Six Thoughts on AUKUS

The U.S., UK, and Australia announced a new security partnership.

Hello, friends

I want to discuss the new trilateral securty partnership just recently announced between the United States (U.S.)., the United Kingdom (U.K), and Australia. Let’s get into some basic descriptive facts but also some strategic implications as well.

This is Six Thoughts

#1 - In basic terms, what is it?
AUKUS is a trilateral defense partnership between the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. There are sections on cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence. But the big newsmaking item was the Australia agreed to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S. When this plan begins to roll out, years from now, this will make Australia the 7th country in the world to have these advanced subs.

#2 - Is this a unique agreement?
Yes and no. First the no. In 1951, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand formed ANZUS. Just three years later, the U.S. signed a multilateral security pact with Australia, the U.K., New Zealand and three other countries, including the Philipinnes. This is known as the Manila Accords. And then there is the Five Eyes, which is an intelligence sharing alliance—mostly “signals intelligence—comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U. K., and the United States. This was part of the extraregional grand strategy of global hegemony birthed immediately following the Germany invasion of France, that began with secret talks between the U.S. and British governments that culminated in the Atlantic Charter and then the more formal, yet still then secret, UKUSA Agreement (Wertheim 2020, 113). And more recently, the U.S., Australia, Indian and Japan revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “the Quad,” which is an intergovernmental security forum.

Still, these examples form merely a part of a number of important agreements and promises the U.S. made in the Asia-Pacific. According to Mira Rapp-Hooper (2020, 31%), a U.S. alliance scholar, the logic for the early post-WWII agreements in the Asia-Pacific was “in order [for the U.S.] to gain Australia’s confidence in and support for Washington’s regional security system, which, in turn, afforded the United States greater strategic opportunities.”

And U.S.-Australia relations have been strong for decades. Australia has fought alongside American troops in all major wars since World War I. And the U.S. and the U.K. have had a “special relationship” for just as long.

Now for the “yes.” This is the first time the U.S. has shared nuclear-powered submarine intelligence with another country outside Great Britain. And, it’s the largest move that Australia has made to bolster it’s defenses (in it’s own words). The Australian prime minister Scott Morrison called this a “forever partnership.” For the U.K., it’s “involvement in AUKUS is its most significant enaction of its new Indo-Pacific strategic “tilt” set out in its 2021 defence and foreign policy review” (O’Brien);

#3 - Why is France Mad?
In 2016, France had signed a deal worth $66 billion with Australia to provide it with 12 diesel-powered submarines. According to news reports, France was only told about this hours before the public announcement. French Prime Minister Macron recalled their ambassadors from Australia and the U.S., the first time ever. These recalls are obviously short-term and meant to signal French ire. France considers this a “stab in the back,” especiallly since an American company, Lockheed Martin, was already a partner in the not ripped to shreds old agreement. Paris also said it is now “unthinkable” to continue trade negotiations between the European Union and Australia.

Paris should have known, however, the shaky grounds their deal was on. A widely read French newspaper, Le Figaro, in June 2021, wrote about how Australia was “searching for a plan b.” This is not to say France shouldn’t feel shafted: as Max Bergmann highlights, “Just two weeks ago, France and Australian foreign and defense ministers met and agreed on “the importance of the Future Submarine program.”

#4 - Strategic Ambiguity No More?
Many foreign policy and international relations analysts are pegging this as the end of what was seen as strategic ambiguity on the part of the Australians. Both, generally, and specifically, a popular argument going around these spaces was that allies are not going to choose between the U.S. and China. In an era of complex interdependence, this is a reasonable assumption. And in many ways, this will be the case. In terms of security, Australia has increasingly chosen sides. Australia relies on China for 31% of its trade, but Canberra has also recently banned Wuawei from it’s 5G communications grid; has openly called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and now this. China has retaliated with banning most Australian coal imports, suspended export licenes of Australian beef producers, and effectively banned the import of rock lobster—all medium-sized hits; Australia mostly shifted it’s supply elsewhere and China couldn’t afford to limit its trade with Australia to any real significant degree.

