Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 12 April 2024

 Aukus is gathering momentum and adherents

The pact reflects an effort to preserve the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific

12 Apr 2024

Ever since it was announced in 2021, Aukus has attracted hostility and scepticism. China has consistently argued that the Australia-UK-US security pact is a dangerous move that raises regional tensions. Some western critics of Aukus suggest its central project, the provision of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, may never happen — and delivering on this goal must be a priority to maintain the credibility of the pact.

Despite these criticisms, Aukus is gaining momentum and adherents. Over the past week, the defence chiefs of the Aukus nations announced that they were considering inviting Japan to participate in the development of new military technology. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, also spoke positively about developing ties with Aukus.

Formal membership of Aukus for Japan or Canada — creating a Jaukus or a Caukus — is probably some way off. But it is clear that both countries see Aukus as an important strategic partner.

China’s complaint that Aukus has raised regional tensions gets the causation the wrong way around. Beijing has poured resources into its military. China has also built military bases across the disputed waters of the South China Sea and stepped up the intimidation of its neighbours — including the Philippines, Japan, India and Taiwan.

Aukus is not the source of these rising tensions. Instead, it is part of the effort to restore deterrence in the region by balancing China’s increased military power. But, the most important question about Aukus is not whether it is justified, but whether it is sufficient — and whether it would remain meaningful should Donald Trump return to power in the US. Some analysts have called for the creation of an Asian equivalent of Nato — a mutual defence pact that would pull together all the Indo-Pacific countries that feel potentially threatened by China or Russia.

The differing strategic and political cultures of the potential partners makes an Asian Nato all but impossible. Japan’s constitution puts serious limits on the country’s military. The diplomatic status of Taiwan — not recognised as an independent country by the potential members of an Asian Nato — is also a complication. Aukus does not create an explicit Nato-like mutual-defence guarantee. It does, however, enhance the military, technological and strategic cooperation between like-minded states.

The path to Australia’s eventual acquisition of nuclear-powered (but not nuclear-armed) submarines will be long and complicated. Australia will take delivery of some second-hand nuclear subs from the US in the early 2030s. The new Aukus subs, developed with Britain, would not be deployed until a decade later — by which time both technology and politics may have moved on.

The nuclear subs make up the first, and most substantive, pillar of Aukus. The second pillar, in which Japan and Canada are more likely to participate, involves the development of new strategic technologies — in fields such as drone warfare, hypersonics, electronic warfare and artificial intelligence. While Japan and Canada have industrial prowess and critical minerals, it is not clear how much they can contribute. The US still dominates the group in terms of advanced military technology.

A final criticism of Aukus, sometimes made in China, is that it is a backwardlooking attempt to preserve the power of the “Anglosphere”. But Japan’s association with it undermines that idea. The main link between the Aukus countries is that they are all liberal democracies determined to prevent the Indo-Pacific from falling under the sway of an authoritarian China, in alliance with a revanchist Russia. The effort to collaborate better on security is welcome. There is still more work to be done.

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