The unparalleled rise of China has been one of the most notable geopolitical phenomena. It espouses greater ambitions, and under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, a newly assertive China is pursuing a sophisticated strategy that exploits all elements of state power to strengthen its position in the world. Across much of the Indo-Pacific region, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using military and economic coercion to bully its neighbours. This predatory conduct increases the risk of conflict.

Events leading to AUKUS

Australia banned Chinese telecom giant Huawei in 2018, and its PM called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. China retaliated by imposing tariffs on or capping Australian exports. Australia has thus felt increasing pressure from an assertive China. In order to balance this threat, Australia has been trying to strengthen its partnerships with India, the U.S., and the U.K. to strategically balance out China. The U.S. too has been shifting its focus to the Indo-Pacific region given the potential of the region and also the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese, whom it considers a challenger to its global dominance. In this regard, it has been focusing on strengthening bilateral partnerships with its traditional partners in Asia like Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, as well as with new partners like India and Vietnam. It has also been promoting new formations like the quad. The U.K. has expressed its vision to engage more deeply with the Indo-Pacific.

What is the AUKUS?

Under the “AUKUS” alliance, the three partners—the UK, the US, and Australia—are jointly going to increase the development of joint capabilities and technology sharing. The focus of AUKUS will be on integrating all defence and security-related science, supply chains, industrial bases, and technology. The partnership would also involve a new architecture of meetings and engagements between the three countries and cooperation across emerging technologies like AI, quantum technologies, and undersea capabilities.

Nuclear-Powered Submarines

It is expected to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines to counter China’s growing power in the strategically vital region. Australia has ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has vowed to abide by its tenets, notwithstanding the highly sensitive technology transfer implied in the latest proposal. Nuclear-powered submarines can be deployed for longer periods and need to surface less frequently. They have longer ranges and are more capable compared to conventional diesel-electric submarines.

Pre-existing similar arrangements

It complements similar arrangements for the region, such as the Five Eyes intelligence cooperation initiative, ASEAN, and the Quad. The Five Eyes (FVEY) is an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. ASEAN is an economic union comprising 10 member states in Southeast Asia. QUAD is an informal strategic dialogue comprising India, Japan, Australia, and the US. Significance of AUKUS 

The US and UK will assist Australia in the construction of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS accord, marking the first time Washington and London would share sensitive nuclear submarine technology with Australia. AUKUS will aid in the creation of new employment in the defence industry. And the submarine project, which will take several decades, will necessitate the most modern technology. To begin the collaboration, navy authorities and technical professionals from the three nations will collaborate over the next 18 months to equip Australia with the technology to deploy nuclear-powered submarines. However, due to its technological complexity, Australia’s nuclear submarine fleet may not be operational until about 2040. The most significant advantage of nuclear-powered submarines is their ability to stay submerged for extended periods of time with enough fuel to theoretically run for years, which is advantageous in stealth attacks. Conventional submarines with diesel-powered electric engines must emerge on a regular basis to replenish their batteries, allowing them to be detected more readily. The new military alliance will play a critical role in the Indo-Pacific, addressing the region’s strategic situation. According to analysts, the goal is to limit the spread of China’s footprint. The AUKUS alliance has announced a series of initiatives to prepare Australia’s military infrastructure for AUKUS capability delivery. The declaration of the construction of a “Future Navy Base” on Australia’s east coast was the most significant of these undertakings.

AUKUS Geopolitical Implications

The AUKUS alliance will have a profound impact on the various stakeholders in the region and will also result in the reshaping of relations in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

1) For the USA: This development seems to be an extension of the U.S. policy of pivoting to Asia, which emphasizes the need to focus more attention on the Indo-Pacific region while pivoting away from conflicts in West Asia. This is also an extension of the U.S.’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), announced in 2018, which authorizes US$1.5 billion in spending for a range of US programs in East Asia and Southeast Asia to “develop a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled US policy for the Indo-Pacific region. “The Indo-Pacific region has assumed great significance in the United States foreign policy calculus as its tensions with China have only grown.

2) For the UK: Leaving the EU under BREXIT has left Britain seeking to reassert its global position. As part of this effort, it has increased its focus on the Indo-Pacific.

3) For Australia: Australia has come under increasing pressure from an assertive China. In order to balance this threat, Australia has been trying to strengthen its partnerships with India, the U.S., and the U.K. to strategically balance out China. Balancing encompasses the actions that a particular state takes in order to equalize the odds against more powerful states; that is to make it more difficult and hence less likely for powerful states to exert their military advantage over the weaker ones. Unlike hard balancing, which encompasses the traditional balancing of power using military capabilities and formal military alliances like NATO, limited hard balancing relies on informal alliances or strategic partnerships with some military coordination. Under the arrangement, Australia will build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines using U.S. expertise. The nuclear submarines will increase Australia’s maritime security capacity and also give the alliance a stronger military presence in the region.

