AUKUS: No easy role in the complexity of Indo-Pacific security
By: James Maclaren
Continuing events in the Indo-Pacific region have dispelled any notion that managing the strategic balance was as simple as the incumbent superpower, the United States, managing its relationship with the rising superpower pretender of China. The emergence of three new elements powerfully demonstrates that maintaining the vital strategic balance is more slippery than soap to control in the hands of the two principal protagonists.
The first element, the new AUKUS alliance is the strangest of the trio in that it involves a row within the western alliance when the loudest calls from western capitals have been for unity in the face of Chinese regional hegemony and twists western cooperation from one defence alliance into another, causing considerable anger from the principal loser in the arrangement – France. The willingness of President Biden to anger the French, seemingly in contradiction of pre-election hope in European capitals that America would breathe new hope and trust into relationships which had stagnated under the Trump Administration, caused widespread surprise, not least for the secrecy in which it was negotiated.
Yet, this does Biden a disservice. It was really Australia that decided to renege upon its 2019 "Strategic Partnership Agreement" with France, under which the Australians had committed to a $90 billion contract for a fleet of conventional, diesel-powered submarines, and replace it with an agreement to buy eight nuclear-powered submarines using US and UK technology. At the heart of the dramatic switch is the Australian realisation that the agreement with France, which was troubled both technically and commercially, would not meet the changing defense requirements of Australia. While this could be taken as political incompetence, after all the agreement with France was only two years old, behind Australian thinking lay thinking that was compelling enough to set aside an important agreement with a powerful friendly ally.
Of particular concern to the country’s leadership was the bullying behaviour of China toward Australia during the period from which the agreement was signed, including its boycotts of Australian exports and regularly highly public diplomatic insults. The balance between maintaining friendly relations with the country's biggest export market and those who saw the nation’s future as better served by being fully committed to America's vision of Indo-Pacific security tipped in the latter’s favour. But with this commitment comes responsibility for assuming a more forward leaning defense posture towards China. The procurement of diesel-powered submarines limited by range and submerged endurance, capable of serving chiefly the territorial defense needs of the country just would not cut it in any future U.S.-led strategy for the Indo-Pacific region especially in the South China Sea.
Over the past two decades China has successfully used access denial strategy to make American-led maritime operations in the region during a period of tension or actual conflict far riskier. While for many years U.S. maritime and air power could operate with relative impunity in the area, including in the highly sensitive Taiwan Strait, this is no longer the case. The addition of a powerful Australian counter capability to challenge China’s denial, albeit the vessels will not be operational until the late 2030s, swings the pendulum back in the Americans favour.
The defense logic of the long-term benefit for the U.S. and Australia of strengthening the western deterrence against the Chinese military outweighs the damage made by offending France. The calculation is that relations with France can be repaired quickly and gallic pride will get over the setback and can be mended in other ways. But the move is not without risks, principal amongst them the dependence upon American technology and supplies, Australia has no nuclear industry of its own, and it must be sure that future dependability of an alliance with the United States can be trusted, a dependability that history and recent events in Afghanistan has tested.
The calculation is however, probably a safe one. Whatever else takes place in the world the American stance towards China, especially in defence and security is likely to remain strong and strategic containment of that country will be a principal theme of the U.S. National Security policy.
It is not just the need to challenge attempted Chinese South China Sea hegemony that makes the AUKUS pact an interesting development. During the Trump Administration, North Korea significantly reduced its missile testing program, a move which followed President Trump’s historic but ultimately unproductive bilateral summits with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. This has now been reversed with the country’s military conducting a fresh series of tests of ballistic, cruise, and what the leadership boasts is a new, ultra-fast hypersonic missiles.
While the resumption of testing may be a North Korean tactic of displaying military strength so as to intimidate others, including Japan and create negotiating leverage, another explanation is possible. Some analysts believe the North Korean invigoration of its missile program may have support and encouragement from China behind it. The souring of relations between the U.S. and China over trade, technology, the pandemic and security, could have led to Chinese calculation that increased North Korean belligerence would provide evidence of how little influence the U.S. and its Western allies have over Indo-Pacific security.
A similar strategy may be at play with Taiwan where the third event surrounding the birth of AUKUS is developing. China has been conducting numerous aggressive air sorties through the island's air defence identification zones, presumably to reinforce China's contention that Taiwan is Chinese territory. Accompanying Chinese military activity was a major speech given on the 9th October by President Xi Jinping who spoke in very plain terms about his desire for "reunification" between China and Taiwan.
The dilemma for the West over Taiwan increases. In the face of Chinese political and military pressure, the official “one-China” policy followed by the West since the 1970s is being strained by the need to supply Taiwan with the technology and arms it needs to defend itself. The strategic poker game that could result in a de facto recognition of Taiwan as a nation could have alarming consequences for peace and security if China feels compelled to increase the pace of its reunification ambitions.
Against this strategic complexity the AUKUS alliance is an important contribution that must play its part in developing answers to maintain Indo-Pacific, in fact global, peace and security.