1 October 2021   Leave a comment

The recent agreement reached by the US, Great Britain, and Australia (labelled the AUKUS agreement) to provide nuclear powered submarines to Australia signals a continuation of the “pivot” toward Asia begun under the Obama Administration. It was a slap to another European power, France, which had signed an agreement in 2016 with Australia with diesel-powered submarines. The agreement–for $90 billion–with Naval Power, a French company in which the French government holds a majority interest, was for the provision of 12 diesel-powered submarines (named “Shortfin Barracuda) but had been on the rocks for some time. The Guardian reports that “Government figures were becoming increasingly concerned about delays, cost blowouts, and a difficulty in securing firmer pledges for more substantial domestic industry involvement.” The French, however, were completely blindsided by the AUKUS agreement and French President Macron labelled the deal–justifiably–“a stab in the back”.

The damage done to a strong NATO ally was deep, but the AUKUS decision represents a significant strategic decision by the US and Great Britain about the dangers of growing Chinese power in East and Southeast Asia. The French submarines would have been adequate for coastal defense of Australia. Running on electric power, the French submarines would have been quieter than nuclear powered submarines. But the diesel submarines had a shorter range because of fuel requirements and would not have been able to project power in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits, or the waters between China and Japan and South Korea. Nuclear submarines can stay on station for 81 days while diesel powered submarines can only stay on station for 23 days. Thus, the AUKUS deal clearly indicates a decision by the US, Great Britain, and Australia that they are prepared to “contain” China.

The decision is reminiscent of the US decision in 1950 to “contain” the Soviet Union, a decision that required the US to construct a wide array of military alliances, such as NATO and CENTO, that were buttressed by the US nuclear weapons arsenal. The AUKUS agreement does not envision any new emphasis on nuclear weapons–the nuclear submarines will not be outfitted with nuclear weapons although providing Australia with nuclear fuel for the submarines will stretch the limits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which all three powers are signatories. There are already several defense and economic treaties to which the US is a partner:

  1. The ANZUS Treaty, signed by the US, Australia, and New Zealand in 1951
  2. The US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, also signed in 1951.
  3. The US-South Korea Defense Treaty signed in 1953.
  4. The US-Philippines Mutual Defense Agreement signed in 1951
  5. The Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) signed in 1954, dissolved in 1977.
  6. US-Thailand Defense Treaty signed in 2020
  7. the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) began in 2004 includes the US, India, Australia, and Japan.
  8. The Five Eyes (the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) an intelligence sharing agreement created in 1956 but not publicly revealed until 2010
  9. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) started in 1967 and now includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Viet Nam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia.
  10. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) created after US President Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It now includes Canada, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. China has requested membership in this free trade agreement.

The US has a lot of allies in the region and all these agreements suggest that there are deep institutional and political connections drawing them together. It is not clear, however, that China represents an adversary in the way that the Soviet Union contested American power and the liberal international order. China has made it clear that it does not intend to become a liberal state, but there is little evidence so far to suggest that it wishes to create alliances in opposition to a liberal world order. Indeed, China has benefited tremendously from its participation in the liberal economic order.

Nonetheless, the Chinese are deeply upset by the AUKUS Agreement. The BBC describes the Chinese reaction:

“China has criticised a historic security pact between the US, UK and Australia, describing it as ‘extremely irresponsible’ and ‘narrow-minded’.

“The deal will see the US and UK give Australia the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time.

“It is being widely viewed as an effort to counter China’s influence in the contested South China Sea.

“The region has been a flashpoint for years and tensions there remain high.

“Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the alliance risked ‘severely damaging regional peace… and intensifying the arms race’.

He criticised what he called ‘the obsolete Cold War… mentality’ and warned the three countries were ‘hurting their own interests’.

One cannot help, however, to note that in comparison to the US network of alliances in the region, the Chinese are pretty much isolated. Many of the countries in the region depend upon the Chinese economy, but most of the countries in the region are suspicious of Chinese intentions. They are quietly pleased that the US might act as a counterweight to Chinese power. All those states would prefer that the US presence be as low-key as possible and submarines certainly fill that bill.

Posted October 1, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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