As China threat rises, can Aukus alliance recover from rancorous birth?
It was initially seen as an audacious enlistment by Joe Biden of Australia into the 21st-century struggle against China, elevating the country in the process to a significant regional military power and finally giving substance to Global Britain and its tilt to the Indo-Pacific.
But since then the “ruckus” about Aukus, as Boris Johnson described it, has not stopped. If this was the start of a new “anti-hegemonic coalition” to balance China’s rise, it has not quite blown up on the launchpad, but nor has it taken off as smoothly as intended.
At the heart of the matter is Australia’s announcement it was ditching its A$90bn (£48.5bn) “deal of the century” contract to purchase 12 diesel-powered submarines from France, and was instead buying eight nuclear-propelled submarines from the US and Britain.
The duplicitous conception of Aukus has enraged France, once Australia’s 30-year trusted partner in the Indo-Pacific, and required an apology from Biden that raises worrying questions about how his administration operates internally.
More importantly, as each day passes since the contract was announced with such fanfare on 16 September, the questions mount about the Aukus alliance’s ultimate purpose, and its implications for other countries in the south-east Asia-based Asean block.
The risk is that Aukus, far from strengthening a regional alliance against China, leads to fracture, with big players such as Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand and India disturbed by the advent of a new inner Anglosphere core in their region. The concern is that it subtracts rather than adds. It has also raised legitimate questions among Pacific nations and thinktanks about a nuclear arms race and loopholes in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Some of those concerns have been echoed by Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN weapons inspectorate, as well as by the UN general assembly.
A boost for Macron
It has also sparked a debate in Europe. Emmanuel Macron’s plan to use the French presidency of the EU next year to relaunch proposals for stronger European defence have been boosted. Embarrassed by his betrayal of France, Biden has given Macron’s plans his broad endorsement.
Macron has been able to argue that if Aukus was about anything, it was a signal that the US’s geostrategic centre of gravity is moving irrevocably from Europe to the east to counter Chinese expansionism. That in turn underlined how the old Eurocentric western security architecture essentially is in a mess, and needed reform, providing Paris with a chance to snatch a potential victory in Europe from the ashes of its humiliation in the Indo-Pacific.
The EU after all, not just Paris, was unimpressed by Aukus, postponing free trade talks with Canberra. Gabriele Visentin, EU special envoy for the Indo-Pacific, admitted many saw it as deliberate, and not ineptitude, that Aukus was launched on the day the EU published its own strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Regardless of the timing, EU defence ministers are moving at a faster speed with their plans for stronger European defence, including the creation of a 5,000-strong joint military intervention force by 2025.
Individual reputations may have also taken a hit. French intelligence and diplomats are facing searching questions as to why they did not pick up Australia’s months’ long deceit. But Kurt Campbell, the White House Asia director and chief advocate of the plan to share the US’s nuclear secrets with Australia, has fallen out of favour with the state department, where many say it would have been more astute if Campbell had told Australia to pause for 3 to 6 months after cancelling the French contract before announcing the new security pact.
The Australian angle
With inquiries under way in four national legislatures, the chances of Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, emerging with an enhanced reputation for plain dealing and diplomatic horizon scanning expertise seems unlikely.
Biden himself has not come out of it unscathed. By saying he thought France had been informed of the loss of the submarine contract, he looks like a man that will either attempt to rescue his alliance with that country, or is out of the loop. Asked at an Aspen security forum whether it was credible that Biden did not know, the normally suave French ambassador to Washington, Philippe Étienne, paused awkwardly before saying it was important to look to the future.
Johnson’s bona fides are in play too. Questions remain at least in French minds about the precise role the UK officials played in agitating for this decision that has lost Australia A$2.4bn in sunk costs, with further compensation to come. Senior British figures were on Morrison’s advisory panel from February this year, notably the former head of BAE Systems Submarines, Murray Easton, credited with turning around the British nuclear submarine programme.
But one difficulty for Aukus is that it is largely a concept. A phalanx of recently hired former US naval advisers have been appointed to fill out the details over the next 18 months on behalf of Morrison, including where the submarines will be built. The purpose is to show Australia, a country with no civilian nuclear base, can co-produce new submarines, either the Astute built from the British design, or the Virginia class sub built in Connecticut or Virginia.
Whatever the choice, no Australian nuclear-powered sub will be operating in the South China Sea until 2040, by which time the fate of Taiwan may be sealed. The first French submarine was by contrast supposed to be ready by 2034, meaning Australia’s ageing Collins class will have to be refit, or some interim solution found. Jean-Pierre Thébault, the French ambassador to Australia, spared no punches in pointing out the uncertainties of what he called a “giant leap into the unknown”. He said: “No amount of magical thinking could avoid the fact that Australia now had a capacity gap”.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said: “The Australians place themselves entirely at the mercy of developments in American policy. I wish our Australian partner, who made the choice of security – justified by the escalation of tensions with China – to the detriment of sovereignty, will not discover later that it has sacrificed both.”
The other selling point of the Aukus security pact – intense cooperation over cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum computing – is also coming under scrutiny. Morrison is eager to show it is not a PR add-on, but a tangible step. If so it leaves more technologically advanced allies such as Japan and South Korea perplexed by their exclusion. The US had previously rejected a South Korean request to share its nuclear propulsion technology.
