On Sep 15, 2021, Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS) announced a new security partnership that would allow these countries to cooperate and share cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities including the sale of jointly built nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. The new arrangement surprisingly excludes India which may become a source of consternation amongst India’s strategic planners who have struggled hard to remain relevant in the US led Indo-Pacific strategy that aims to contain China. Other than the geopolitical fallout, AUKUS also has the potential to undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. The sale of nuclear-powered submarines to a non-nuclear weapon state could incentivize other countries to engage in a similar trade for their own commercial and political interests thus further weakening the already stressed Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) based nonproliferation regime.
The AUKUS. The Joint Leaders Statement by Australia, United Kingdom and the US (AUKUS) promises to protect ‘rules-based order’ by deepening diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-pacific region through enhanced trilateral security partnership and by promoting and sharing deeper information and technology, including the nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. For Australia, the acquisition of submarines does not serve any military purpose other than posturing and to demonstrate its allegiance to the US and UK. It would make no sense if Australia employed its military capability to protect trade from a country that is perceived as an adversary and also its largest trading partner.
Nuclear powered submarines are considered sensitive technologies and therefore its sale is restricted under the nonproliferation regime. UK was the only exception that was allowed by the US to acquire nuclear submarines before the recent agreement with Australia. India is another country that had leased nuclear-powered submarines from Russia and subsequently used the same technology to build its own submarines.
To address the proliferation concerns, Australia has committed that it would continue to adhere “to the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measure.” Notwithstanding these assurances, there are risks associated with operating and maintaining nuclear-powered submarines by a country that does not have sufficient expertise in the nuclear fuel cycle services and has no military nuclear program.
Possible US Motives and the French Discontentment. President Biden’s surprise announcement along with the other two leaders may have been intended to placate growing criticism on his leadership credentials, besides the commercial dividends that are associated with a $40 bn worth AUKUS.
Biden Administration may have hoped that the agreement would divert the focus away from the Afghanistan debacle that has brought humiliation and dented the US image of a credible military power. Instead, AUKUS has triggered another controversy with the global nonproliferation community raising questions about the US and UK’s commitments towards nuclear nonproliferation norms.
Contrary to the US expectations, the new security arrangement that mainly includes non-EU members may also reinforce the perceptions amongst some of the EU partners that they need to have their independent military force. Since France was not consulted by any of the AUKUS partners it feels that it has been ‘back stabbed’, and is, therefore ‘angry and bitter.’ In an unprecedented move, France has also recalled its Ambassadors from the US and Australia.
Interestingly, only a few weeks before the Australian defence and foreign ministers had reconfirmed the deal and the French President had lauded decades of future cooperation when the Australian Prime Minister visited France in June this year. AUKUS may have unravelled all the goodwill between France and the three AUKUS partners with some experts predicting that this would complicate the transatlantic cooperation, and Beijing may be the ultimate beneficiary.
France is also one of the EU members that have advocated for a separate EU army. It would now be more justified in asking the other EU states to consider a separate military force supported by the French nuclear deterrent. The EU was also in the process of unveiling its Indo-Pacific strategy in the next few days under the new French presidency. France could use the opportunity to settle scores and push for a less dependent security partnership with the US, especially when the UK is no more part of the EU.
The Future of Quad! Another major fall-out of AUKUS could be the uncertain future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue commonly known as the ‘Quad’ which comprises of four countries – the US, Australia, Japan and India. It was formed in 2004 after the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Over the past few years, this informal arrangement has expanded cooperation in security, economic and health-related issues. While all Quad members have voiced concerns about growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region, but other than India, the rest of the Quad members have refrained from pushing to transform it into a formal military alliance.
India’s exclusion from the new security partnership would be a major setback for its security planners. In a short span of one month, this could be seen as a second foreign policy failure after Afghanistan. As an emerging military power, India had also hoped to play a leading role in the US led Indo-Pacific strategy, but it may now find itself struggling to remain relevant in the evolving US-China competition. With Japan and India out of the new security arrangement, the future of Quad remains uncertain.
China’s Response. China has shown anger and has criticized the US and its allies for “stoking arms race” which it considers is reminiscent of the Cold War mentality. Terming the agreement as “extremely irresponsible” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated that the new alliance “seriously undermines regional peace and stability, aggravates the arms race and hurts international nonproliferation efforts.”
China may not retaliate immediately by offering a similar deal to any of its allies, but if it does, the US and other western countries are in no position to admonish China or the recipient countries. It is more likely that China would use its economic leverage to punish Australia economically since the latter has opted to be part of a formal anti-China military alliance.
The Proliferation Concerns. Australia is a non-nuclear weapon state and a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Despite possessing one of the world’s largest uranium reserves it has for now refrained from building nuclear weapons and has reiterated its commitment to adhere to the international standards of safety and security of nuclear materials and honour its obligations as a non-nuclear weapon state.
The nuclear-powered submarines (SSN) being acquired by Australia are different from nuclear-capable ballistic missile carrying submarines (SSBN), but it does carry considerable proliferation risks, whether it operates on LEU or HEU based power reactors. Since the US submarines are fuelled by HEU, it is quite likely that the Australian submarines would also use the same material, which incidentally is also used for the building of nuclear weapons. If Australia is allowed to build its own nuclear fuel cycle service to fuel its submarines, there could also be a temptation to acquire nuclear weapons in the future. This may encourage other US allies to demand similar concessions and build their latent nuclear capacity.
Conclusion. The recently concluded AUKUS has generated an unnecessary ruckus that could have been avoided at a time when US credentials of a world leader are under scrutiny. The Afghan debacle had already perturbed most of its alliance partners and other countries that were working to bring peace and stability to the country but were not consulted by the US before imposing a unilateral decision and withdraw from Afghanistan in a hurry.
The new security arrangement would further alienate its EU partners, especially France that feels betrayed and could push for a more autonomous EU force structure. China, which has reacted angrily to the new development may benefit from the internal fissures within the US led anti-China alliance. It could exploit these differences to build in-roads in the EU while targeting countries like Australia with economic penalties to deter others from joining the US led anti-China alliance. The US that had planned to contain China’s rise may eventually find itself self-contained as a result of the recent policy debacles under the Biden Administration.