The significance of AUKUS

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Announced on 15th September 2021, AUKUS is the new trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The name, an acronym of the three signatories, represents an extension of the long-standing alliance between the countries by offering Australia additional support in their defensive capabilities.

The pact covers various areas of defence, including artificial intelligence, cyber warfare and the continent’s underwater capabilities. The first initiative of this pact is for the two nuclear-weapon states, the US and the UK, to assist Australia with the creation of at least 8 nuclear-powered submarines. This will make Australia one of only seven countries who have nuclear submarines, along with China, France, Russia, UK, US and India, and they will be the only one of those seven to not possess nuclear weapons. This will be the first time in 63 years that the US has shared its submarine technology, having only shared it with the UK’s Royal Navy previously.

Nuclear-powered submarines are a greater defensive asset than those fuelled by diesel-electric (which France were planning to supply Australia with) as they are faster, can remain submerged for longer (making them harder to detect), can shoot missiles further, and are also capable of carrying heavier loads. Having these submarines stationed in Australia increases US influence in the Indo-Pacific region and signals the strength of the relationship between the US and its allies.

Why does AUKUS exist?

While China wasn’t explicitly expressed in the announcement by the three countries, the US intend this pact to signal its commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. Reading between the lines, this is an overt tactic by the US or UK to curb China’s growing economic, political, and military influence between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In recent years, China has increased their investment in infrastructure on Pacific islands, aided by the pandemic. With the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic being felt across the Pacific, islands dependent on tourism, such as the Cook Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu have turned to China for million-dollar loans to keep their economies afloat. The islands would usually turn to New Zealand or Australia for financial assistance but now favour China due to the country’s opportunistic (not altruistic) willingness to lend money. In return for China’s “generosity”, these small states will likely offer up access to their strategic ports, air strips, to the vast areas of resource-rich ocean they control, and China may also benefit from the islands’ abilities to vote in some international forums. These developments are being monitored nervously by the US and its allies who have been the dominant powers in the Pacific since World War Two, as their position is now being threatened by China’s increasing influence in the region.

Another title the US has held since WW2 is the country with the largest navy, but they have now been usurped by China who have churned out warships faster than any other country over the past generation. This fleet has made Beijing’s threats to invade Taiwan more credible and has empowered them to make unlawful claims to the majority of the South China Sea. According to US defence secretary Mark Esper, America plan to counter China’s increased fleet by expanding their own from the current 296 to 355, 5 more than China’s current number. Some of these will be smaller, more nimble boats which are harder to detect on radars and can spread out more widely in the event of a Chinese missile attack. Their smaller size also means they can become unmanned, remote-controlled vessels, reducing the number of potential human casualties.

Non-proliferation treaty

Whilst nuclear-powered submarines are not a nuclear weapon per se, they have the potential to carry nuclear weapons, and the enriched uranium that fuels the subs contains an even higher proportion of the most fissile isotope, U-235, than is used in nuclear bombs. As a result, talk of these submarines has set off alarms in the international community as AUKUS overtly contradicts the objectives of The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT). The NPT forbids signatories who are not already in possession of a bomb from making one and requires them to place sensitive nuclear material (i.e. enriched uranium) under international safeguards that are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, AUKUS exploits a loophole in this treaty that permits states to remove their nuclear material from these safeguards if they are used only for non-proscribed military activity, such as submarine propulsion. This marks the first ever utilisation of this loophole but, according to an anonymous American source, America view this pact as a one-off exception to the NPT. This “exception” can be viewed as arrogance or a necessity.

Unlike the aforementioned countries who own nuclear submarines, Australia will be unlikely to produce their own enriched uranium. Although they have 33% of the world’s uranium deposits, they currently have neither nuclear weapons nor any nuclear power stations to enrich the uranium. Consequently, they will have to acquire reactor fuel from another country, and this will most likely be from America or Britain who both use highly enriched uranium (HEU) that is almost weapons-grade. Low-enriched uranium (LEU) is used by France and China to fuel their submarines but they subsequently require larger reactors and more frequent refuelling. Signatories are explicitly prohibited, in Article III of the NPT, from providing fissionable material (used in nuclear weapons) to non-nuclear-weapon states without various safeguards in place. AUKUS may enable the trio to bypass this condition if the US and UK decide to transfer some uranium-enriching technology to Australia, a country rich in uranium deposits, so they can become self-sufficient in nuclear fuel.

