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AUKUS: A Joint Response to China’s Military Presence in the Indo-Pacific Region

By: Jerry Ji, OICP Fellow
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On September 15, 2021, the US, UK, and Australia jointly announced the launching of AUKUS, a new trilateral partnership that will provide Australia with a fleet of advanced nuclear-powered submarines as well as promising future collaborations on national security. While the three close allies stand firm on the decision, debates have clustered around the effectiveness and viability of this nascent partnership. Some argued that the announcement was arbitrary without thorough consideration as it imposed unnecessary pressure on their commercial, military, and political relations with countries like France and China. The latter strongly criticized the partnership as an “extremely irresponsible” decision and might “result in unnecessary arm races”.(Sanger 2021, 3); Conversely, other more hawkish voices bore the belief that given the political and strategic significance of the deal to the Indo-Pacific region, the security benefits greatly outweighed the costs of this new framework. In the following paragraphs I will start by evaluating the underlying logic and the security interests behind the formation of AUKUS; then I will discuss both the US and Australia’s intentions reflected through the partnership and the projection of nuclear-powered submarines; finally, I will conclude by reiterating the significance and impact of the partnership to the current global system.

Why did Australia want nuclear-powered submarines? The first and foremost reason must be its surging concerns about China’s growing naval capabilities. For policymakers at Canberra, the nuclear-powered submarines provided by the US have proven to be much more advanced and effective than the previous counterparts it had purchased from France and they are capable of providing the nation with satisfactory long-term military capabilities while greatly relieving its security concerns. With the recognition of US superior undersea advantages that are reinforced by advanced high-enriched uranium powered submarines, access to its naval nuclear reactors is undoubtedly in Australia’s interest to form a partnership with the US. By doing so, Australia could more effectively impose “containment” on China by deterring Beijing from carrying out further naval deployment in the open waters of the Pacific and thus reducing China’s  military threat to Australia. All of the above illustrates why Australia would risk a deteriorating relationship with France and adopt a new treaty with the US.

When it comes to the US, there has been much debate on the reasoning behind Washington’s sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia despite the devastating potential of nuclear proliferation. Given that pushing back China on its territorial ambitions plays a significant role in Biden’s national security goals, selling these submarines to Australia can enhance its ability to deter Beijing militarily. Moreover, some evidence has proven that this may even reduce the risk level of nuclear proliferation, as this action is a clear signal of Washington’s commitment to its allies in the region that may have been bearing concerns about defending against China and even attempting to self-develop nuclear weapons. Despite concerns of nuclear proliferation, it is conceivable that for the US, the security benefits of such decisions apparently outweigh the costs.

Bearing security in mind as the basic motive and interest for states, the new AUKUS framework proves to be a clear response to China’s growing military capabilities and its pursuit of regional hegemony by containing its projection of naval power in the Indo-Pacific region. Under this framework, Canberra finds a resolution to its security concerns stemming from the rise of China through receiving advanced nuclear-powered submarines; and by selling these submarines, Washington would be able to meet its political and strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region and deter Beijing. 


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