For its part, France has been more illustrative of strategic ambibuity all along; Macron often speaking of Europe as steering a middle path between the U.S. and China. The U.S. did not appreciate this. Macron has called for “strategic autonomy” for Europe and has said this a “new era.” It might get what it’s wishing for. More on this below.

#5 - Name of the U.S. strategy?
This trilateral pact is part of the broader “pivot to Asia,” most likely coined by then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011 who repeatedly used that phrase. Rapp-Hooper (2020, 74 %) calls this type of trilateral move a competitive counter-coercion strategy. The theory or logic goes that if Australia beefs up its defense capabilities, then they will be less likely to be coerced by China.

Van Jackson considers ANZUS a type of “vulgar balancing,” or “strategic decisions justified in the name of the balance of power but without an underlying concept or ‘theory of victory’.” Jackson continues, saying that something is “vulgar” when it doesn’t actually change any balances of power. It’s putting the capabilities before the actual concept. Jackson is great at articulating big ideas clearly for the public. Here is how he ends his article:

But this submarine announcement once again puts capability before concept. The Royal Australian Navy surely wishes for it/the US to maintain sea control in the greater Indo-Pacific, but that’s a goal, not a wager. There are use-cases for submarines (and every other weapon in the known universe), but Australia lacks a theory of victory that tells us why the marginal benefit of this specific capability is both worth the cost and better than some alternative capability. Knowing that information is essential for honest analysis, and to weigh whether the associated risks (of, for example, making oneself an object of PLA targeting planners) is worth the potential gain.

At some point, the vulgar balancing has got to stop. Either the United States, and now Australia, has purposes for their defense acquisitions that they don’t wish to subject to democratic accountability and so hide behind the obscure rhetoric of vulgar balancing, or they haven’t thought through what they’re doing. You can’t meaningfully judge the correlation of forces without knowing the script for how forces would be employed in time and space.”

#6 - What are some, if any, broader implications?
The reason for all the fuss is the rise of China and the so-called “return of great power politics.” The U.S. is attempting to contain Chinese influence and to ensure that it can’t dominate the open sea lanes. And although France is framing this as a rupture of sorts, other U.S. allies such as Taiwan and Japan issues statements of unequivocal support. France considers itself a Pacific power, which effectively controls two islands and has naval bases there.

Concerns about an increased arms race and increased defense sending are welcome but largely mute. There is an arms race and countries all across the Indo-Pacific are increasing their military budgets, shifting to more aggressive postures; and it’s all in response to the rise of China, which makes up 42 percent of all military spending across Asia.

The liberal international order never was as liberal as it’s namesake implies. The U.S. and every other country inside it, act in self-interested ways. And contemporary France-U.S. relations have always been strained. France has had a “Gaullist foreign policy” even after de Gaulle was no longer president of France. France’s refusal to support the Iraq War, and, most recently, Paris’ blocking of a trans-Atlantic trade agreement, in which Paris blamed the U.S. for offering little to no concessions to the union while demanding concessions on the EU’s part, are modern examples. In 2019, was publishing articles about how “Macron Is Going Full De Gaulle.” My point here is a simple one: what we are seeing are geopolitical shakeups that will transform the international order in subtle and then maybe, over the years, in bigger ways. I’m also saying that this is always the case, even if we like to use pithy catch-all reductive phrases that do not capture how any of this works in reality. When capable, states look out for themselves in ways that often irrirtate their partners.

It’s hard in the middle of a moment to assess whether this is a major move, a minor move, or one that will easily get overturned by a second Trump administration or any other new government inside any one or more of the countries involved. Does this weaken the transAtlantic alliance? Does this signal resolve to China that the U.S. is ratcheting up it’s partnerships in the Indo-Pacific? How will China and it’s partners respond? How will the U.S. and France kiss and make up? Does this strengthen France’s hand, which has power to disrupt EU deals, since France is an important member of the trans-Atlantic community? When Macron and Biden meet in late October, will Macron attempt to hold Biden to his comments which signaled support for European defense?

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Patrick M. Foran

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