How the Aukus security alliance raises awkward questions for China, and some US allies
- By focusing on the US, UK and Australia, the grouping leaves out key allies and partners, including France, Canada and New Zealand
- For Beijing, the partnership shows how its policies on Indo-Pacific countries, such as sanctioning Australian exports, can backfire
The agreement is significant because it adds a new element to the US-based Indo-Pacific alliance system. It also offers almost unprecedented levels of defence industrial cooperation.
But Aukus is interesting not just for what it entails and which countries are included, but also for which countries are excluded. The agreement deepens existing relationships and diversifies the alliance system in the Indo-Pacific, but by focusing on three countries it also shuts out other key European and Anglophonic countries.
For Australia, the decision to develop nuclear-powered submarines indicates that it wants this capability to be far more regional – operating across the Indo-Pacific – rather than local.
Nuclear propulsion technology is exceedingly sensitive. The US has only shared this information with one other country – the UK – following a 1958 agreement. Including Australia under this technological umbrella demonstrates the deep level of trust between these historical allies.
But while Aukus creates a new alliance acronym in the region, it might also be viewed with suspicion by other US allies. By further solidifying the US shift to the Indo-Pacific, it suggests a weakening of the importance of Europe-based alliance systems such as Nato. For France, which is likely to lose a US$66 billion contract for submarine development, the announcement is particularly galling.
Canada and New Zealand, the other two members, have been excluded. Neither country has nuclear-powered submarines, and New Zealand explicitly prohibits nuclear-powered vessels from its waters, making it difficult to include them in the agreement, but it is hard not to feel ostracised when your friends form their own intragroup gang.
For New Zealand, which has been part of the trilateral Anzus collective security grouping with Australia and the US since 1951, the exclusion is likely to be even more stark.
It highlights not just how US and allied policy is increasingly oriented towards countering Beijing’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific, but also how China’s own policies can backfire.
Aukus might have happened even without the Sino-Australian trade dispute, but it is also undeniable that Beijing’s sanctions alienated Australia and strengthened Canberra’s resolve to deepen its ties with the US.
Now China will have to contend not just with US, UK and French nuclear submarines in its backyard, but also with Australian ones. Meanwhile, the Aukus allies will continue to seek out new ways to strengthen their new-found partnership, discussing a range of issues from military collaboration to ways to counter China’s trade policies.
For Beijing, the awkwardly named Aukus raises exceedingly awkward questions and concerns.
Christian Le Miere is a foreign policy adviser and founder of Arcipel, a strategic consultancy