This loophole has inspired concerns that it will be exploited more frequently both by non-nuclear-weapon states for submarines, and by bad actors who aim to acquire bomb-usable HEU under the guise of using it to fuel their submarines. Notably, using enriched uranium purely for submarines removes the need for inspectors to be involved, so the abuse of HEU could go largely undetected.

International reactions

In 2016, France signed a deal to provide Australia with 12 submarines, worth A$50bn. The project has encountered multiple roadblocks in recent years because of its rising costs and delays, but the value of the deal made it almost impossible to back out of. As Australia have now taken the bold and penalty-incurring move to rip up this deal and join the AUKUS pact instead, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, claims that France’s relationship of trust with Australia “has been betrayed”. The severity of this “betrayal” is clear when the strategic value of this deal is taken into consideration. France holds a large stake in the future of the Indo-Pacific region as its territories include French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Clipperton Island, to name a few. These states host an estimated two million French citizens in the region and, naturally, their native country intends to preserve their citizens’ security by building stronger ties with Australia. France are equally as concerned as their British and American allies about the rising dominance of China in the area and, while they still have 7000 French troops situated in Australia, their original deal would have given them more security and influence in the region.

France are also feeling aggrieved as it is another example of Anglophone allies teaming up, much like they did when forming the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance that involves the same three countries, plus Canada and New Zealand.

New Zealand, having been overlooked by the AUKUS pact, declared that Australia’s new submarines would be banned from Kiwi water due to their current policy on the presence of nuclear-powered submarines. Although a ‘Five Eyes’ member, they have been wary of aligning with the US or China in the Pacific.

As a member of the Indo-Pacific region, the reclusive North Korea, who have a nuclear arsenal of their own, have come out in opposition to the AUKUS, claiming it will “upset the strategic balance in Asia-Pacific region and trigger off a nuclear arms race”. They have also suggested that this pact has encouraged them to further bolster their nuclear capabilities for the long-term.

North Korea’s statement is unsurprising as AUKUS is undoubtedly viewed by the East as “the West” using Australia, located in the East but seen as a Western country, to exert their dominance in an almost Imperial manner. But, as Australia are the sixth largest country in the world, it makes strategic sense for the UK and the US to want to firm up their relations with the country and establish greater military ties with the former British colony.

Relations between China and Australia have been frosty for a while, especially since Australian PM Scott Morrison supported the calls for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in 2020. China swiftly retaliated by calling Australia the “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe” and consequently imposed heavy tariffs and restrictions on Australian exports. Considering that China accounted for more than 35% of Australia’s total exports in the last 12 months (up to July 2021), further tariffs could heavily impact Australia’s economy. Knowing that metal is one of Australia’s most profitable exports, accounting for 40% of total earnings in July 2021 alone, China attempted to place restrictions on the import of metal ore from Australia. However, other purchasing options are limited for metal so stopping all imports of iron ore would heavily impact China’s own economy due to the country’s demand for it.

America’s chaotic and controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in a loss of faith among its allies in America’s staying power, but AUKUS may help to restore that lost faith by reaffirming its support of its allies, and their reciprocated support in the US. The damage to America’s relations with France will be seen as collateral damage but the deal is a slap in the face to one of America’s biggest European allies because of the secretive fashion in which the deal was coordinated. AUKUS may be seen as a strategic boon for America but it is another diplomatic blunder to add to President Biden’s record.

India and Japan, the two largest economies in the Indo-Pacific region, outside of China, have openly welcomed AUKUS. We will likely hear more from them this week when the US host a meeting of the ‘Quad’, yet another alliance, between the US, India, Japan and Australia. The broad Indo-Pacific support will drown out the French complaints and bolster America’s efforts to contain China’s power and ambitions. Even Singapore, who balance their relations with the US and China, are in support of the agreement.

Japan, Canada, South Korea and India have all recently undertaken naval exercises with the US and Australia and have their own ongoing issues with China. Therefore, we will likely witness an expansion of AUKUS as more countries in the region request membership. China’s neighbours aren’t shy about expressing their wish for China’s power to be restrained, mirroring the feelings of Nato members towards Russia.

If Australia intends to develop a nuclear arsenal and further align itself with the West it must untether its economy from China to avoid being exploited when diplomatic relations are frosty. Australia, much like a post-Brexit Britain, must look to export more products to places such as Japan, India, and the Middle East. With many Chinese tourists and students also spending time and money in Australia it is clear that Australia has various pressure points that China can push, as and when they need to.

Further reading:

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

AUKUS (BBC)

AUKUS (Wiki)

North Korea’s reaction to AUKUS

How AUKUS affects trade

Indo-Pacific reactions to AUKUS

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