• Bec Strating

AUKUS and Australia’s security policy

Photo Source: The Interpreter

Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom signed the historic ‘AUKUS’ trilateral security partnership in September, provoking much discussion about the implications of the deal for the Indo-Pacific region. Australia plans to acquire at least 8 nuclear-powered submarines (SSN) as part of the agreement. Over the next 18 months, the immediate priorities of the states are to identify ‘the optimal pathway’ for delivering the submarines, including ensuring Australia becomes ‘a responsible and reliable steward of this sensitive technology’.

While nuclear-powered submarines have dominated the news headlines, this agreement is focused on sharing technology and deepening cooperation, joint capability, and interoperability between the states.

The agreement will also see additional long-range strike capabilities for the Australian Defence Force, such as Tomahawk Cruise Missiles ‘deliver strike effects across our air, land, and maritime domains’.

Australia is being rewarded for its ‘dependable’ ally status: the UK is the only other state with which the US shares this technology, and it has been reluctant to do so with other allies such as Korea.

There are many unanswered questions about the SSN plan, including how much they will cost, where they will be built, and what submarine type will serve as the model – the US Virginia class has been touted along with the UK’s Royal Navy’s Astute class. Will extending the life of Australia’s Collins class suffice until the SSNs can be delivered, or will leasing submarines be on the table?

Australia is a non-nuclear-armed state without a domestic nuclear power industry, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison was adamant that Australia would not be planning to develop civil nuclear capability. Currently, six states have SSN’s - France, Russia, China, and India along with the US and UK – all with domestic nuclear capability. There are also questions about the kind of uranium enriched fuel required to power the SSNs, and how Australia will source it. It could potentially become the first non-nuclear-weapon state with submarines fuelled by highly enriched uranium, such as the Virginia class.

As the waterways of East Asia become increasingly crowded with naval vessels from states within and beyond the region conducting joint patrols, the AUKUS deal reveals some broader trends in how Australia – as a middle-sized state - conceptualizes its strategic geography and its roles and interests across the maritime region.

First, the agreement points to just how seriously Australia’s leadership views the ‘threat’ of China’s rise to its national and regional security interests. Nuclear-powered submarines will allow the Royal Australian Navy to ‘patrol more of the Indo-Pacific region for longer, which could be particularly handy at a time of competing territorial claims for strategic waters’. Australia sees itself as contributing to ‘military deterrence’ in the waters of North and Southeast Asia, and regional stability more generally. However, it is less clear how these capabilities might assist Australia in negotiating the ‘grey zone’ threats that the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) emphasized, or the raft of security challenges that may threaten Australia’s vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Second, the move to nuclear-power submarines reflects Australia’s increasing desire for an order-shaping role in the expansive Indo-Pacific region. The 2020 DSU also highlighted that Australia’s decision-makers are shifting the primary image of Australia's national role conception from a middle power state situated in the world to a regional power situated in a (largely maritime) region.

Third, AUKUS is another example of Australia’s preparedness to cleave closer to the US in balancing rising China’s influence in the region. Australia’s government appears to have abandoned its ‘pragmatic’ foreign policy setting of not having to choose between either great power. Over the past 18 months, Australia and China’s trade relationship has deteriorated, with a raft of sanctions applied to Australian industries such as barley, wine and seafood, and both states taking each other to the World Trade Organization.

Finally, Australia’s political leadership emphasizes defence capabilities at the expense of diplomacy and other arms of statecraft. This is deeply problematic, as many of the security challenges facing Australia and the region are non-traditional and require a whole-of-government approach, such as climate change. In the maritime space, this also includes grappling with so-called ‘blue crimes’ such as illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, piracy, and human trafficking at sea.

The surprise announcement drew mixed responses among ASEAN states, with Philippines’ leaders expressing mixed views on AUKUS and Indonesia and Malaysia expressing concern about the destabilizing effects of arms proliferation in the region.

The deal also sees Australia abandoning a $90 billion contract with French defense contractor Naval Group to build 12 conventional-powered submarines, resulting in sunk costs of at least $2.4bn with more expected in broken contract fees. The clumsy handling of the announcement saw Paris recalling its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra.

In its declaratory policy, Australia has highlighted its ‘longstanding and close defense relationship’ with France and shared commitment to addressing global challenges. There are concerns that this will create a rift in Australian-French relations in the region that will affect ongoing partnerships, which have been described as the ‘lowest point in living memory’. France temporarily recalled its ambassadors in Canberra and Washington, and its Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron reportedly refused to take the calls of his Australian counterpart, Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Yet, the extent of the damage to Australia’s reputation as a genuine partner in Paris remains unknown. Whether tensions will be temporary or long-standing is likely to depend upon Australian efforts to repair the damage and France’s receptivity to such efforts.

A diplomatic rift matters for Australia and its order-shaping ambitions in the region. France is one of few countries that have territorial and maritime jurisdictional interests across the three bodies of water that surround the Australian continent: the Southern, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. France shares a maritime boundary with Australia in the Southern Ocean and the Coral Sea via French New Caledonia. There is another ‘Quad’ in the region: the Pacific Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group. In the Pacific, where France and Australia partner with the US and New Zealand to coordinate maritime surveillance and regional disaster relief. France and Australia work together to support Pacific Island countries with surveillance of their expansive Exclusive Economic Zones. Australia participates in the French-led naval exercise Croix du Sud, the largest HADR relief exercise in the South Pacific.

In the Southern Ocean, France has done much of the heavy lifting in patrolling southern maritime areas and combatting IUU fishing. Australian Customs and Fisheries officers have boarded French patrol vessels. The countries also assert ownership over parts of Antarctica, two of seven countries to do so. Yet both share a commitment to the norms and institutions embedded in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) that has essentially frozen those sovereignty claims. Canberra and Paris also collaborated on a proposal for a Marine Protected Area in East Antarctica to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The Indian Ocean was also developing as a site of enhanced Australian and French cooperation in the maritime domain, including engaging with ‘like-minded’ partners such as India and strengthening regional architecture. Treating France only as a European power overlooks its status as an Indo-Pacific maritime power. It would be prudent for Australia to try and repair the damage using formal and public diplomacy channels, and for France to bracket out its submarine grievance from other important activities it conducts with Australia.

As a middle-sized state, if Australia is to fulfill its ambitions of becoming a regional power, then the debacle with the AUKUS announcement highlights the need for a more considered approach to regional diplomacy that invests in and uses all elements of statecraft.


Dr Bec Strating is the Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University.

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