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Australia, America and Britain form a new alliance to answer perceived threats from China

What does the AUKUS pact tell us about the future of Sino-Western relations in the Indo-Pacific?


by: Jukka Seppala


The controversial AUKUS security pact (a trilateral agreement between Australia, the UK, and the US) was ratified about a month ago with the aim of Australia strengthening its collective military capacity to answer perceived threats, particularly those attributed to China's increased assertiveness in the politically complex Indo-Pacific. This analysis will take a closer look at the motives behind and the possible consequences of the treaty.


Trident Nuclear Submarine HMS Victorious. Photo courtesy of Defence Images via Creative Commons. Photo is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Motives and outcomes


There are many different probable motives behind the conclusion of AUKUS. For the UK, it symbolises the move away from Europe to outside allies. This clearly fits the 'Global Britain' story the UK government wants to present.


Universally, however, the most crucial motive is the explicit concern of the leaders of the three nations over "security challenges in the Indo-Pacific". In the context of China's growing military ambitions, AUKUS feels the urgency of increasing cooperation to defend their interests.


According to the pact, Australia will obtain at least eight nuclear-powered submarines from the US, which are reported to be more powerful than the attack-class submarines previously acquired by Canberra. AUKUS will also entail cooperation in the areas of cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies.


Western critics and controversies


The pact has met with criticism, especially by France and China. France expressed its frustration towards the unexpected change in its partnership with Australia. The "betrayal" of existing submarine negotiations with the surprise announcement of AUKUS resulted in France recalling its ambassadors from the US and Australia. It also led to a delay in EU-Australia trade negotiations.


Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasised in his AUKUS announcement speech that Australia's partnership with France will continue and that both nations share interests in the region. France and Australia have since begun to redefine their relations.


However, to understand the uproar, it is necessary to know the background. AUKUS is only one of many instruments which Western-allied powers employ in the Indo-Pacific. There have also been voyages of warships over the past few months, individually sent by countries to challenge Beijing's vast territorial claims and the militarisation of islands in the South China Sea.


Albeit AUKUS is not the first multilateral security response to the rise of China in the region either: it is a logical follow up to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, founded in 2007 and revived in 2017 by Japan, India, Australia, and the United States as a response to China's increased activity in the South China Sea. Moreover, since the announcement of AUKUS, the EU has also outlined its strategy towards the Indo-Pacific.


Additionally, there are many new investment plans, such as the "Build Back Better World" by G7 nations to counter China's Belt and Road initiative, which has significantly increased China's influence over different states in recent years.


USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) transits the South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Official U.S. Navy Imagery via Creative Commons. Photo is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Even a threat to global stability?


Chris Ogden, a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews, writing for The National, states that the announcement of nuclear submarines is a "tacit encouragement of nuclear proliferation", which makes AUKUS a potential threat to global stability. He also implies that the insecurity behind AUKUS may fuel conflict, especially when reacting to China's future territorial claims. China's foreign ministry also claims that AUKUS is a threat, not only to stability in the Indo-Pacific but also to the commitment to nuclear non-proliferation because of the potential of nuclear submarines to carry nuclear weapons. They see AUKUS as a pact potentially encouraging a new international arms race.


China also accused AUKUS countries of having a Cold War-like geopolitical mindset. Whether or not this image of a zero-sum outlook ridden west as described by the Chinese foreign ministry is true, it seems that dangers like it are not absent.


AUKUS reinforces the Western nations' pre-existing geopolitical self-understanding as the rightful hegemonic torchbearers of liberal international order as opposed to multipolar order, which China arguably sees as more favourable to its power. Yet, the perception that China is nothing but a threat to the West ignores that China has continuously emphasised peaceful rise and mutually beneficial international cooperation amongst nations. Indeed, was internationalism not part of China's growth? This rhetoric can be taken with a grain of salt, but it is not obvious that China would threaten territories outside of what it considers part of 'Historic China', such as many areas in the South China Sea and Taiwan.


According to the international relations theorist Stephen M. Walt, the Chinese vision also entails a "rule-based order", but it emphasises sovereignty and non-interference, in contrast with certain sections of the Western foreign policy establishment. Such a vision does not entail the necessity of liberal governance but tolerates even authoritarian modes of governance.


The US-China confrontation


The growing geopolitical tensions predict that the mutual lack of trust between AUKUS countries and China will continue, and perhaps lead to confrontation. This will at least be the case as long as AUKUS countries see aggressive engagement as a smart policy when faced with the challenger that is China. Similarly, if China continues to be stubborn regarding territorial claims, such as in the case of Taiwan, military conflict will be one of many logical consequences.


The US, in particular, is afraid of losing its relative power in the Indo-Pacific, and the seeming inevitability of losing Taiwan to China is also likely to incentivise the US to act in a way that threatens peace.


This continuous debate over the likelihood of direct military confrontation between AUKUS states and China shows that what the future holds is unclear. Still, all AUKUS countries are partners with China in many crucial areas, thus one should not jump to conclusions about the consequences of the pact and unnecessarily beat the war drums when conflict may be deemed not so utilitarian of a response.