TCSS Security Commentaries #022

Dr. Tran Thi Duyen, Vietnam Institute of Northeast Asian Studies

 © Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

On September 15, 2021, an unprecedented trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, aka. AUKUS, was born. The announcement surprised experts in the international community as well as many of America’s allies. The new mechanism makes a foundation for extensive cooperation with a focus on enhancing security and defense capabilities among the three countries. Analysts argue that this move will be a milestone reshaping many bilateral and multilateral relations in the region, setting a new situation and a new context of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. It may further be seen as a remarkable evolution affecting global strategic competition in the coming years.

Officially, the pact covers the sharing of information and technology in areas such as intelligence, artificial intelligence, quantum technology, guided missiles, and cyberspace. However, one of the most noticeable contents that is, under the pact, the UK and US agree to deliver over many advanced technologies and defense capabilities, including nuclear-powered submarines, to Australia—a country located in an important strategic position in the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Why Now?

In the Indo-Pacific, the US has many important allies, even pivotal significance in its global strategy such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, or New Zealand. But why was Australia chosen? Australia is a country that shares overwhelming similarities and multiple aspects with the US and UK—ranging from language, culture, political institutions, economic strength, and foreign policy. In fact, both Australia and the US have in their own ways gone through Britain’s imperial legacy. Today, the newly inaugurated AUKUS was launched one month after the Taliban entered Kabul, which effectively signaled an end to the Western-backed Afghan government and involvement in the country. US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, left behind a quivering ally (the Ghani government) and ultimately collapsed without any resistance or intervention. Thus, raising eyebrows internationally questioning US credibility, even its closest allies are to varying degrees concerned about Washington’s assurances.

In a sensitive region like the Indo-Pacific where China is a more serious opponent than the Taliban and it is increasingly assertive and constantly expanding influence, it is difficult to avoid doubt about the US’s commitment to its allies and partners. In addition to the US Navy’s freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, therefore, the US needs a special alliance with the participation of Britain, its closest ally, and Australia, a regional power. AUKUS is likely a statement on the US’s permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific. To the UK, London is eager to make its deeper engagement in Asia, especially after leaving the European Union (EU). Brexit critics once had sarcastic remarks that without the EU, Britain is just a small, cold and lonely island. Prime Minister Boris Johnson administration is trying to prove that Britain is a great power on a global scale, instigating the notion of Global Britain. AUKUS gives the UK an enhanced opportunity of such a role, after London also formally applied to join CPTPP trade agreement.

What can we see from AUKUS?

First, as mentioned above, this is an unprecedented alliance, it is a highlight, and a different way of the Biden administration from his predecessor Donald Trump. If the Trump administration sought to unilaterally confront with China in most areas while simultaneously exerting constant pressure on close allies such as Japan and South Korea, President Biden skillfully builds up a new alliance and strengthens the old one, and establishing “the way of playing” based on international rules and laws. The goal of the US not only bind opponents but also allies and partners while the US plays a pivotal role.

Second, the Indo-Pacific continues to be the number one priority in the US security strategy and foreign policy, surpass the Middle East region. AUKUS establishment is to fulfill goals set forth in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The future of the three countries and the world depends on the survival and prosperity of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in the coming decades. Third, AUKUS is the first formal and multilateral military alliance to be formed in the Indo-Pacific region in the twenty-first century. This is the first step, and it could be the beginning of the next pacts of semi-formal or formal security-military alliances in the region in the future. In August, just a month before AUKUS was born, senior officials of the Quad (the US, Japan, India, and Australia) met and discussed maritime security cooperation for the first time. This shows that the Quad is changing direction, emphasizing more on security aspects, especially maritime security.

Fourth, under the AUKUS pact, the US and UK will help Australia to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Because of the sensitive nature of nuclear-powered submarine technology, the US has only shared this technology with Britain and Australia for now. Additionally, from a commercial perspective, AUKUS is also a huge deal worth US$ 66 billion. This is the expected amount of money that the US and UK will benefit in exchange for selling technology and a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. To get this deal, Australia canceled a signed contract with French shipbuilder Naval Group in 2016. Thus, by delivering over a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, it is not only a story of trust between the US and Australia but also a competition between the US and France.

Fifth, maritime security is a highlight and an important priority in cooperation between the US and regional countries, whether bilateral or multilateral relations. The three AUKUS members are sea powers with interests attached to trade and free of navigation at sea. Strengthening naval cooperation – an important component of maritime security cooperation will help all three countries to enhance their collective strength to effectively address challenges at sea as well as new security challenges in the region. Contrary to their expectations, however, AUKUS might create new uncertainties in the region.

Although the joint announcement by US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not mention China, the new security alliance is likely to be seen as a provocation move by Beijing, which has repeatedly lashed out at Mr. Biden as he has sought to refocus US foreign policy towards the Pacific region in the early going of his presidency. Especially, in the context of China’s increasing presence in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, AUKUS is a clear signal to China.

So far, there are still opposite reactions on the impact of the AUKUS cooperation mechanism on the regional situation. The geopolitical movements of the parties, especially the implementation of the contents under the new alliance will play an important role in shaping and governing structural regional security frameworks in the coming time.