Thursday May 30, 2024

AUKUS in the Asia-Pacific

By Muhammad Abdul Basit
October 04, 2021

At the beginning of the United Nations General Assembly’s 76th session, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres rightly warned that a divided world is on the edge of an abyss.

The biggest division that the world is moving towards is the polarisation of the international system. The Great Power Rivalry is swiftly dragging the world into poles. There is a dire need of international cooperation to fight the bigger challenges – such as climate change and pandemics – that lie ahead, but the hegemonic intentions of both the US and China are drifting the world away from cooperation and pushing it towards competition. US President Joe Biden explicitly said in his address that America is not seeking a New Cold War. However, the formation of a new military alliance AUKUS between the US, UK and Australia conveys a different message.

AUKUS will make the three states share technology and defence industries and will help them cooperate militarily. The UK’s National Security Adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove has described the pact as “perhaps the most significant capability collaboration in the world anywhere in the past six decades”.

Under AUKUS, the submarine deal has been a hard hit on the Franco-Australian trade deal of 2016 for manufacturing submarines worth nearly $65 billion. Now the submarines will be made by the collaboration of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. France’s unhappiness with the submarine deal is understandable: its allies have backstabbed it and put it in the dark until the announcement of a pact that can arguably be called an Asian version of Nato to contain China.

Other than of course China, France is not the only country that showed anger over the submarine deal. Indonesia, Malaysia and even Singapore in the Asia Pacific region showed discontent over the formation of the new military alliance.

With the production of nuclear powered submarines, scepticism over the proliferation of nuclear weapons has started to emerge. Although Australia has ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and claims to have no interest in becoming a nuclear power, the transfer of nuclear technology in a boiling international environment for strategic purposes is bound to send signals of discomfort to different states.

For North Korea, it can become an excuse to increase its military power and fasten its nuclear programme. Australia will become the only non-nuclear state that will have highly enriched uranium powered submarines – something on which China is suspicious too. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that it “will gravely undermine regional peace and stability, aggravate an arms race and impair international nuclear non-proliferation efforts”.

Australia with nuclear-powered submarines will be of great help to the US in the big power rivalry. Since China’s rapid rise worried the US, the containment policy needed additional coercive measures. The submarines that France was supposed to build for Australia were diesel-powered that needed to come to the surface once a day which would make them easy to detect. Under AUKUS, on the contrary, the US and the UK will be providing Australia with nuclear-powered submarine technology that can help the submarines move far ahead, at a fast speed, and can remain underwater for long which keeps their movement hidden.

These submarines would be able to go into strategically important areas such as the South China Sea, South East Asia and even Taiwan on which China makes territorial claims. Currently, China is Australia’s top trading partner. Now, Australia is making a decisive decision to have a future with the US in containing China as the world polarises.

This technology that Australia will be getting is rare and highly sensitive to the extent that the US has shared it till now with one country only – the UK. That happened nearly six decades ago at the height of the cold war. Now, Australia will become the seventh state in the world to have submarines propelled by nuclear reactors. The other six include the US, the UK, Russia, China, India and France.

In an article in The Diplomat titled ‘What AUKUS and Afghanistan Tell Us About the US Asia Strategy’, the author argues that the US is shifting the focus from roads to the seas and dubbed the US strategy as “leave the Belt, press the Road” in the Belt and Road Initiative. The Belt in BRI refers to land routes and Road refers to water. Joe Biden seems to be actively reshaping the US foreign policy. Putting pressure on China from the Asia-Pacific is at the heart of the containment policy.

The hegemonic war is fast moving towards waters. The country which controls the seas may find an upper hand in the conflict. With AUKUS and QUAD (a quadrilateral alliance between the US, Australia, India and Japan), the US is containing the Chinese sphere of influence in the Asia Pacific.

In the General Assembly session, Chinese and US premiers shied away from directly addressing the emerging Sino-US conflict and focused on pacific issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping focused on cooperation and supporting the UN to uphold the banner of multilateralism. Xi said, “One country's success does not have to mean another country's failure, and the world is big enough to accommodate common development and progress of all countries”. Biden also said, “Our own success is bound up with others succeeding as well”.

The cooperation of the two big powers is essential to escape the Thucydides Trap and focus on the bigger problems of climate change, human development and universal security. Win-win cooperation is of benefit to the whole world rather than a lose-lose confrontation.

The writer is a political scientist with focus on international relations and sociopolitical issues.