Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom announced a historic trilateral alliance ‘AUKUS’, which has the potential to significantly impact the geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific theatre, last week. The new alliance, among three English-speaking partners, commits the US and UK to enable Australia to join just a handful of countries that deploy nuclear submarines and the only one that is not a nuclear weapons power. Australia’s initial fleet of eight nuclear submarines will greatly enhance its force projection capabilities, strengthen its deterrence against a major threat and, together with the associated advanced missile, cyber and aerospace capabilities included in the agreement, give the country an overtly offensive strike capability. While this does not make Australia a nuclear weapons state, it makes the acquisition of such capabilities potentially easier in the future. Other nuclear-capable states such as Japan and South Korea will be less inhibited to go in for nuclear propulsion systems after this for their submarine fleets. The US has broken a long-held nuclear taboo, which will come with its own consequences.
The US and Australia are already military allies under the Australia, New Zealand and the US Security Treaty (ANZUS). The triple alliance brings the UK back into the Indo-Pacific, but its role is to contribute to Australia’s nuclear submarine capability along with the US. UK’s inclusion is driven more by its post-Brexit effort to project a “global Britain”. It will not be a significant military partner. France has island territories in the Indo-Pacific and has deployed its naval forces in the region. It has a much better claim to be an Indo-Pacific power than the UK but for the present, its anger at having lost a deal worth $100 billion for the supply of diesel submarines to Australia, makes it unlikely that it will become part of the new security arrangement in the foreseeable future. But its inclusion in the arrangement would be logical and add to the credibility of the alliance.
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China is the target
The target of the triple alliance is China, which has been adding to its naval capabilities at an unprecedented rate in the past two decades. It has acquired a substantial nuclear submarine fleet armed with long-range nuclear missiles. It has a true second-strike capability. This is China’s home fleet unlike the US naval forces deployed in the Indo-Pacific. Australia’s much augmented naval capabilities will also be in the nature of the home fleet and that is an important advantage.
China must shoulder the blame for driving Australia into undertaking this historic shift in its national security strategy. For the past few years, China has treated Australia with contempt, heaping abuse and insults and inflicting significant commercial damage on it. Just a few years back, Australia projected itself as one of the most reliable of partners of China in the region, with an expanding and complementary economic and commercial relationship.
Several members of Australia’s strategic community and leading political figures advised a certain distancing from the US as a corollary of the growing partnership with China. Today, there are few takers for this line. There is virtually no serious opposition to the latest initiative despite the important departure it represents in Australia’s national security strategy. The country has signed on to the American containment strategy against China. The US has been able to sweeten the deal by a major upgradation of Australia’s security profile in the region. It is now the pre-eminent US ally in the Indo-Pacific. This marks the first serious setback to Chinese ambitions in the region. It will raise the risks of any Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and make its plans to dominate the regional maritime space more contested than it has been so far.
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Implications for the Quad
Until the announcement of the triple alliance, it was the Quad among India, Australia, Japan and the US, which was crystallising as the core of a countervailing coalition to China in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad will have its first face-to-face summit in Washington on 24 September and this will reflect its continuing upgradation and formalisation. But with the triple alliance having been announced less than 10 days before the summit, there is little doubt that questions will be raised about the relationship between the two security arrangements — one that is built on a set of dense and legal commitments and another, which continues to be a loosely structured partnership. Sources in the US and Australia suggest that they see the Quad and the triple alliance as running on parallel and complementary tracks. Both India and Japan have been muted in their formal response but have informally conveyed their positive assessment of the initiative. The main reason for this is the belief that this is the first serious and substantive pushback to China’s aggressive expansion in the Indo-Pacific. Instead of being the core, the Quad is now on the periphery of the countervailing coalition against China in the region. The forthcoming summit will try to camouflage this through rhetorical flourishes, but the reality is compelling.
For the US, the triple alliance seeks to deflect attention from the disastrous and even humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan and to reinforce the credibility of its “pivot to Asia.” Its current preoccupation is to dissuade China from using force to invade and occupy Taiwan, which would be a major setback to the security interests of US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, and conversely a huge gain for China. The triple alliance raises the level of risk for China. But it may precipitate Chinese moves against Taiwan. In Beijing, there may be arguments in favour of an early move precisely because the triple alliance may, in a decade or less, pose a much bigger challenge to China than it is in its early phase, when building blocks are still being put in place. It will take time for the new submarines to be built and an elaborate infrastructure, command and control system to be put in place. There could be a period of enhanced vulnerability in the meantime.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow CPR. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)