China & AUKUS

Though none of the countries mentioned China while announcing the deal and also clarified that the alliance was not targeted against any one country, the Counter-China policy is very evident in the new trilateral security partnership, with an emphasis on aspects such as upholding the international rules-based order and promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific in light of China’s assertiveness in the region. The transfer of nuclear propulsion technology to an ally was intended to send a message of reassurance to countries in Asia. China has cautioned that the new pact would undermine regional peace and stability, “intensify” an arms race and undermine international non-proliferation efforts.

China’s Response

Beijing’s official replies have been harsh, frequently accusing the US and its allies of maintaining a dated “Cold War mentality.” The AUKUS deal was widely understood to be in response to its expansionism in the South China Sea and aggression towards Taiwan. Thus, it drew a swift response from China, as the relations between the three allies and China were already low. China has questioned Australia’s commitment to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Later, the Chinese government raised concerns about the possible harm that AUKUS would do to Pacific Rim nuclear non-proliferation efforts. In light of “conspiracy and betrayal,” China also noted the disruption of long-standing political and security connections between Western nations, particularly since France was excluded from the AUKUS accord. 

Why is France offended?

France takes its role as an Indo-Pacific power seriously in a region. One must know that France has 12 time zones. The areas in French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean are mainly responsible for this. It maintains four naval bases, stations around 7,000 soldiers, and has 1.5 million citizens in island territories such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia. France’s anger also stems from the realization that NATO is now a defunct organization in the absence of the glue, the USSR that held it together. It is finding it difficult to deal with America’s clear shifting of focus from NATO to the Indo-Pacific.

Outcomes of AUKUS

  •  Offensive front against China: There is no gainsaying the fact that rapid accretion in China’s economic and military capacities, but more particularly its belligerence, has led to a tectonic shift in regional security paradigms. Several countries have been obliged to review their defence preparedness in response to China’s rising military power and its adverse impact on regional stability.
  • India as a bridge in the Anglosphere: The transatlantic fissure has also pointed to something inconceivable. India could emerge as a potential bridge between different parts of the West. Our PM was on the phone with French President Emmanuel Macron, reaffirming India’s strong commitment to the Indo-Pacific partnership with France. India’s solidarity with France at this difficult moment is rooted in New Delhi’s conviction that preserving the West’s unity is critical to shaping the strategic future of the Indo-Pacific.
  • Exposed Chinese double standards: China has the world’s fastest-growing fleet of subsurface combatants. This includes the Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) and the Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). Its nuclear submarines are on the prowl in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, China denies Australia and others the sovereign right to decide on their defence requirements.

Implications for India

New Delhi is also troubled by the prospect of an AUKUS-generated backlash from China. The agreement could provoke Beijing into expanding military activity in the littorals – not so much in the congested South China Sea, already gridlocked with posturing and counter-posturing, but in the Indian Ocean, where China has so far been relatively quiet. The Chinese navy could assume a more adventurous posture in the Eastern Indian Ocean, deploying more warships and submarines. China’s ships may well stay clear of Indian waters, but their mere presence in the littorals is bound to put more pressure on India’s naval leadership. In response, New Delhi might have to deploy Indian warships in the South China Sea, pushing India-China maritime dynamics into a negative spiral.

The possibility of Chinese aggression in the Indian Ocean isn’t merely hypothetical. Spurred by China’s military and non-military activity in the Indian Ocean region, the Indian navy has in recent months announced a plan to develop a fleet of nuclear attack submarines. Tellingly so far, the United States has made no offer of help. The “very rare” nature of AUKUS – as announced by US officials immediately after the unveiling of the pact – is a reiteration of Washington’s stand on the matter: US policymakers do not anticipate the sharing of submarine propulsion technology with any US partners, other than the United Kingdom and Australia.

Despite its indifference towards AUKUS, India may derive secondary benefits from the AUKUS arrangement, which has three advanced nations with arguably the most sophisticated military power in the world coming together to support a free and open Indo-Pacific in light of the increasingly assertive attitude of China in the region. This could provide some degree of deterrence against China. Also, India’s concerns regarding “encirclement” by China may be partially mitigated by AUKUS.

(The author is a Post Graduate student in International Relations at Amity University, Raipur. She writes articles and research papers regularly on international affairs and geopolitics)

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