AUKUS: What next for Asia?

Many experts have described this period of the 21st Century as the beginning of a ‘New Cold War’ between the United States and China as a new chapter in Great Power Politics unfolds. The Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping is not only concerned about maintaining a draconian regime to impose its ideology and values on Chinese civil society but is equally concerned about projecting its power and exporting the spoils of Chinese state socialism to the developing world. Though its efforts to promote itself involves a degree of soft power through initiatives like the Belt and Road (BRI), China’s creeping expansion of South China Sea territories has put its neighbours on edge and is compromising the prospects of peace and stability over on the World’s most important waterways. 

Though China’s aggressive tendencies and expansionist incursions into the Sea is only the tip of the ice-burg for the US’ list of reasons to be discontent with China, it is arguably one of the most important because of the Sea’s significance for the global economy (roughly $3.37 trillion worth of international trade passes through annually) and its regional allies like the Philippines and Taiwan who rely on for energy and fish to sustain coastal economies. 

The agreement to the new defence pact between the UK, US and Australia (dubbed AUKUS) isn’t for solely for the official purpose to ‘Deepen and formalise’ the relationship between these key Anglosphere nations as President Biden suggested. Despite their geographical distance from each other, all 3 nations are united by a common concern about the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea. Besides enhancing security and defence co-operation between in the Anglosphere, the agreement at its bare bones will supply Australia with 8 cutting edge nuclear submarines and access to state-of-the-art submarine technology, only possessed by the UK and US. Though the deal will undoubtedly strengthen Australia’s naval capabilities, the existence of fast, stealthy and self-sustaining submarines will also prove to be an invaluable asset the US can rely on to not only offer greater security for Taiwan in the Malacca Strait but will compensate for the US’ lack of a robust and deep-water submarine warfare capabilities as admitted by the Pentagon. 

Despite the ambition and optimism behind the agreement, what has to be questioned is, whether is whether the 3 allies will be able to confront the Chinese threat effectively. Many sceptics have voiced their concerns as to whether the agreement is to little to late. Though 8 nuclear submarines in an ally’s fleet will unquestionably be important assets, the fact that Australia won’t receive the first of its subs until 2030 is concerning. Considering the rate at which China has been able to militarise and acquire territories in the South China Sea has been rapid, it is arguable that within another 10 years the geopolitical landscape might have changed so drastically, the introduction of the new subs will be of little material affect. There is also another question of whether the agreement could alienate potential allies. Prior to the formal announcement of AUKUS, the Australian Government was in negotiations with French Defence contractor Naval Group over a submarine deal worth $90 billion. Evidently, being part of the agreement meant that the Australian Government had to scupper the French deal; understandably this decision created a major outcry from the French Government to the point where the French ambassadors in Washington D.C. and Canberra were recalled. Though relations between the countries may be calmer now than they were a month ago, it goes to show that bold multilateral efforts in confronting issues in conflict-prone areas of the world must be transparent and open. Considering France is one of the few nations in the World with an aircraft carrier and an important US ally in Europe, the lack of consideration for the French-Australian deal could undermine any chance of convincing the French to deploy their military resources and engage with the region in tandem with AUKUS. As the situation in the South China Sea is inherently international, due to its economic significance, efforts must be co-ordinated in a manner to include any and all states which have a stake in the region. 

Despite the scepticism and isolated criticism, AUKUS is certainly a step in the right direction which has been welcomed with much enthusiasm from China’s most important adversaries, in particular Taiwan and Japan. More importantly, as the Biden Administration seeks to live up to motto that ‘America is back’, ambitious multilateral efforts such as this will not only regain much needed credibility and trust in US power but will help ensure it remains at the top of the status quo in the Asia-Pacific. In particular, AUKUS will provide important military support to countries which generally lack the same military capabilities (apart from Japan and the US). The deployment of the 2 Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers with the Royal Navy alongside US Carrier fleets conducting freedom of navigation voyages through the Sea, will not only reassure smaller and comparatively weaker states to China (such as Vietnam and the Philippines), but will be the embodiment of an active deterrent against China’s ‘snatch and grab’ strategy, as it aims to tilt the balance of power in the region to its favour. 

Whilst AUKUS is still in its early days, the newly forged alliance has much potential. But only time will tell whether that potential will be enough to prevent the Asia-Pacific from sliding into a what might be a deadly and world-shaking conflict. 


Authur: Arjun Kamath

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