Indo-Pacific: AUKUS Agreement

The UK, US and Australia have announced a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific, in what's seen as an effort to counter China. Experts say the AUKUS Agreement signals a paradigm shift in strategy and policy across the region.

The new partnership was announced in a joint virtual press conference between US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison on Wednesday, September 15. "This is an historic opportunity for the three nations, with like-minded allies and partners, to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region," the joint statement read. American officials have said the move was not aimed at countering Beijing.

What does the AUKUS Agreement involve?

AUKUS calls for the exchange of information and technology in a variety of fields, including intelligence and quantum technology, as well as the purchase of cruise missiles. The nuclear submarines, on the other hand, are critical. They will be built in Adelaide, South Australia, with technology consultation from the United States and the United Kingdom. Nuclear submarines are much more stealthy than conventional submarines; they operate quietly, can move quickly, and are more difficult to detect. They will not be armed with nuclear weapons, but will be powered by nuclear reactors. “Let me be clear: Australia is not seeking nuclear weapons or to establish a civil nuclear capability,” Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated. AUKUS seeks to expand an existing alliance structure — the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (Australia, UK, US, Canada and New Zealand) — into the field of leading-edge defence technology and industry. The decades-long and multifaceted purpose of AUKUS will be: a transnational project racing to seize advantages in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and cyber technology. AUKUS goes much deeper than submarines. Australia will become just the seventh nation in the world to operate nuclear-powered submarines, after the US, UK, France, China, India and Russia. Meanwhile New Zealand said it would ban Australia's submarines from its waters, in line with an existing policy on the presence of nuclear-powered submarines.

AUKUS and the Quad

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) — comprising the United States, India, Japan and Australia — has been reinvigorated in response to China’s growing assertiveness too. The Quad will remain critical for coordinating the strategic policies of China’s most powerful regional competitors, for presenting a common vision of regional order, and for acting as the nucleus for broader cooperation when needed. At its first in-person summit last week, the Quad reiterated its broad vision of promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. And as the Indian government recently declared, AUKUS does not compete with or undermine the Quad. For the Quad other measures are needed to make a real difference, including prioritising trade, investment and the environment, and enhancing cyber and maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific

Other partners like France and India cannot be full members of AUKUS. The technology has a high level of sensitivity. It is exceptional to US policy and a one-time occurrence to share this technology to Australia. The United States has only shared nuclear propulsion technology once before, with Britain in 1958.

Where India's Indo-Pacific strategy is still one of evasive balancing (see also previous Peace Palace Library blog about Indo-Pacific strategies), New Zealand, although a Five Eyes member, has been cautious too in aligning with either the US or China in the Pacific.

Nevertheless, France and India each have significant military power, valuable geographic advantages and abiding networks of influence. And they are each vigorously engaged in the region, including through bilateral and trilateral partnerships with Australia. France was not amused at the moment Australia canceled an order of 12 submarines (56 billion euro), just because of the AUKUS Agreement. For instance, France has 8,000 soldiers stationed in the Indo-Pacific region and 1.5 million inhabitants in her overseas territories.

Is it a coincidence that the European Union (EU) on Thursday, September 16, just a day after the AUKUS Agreement, unveiled a new strategy for enhancing its economic, political and defense existence in the Indo-Pacific region? The EU intends to increase its engagement with the region to build partnerships that reinforce the rules-based international order, address global challenges and lay the foundations for a rapid, just and sustainable economic recovery that creates long-term prosperity. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a press conference that the EU will seek no confrontation but cooperation with everybody, and the strategy is inclusive to all actors in the region.

With the involvement of the UK (after the Brexit) in AUKUS and the passing of France in the submarine deal, the European Union has been encountered with unexpected barriers to strengthen transatlantic cooperation and a wider strategic alliance in the Pacific region.

The members of AUKUS should therefore work hard to repair their relationships with France (and the EU) because broad overlapping partnerships are a key asset in strategic competition with China. But not all regional challenges require a broad, inclusive approach. AUKUS’s declared objectives are radical — unseen in the firmament of US alliances, and certainly unseen in the region — and only possible precisely because the initiative is so exclusive.