An op-ed by Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the ANU National Security College and author of Contest for the Indo-Pacific
16 September 2021
The new pact between the UK, US and Australia could lead to nothing less than a merger of military, industrial and scientific capabilities.
Britain has just become part of something momentous in the Indo-Pacific, the super-region centred on maritime Asia and Australasia where China has been fast-expanding its coercive military power.
Not only has the UK’s Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier “strike group” recently completed warlike exercises with Japanese, American and other navies in the Pacific, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now joined the leaders of Australia and the United States to launch a powerful new security triangle.
This augments the longstanding Australia-US and UK-US alliances with a new tripartite grouping called AUKUS, launched in a virtual meeting on the 15 September between Johnson, Australian PM Scott Morrison and US president Joe Biden.
AUKUS’s initial priority will be to pool US and British expertise and technology to develop a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia over the decades ahead. This has cascading significance for Australia and the Indo-Pacific; for China – the power this is largely about keeping at bay; and for Britain, the United States and Europe.
For Australia, it’s a huge deal, and in a military sense almost existential. Anxieties about Chinese power have intensified with Beijing’s totalitarian turn, aggression in the South China Sea and political interference campaigns.
This low point has also come with economic bullying, following Canberra’s bluntness in being the first to call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
As an island continent, reliant on seaborne trade, Australia needs a strong navy. But in the undersea domain – which is vital for naval deterrence and intelligence collection – it has increasingly made do with six Swedish-designed submarines of 1990s vintage. Their conventional (diesel-electric) propulsion limits their ability to stay stealthily deployed around one of the largest maritime zones in the world.
Meanwhile, the waters of the Indo-Pacific have become starkly contested, as the modernisation of China’s navy has overtaken those of Japan, India, Australia and all others, except America’s, with which it now contends for dominance.
Since 2009, when the then Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd promised Australia would fix this vulnerability with a regionally superior fleet of 12 submarines, the question has been “how”?
That seemed answered in 2016, when the conservative government of Malcolm Turnbull agreed to a huge deal for the “future submarines” to be designed and built in Australia by French state contractor Naval Group. Japan had expected to win the bid, but moved on.
The Australia-France arrangement soon struggled, however, with shifting understandings on price, timelines and capability. Canberra wanted a diesel-electric submarine with the performance of a nuclear one. All the while, China’s assertiveness and Australia’s angst were rising.
At the same time, then US president Donald Trump’s abusive attitude to allies reinforced Canberra’s interest in diversifying its security partners, whether with Asian powers such as its “Quad” friends India and Japan, or with France – or, it turns out, a Britain seeking its own post-Brexit way in the world.
Biden’s America and Johnson’s Britain have become focused on the risks to their interests and values from China’s assertive power, including in the far-flung Indo-Pacific – the global centre of gravity for economic growth and strategic tensions alike.
This has dovetailed with Australia’s quest for security. Thus, on the sidelines of the Cornwall G7 summit in June – the elements of a new plan were struck.
Nuclear submarine cooperation is the headline, because the sudden American and British willingness to share their technology was what persuaded Australia to take the difficult decision to drop the French connection.
But there is much more in play. This new triple near-alliance is based on capability, convergent interest and, above all, trust. It will be easy enough to caricature as an outmoded Anglosphere. Yet these are three of the world’s most multicultural democracies, now defining their identity more by shared liberal ideals than heritage.
The trio have hinted at a larger commitment to one another: nothing less than a merger of military, industrial and scientific capabilities (a point applauded publicly by Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee) in the new commanding heights of cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
But the hard work begins now, as do the hard questions. Australia can’t afford to get this one wrong, so all three countries need to be serious, and committed for the long haul. The three governments have set an 18-month deadline to map out the specifics of the nuclear submarine plan. This involves the enormous task of sharing advanced nuclear technology with a country that has no civilian nuclear sector. One surprise is that Australia’s Labor opposition seems largely on board, now assenting to the need for a technology it had long regarded as taboo.
Difficult diplomacy lies ahead. Relations with France are going to go through a tough period. Paris is understandably aggrieved at all three powers over the cancellation of its contract. Whatever the commercial imperatives, this deal was emblematic of President Macron’s wider play for an influential French role in the Indo-Pacific – where France has been welcomed and encouraged by Australia as a resident power and diplomatic partner.
Australia and France – indeed the whole EU – have a real convergence of interests in a rules-based Indo-Pacific region dominated by no single power. It would be a tragedy if, in strengthening their own ability to balance China, the AUKUS trio have discouraged the admittedly more cautious solidarity that other democracies have begun to show.
On the other hand, there will likely be little rush to allay China’s professed alarm, given that this is about Australia’s friends helping it acquire its own share of the kind of naval power that China has been building up for years.