Peter Dutton, then Australian defence minister, speaks at a press conference at HMAS Stirling, a Royal Australian Navy base in Perth, on October 29, 2021. Since September 2021, Australia, the UK and the US have entered a trilateral security partnership called Aukus. Photo: EPA-EFE
Daryl Guppy
Daryl Guppy

Aukus’ real threat to Asean is not nuclear-powered submarines, but dreams of Western empire

  • Contrary to regional concerns, the US and UK helping Australia build nuclear-powered submarines does not pose a material threat
  • What is dangerous, amid US, UK and European naval operations in the South China Sea, is the imperial longing that drives Aukus
A year ago, the Aukus agreement was announced. The security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States came as a surprise to Australians and is viewed as an unpleasant development by Association of Southeast Asian Nations members.

It reflected Australia’s desire to see imperial re-engagement with the region. It supported the dreams of empire favoured by then UK prime minister Boris Johnson. It slotted comfortably into US President Joe Biden’s hegemonic narrative which interprets the global rules-based order as an instrument of American foreign policy.

Aukus raises two important issues. The most contentious is the planned acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. The less obvious issue is the desire to return to an Anglo domination of the Asean region.
Indonesia is particularly concerned about the proliferation of military nuclear weapons – and make no mistake, a submarine is a weapon. The issue of proliferation is different from the issue of arms control by existing nuclear-capable powers. Proliferation is about the expansion of nuclear powers within the region and the potential to destabilise the existing balance.

There is no question that Aukus aims to upset this balance and several countries see this as a first step towards a broader nuclear capability. In its submission to the United Nations review of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Indonesia formally raised its concern that the sharing of nuclear technology for military purposes could lead to the “emergence of new types of weapons of mass destructions derived from the combination of nuclear materials and conventional weapons”.

Malaysia has expressed disquiet at multiple levels, with both the prime minister and foreign minister raising concerns that Aukus could “potentially spark tension among the world superpowers, and aggravate aggression between them in the region”.

It remains an open question as to how significant this submarine threat really is. Delivery of any new submarine to Australia is not expected to commence, by some estimates, until 2040. The suggestion that the US might build off-the-rack boats for Australia has been dismissed as impossible. The US Navy is years behind in its schedule of repairs and maintenance, let alone the construction of new submarines for its own fleet. Any supply to Australia for Aukus is simply out of the question.

It seems that the submarine deal may be more of a red herring than something that should concern the region. With the first delivery not expected until 2040, there is every possibility that, by then, the strategic and military environment will have made the submarines irrelevant.

In April, the pact was extended to the development of hypersonic missiles. This kind of cooperation should not come as a surprise. It is more appropriate for Aukus than the Quad, because the latter includes India. New Delhi’s persistent relationship with Moscow and its reliance on Russian weapons, makes for an uneasy alliance where military secrets might be shared.

Australia needs better terms with China but refuses to meet it halfway

The importance of Aukus lies in its revanchist longing for an imperial order that is long past its glory days and has been comprehensively rejected in the region. This is the more insidious area of concern and it has become more concrete in recent weeks.

Northern Australia hosted the biennial air force exercise Pitch Black, which ended this month. While it was not an Aukus affair, the exercise involved air forces from the US and the UK. In addition, with Germany taking part in and sending fighter jets to the exercise for the first time, one could be forgiven for suspecting that a Western imperium was reassembling after the end of World War II.

Pitch Black has been quickly followed by Exercise Kakadu, to which Australia invited navies from more than 20 countries. While the exercise was originally conceptualised in the spirit of constructive diplomacy, gone are the days when China could be included as it was in 2018.


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These exercises come amid naval operations in the South China Sea by the US, the UK and other European navies. Although these operations are not formally part of the Aukus arrangement, they reflect a desire to return to a time when the West dominated Asean’s backyard.

Yet, deafened by their own echo chambers, the Aukus partners cherry-pick lukewarm comments of support from the region and ignore any opposition.

Aukus makes no secret of its desire to counter Chinese influence in the Asean region. The agreement has been characterised as a paper tiger and this remains very much the case in terms of submarine capability.

However, Aukus is a stalking horse for those who look back fondly at Western domination of the region, either as part of an empire or a hegemonic imperium. It is the danger inherent in this kind of thinking that poses the real threat to the region and to the development of a rules-based solution to instability. On the first anniversary of the announcement, Aukus remains an awkward instrument, being neither defence treaty nor trade agreement.

Daryl Guppy is an international financial technical analysis expert and a national board member of the Australia China Business Council. The views expressed here are his own.