That does not mean Aukus, however difficult the birth pangs, lacks military logic, or political support. It was legitimate for Australia, faced by China’s trade war and threats to Taiwan, to decide its strategic needs were changing, and France was never going to satisfy them. It wanted something that could travel large distances. It is about 3,500 miles from the Ran operating base in Perth to the South China Sea. Australia was attracted to the fact that the US technology meant a nuclear reactor in a submarine would not need replacement or additional nuclear fuel during decades of service. This was a vital difference with the French model. Australia would not need a large civil nuclear industry to maintain the vessel.
But it also means a big change in how Australia views its range of influence. “It is about projecting power further up so shaping the security environment in which we operate,” said Arthur Sinodinos, the Australian ambassador to Washington. “By acting together you can change the calculus of the countries in the region that may think once they become a great power they can throw their weight around, and not have to follow any rules.”
‘From order to international disorder’
France does not altogether disagree about the changed nature of the Chinese threat. Admiral Pierre Vandier, chief of staff of the French navy, told France’s parliament in October: “We are in the process of moving, violently, from order to international disorder. The sea has once again drawn the spotlight. It demonstrates that the sea, common space to all humanity, has become the place, par excellence, of the competition, the challenge, the clash – or disunity – for states and organisations wishing to assert themselves, sometimes in defiance of agreements and alliances.
“We are witnessing the Chinese naval awakening. The size of the Chinese navy increased by 138% between 2008 and 2030. My predecessor estimated that China launched the equivalent of our national fleet every four years. The simple Chinese coastguard patrol boats are in fact real first-rate frigates. They are 10,000-tonne boats – their size is larger than that of our frigates of the same size – armed with cannons. Their mission is to escort the fishing fleets and are even authorised to open fire since the modification of its naval law.”
Vandier also warned, despite the betrayal of France, that it would be an error for France to mistake its true enemy.
He said: “I invite you to reread Gen de Gaulle’s speech, delivered the day after the attack on Mers-el-Kébir in 1940. Despite the fatal nature of this episode, during which nearly 1,300 French sailors were killed while trying to counter the British assault, the general urged the target not to be mistaken: Germany remained the real enemy of France.”
Emily Haber, the German ambassador to the US ironically made a similar point by quoting the German philosopher Nietzsche: “The purest form of stupidity is to forget what you really want.”
But not everyone in Europe especially France is prepared to be so flexible and magnanimous as it reconsiders its role in the Indo-Pacific. It is tempting for France to present itself among countries in the region as the champion of a different, more supple relationship with China, contrasting itself with the bellicose “forever friends” rhetoric of Aukus.
There have been hints of this. Speaking to the senate foreign affairs committee on 12 October, the French defence minister Florence Parly spelled out a different vision. “We propose to the actors of this region a strategy with clear objectives: to defend our vision of this space as a space of law and not to show any naivety about Chinese intentions, but to refuse to be hostage to the rivalry between China and the United States.”
Le Drian also told parliament: “The United States apprehends the situation in the Indo-Pacific region according to a very confrontational logic, while the strategy of the French and Europeans is much more open: it takes into account the risks but is not limited to them. On the contrary, we are trying to offer an alternative model to the Chinese presence in the whole area. We intend to respect the sovereignty of all actors and our partners in the region, because it is not just Australia.
“India, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are also great countries, with which we have strong, close and constant relations, which we will further strengthen as part of our Indo-Pacific strategy.”
The idea he laid out is closer to the old policy of engagement with China that Campbell and Ely Ratner, Biden’s two senior China advisers, have explicitly rejected.
France has a ready audience with this rhetoric. Many south-east Asian countries trade with both superpowers, and as much as they value freedom of navigation, they would prefer not to choose, but prefer instead to be somewhere in the middle on the question of US-China competition, valuing ties with both superpowers, and reluctant to be drawn into any arms race between the two sides.
Thus in the words of Susannah Patton, a research fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, the Aukus announcement provided a temperature check of where countries stood on the US-China divide. The political elite in Singapore, Japan and the Philippines are largely supportive of Aukus, but Michito Tsuruoka, an associate professor at Keio University, points out Japan is not enthusiastic about nuclear-propelled submarines. The new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, opposed them in the recent party leadership contest.
The view from inside Asia
Choi Jong-gun, the first secretary of the Korean ministry of foreign affairs, was circumspect during his visit to the US this week. “South Korea is a strategic partner of China and needs a partnership with Beijing in reality,” he said. Randall Schriver, a former assistant secretary of defence for the Asia-Pacific region, was not pleased, warning him that it was dangerous for South Korea to drift in this way, adding if it did not watch out it would end up in the same place as France.
More obviously, the Malaysian foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, and his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, have both expressed their alarm.
Retno said the situation would certainly not benefit anyone. She said: “We both agreed that efforts to maintain a peaceful and stable region must continue and don’t want the current dynamics to cause tension in the arms race and also in power projection.”
With a population of 270 million people scattered over 17,500 islands, a long history of colonial subjugation and multiple experiences of foreign subversion and interference, Indonesia is a country that prides itself on its neutrality. But the initial hostile response was a blow to Australia that hoped Indonesia, on the basis of a warm response to the Australian defence strategic update last year, was open to a more assertive role. France is not slow to see the problem selling 36 Rafale fighters and showing diplomatic love. France is also fostering a partnership with Malaysia.
India is also watching anxiously. Gurjit Singh, the former Indian ambassador to Germany and Asean, said: “The rise of partnerships in the region such as the Aukus and the Quad, which are not Asean-centric, causes them concern. The Asean sees the enunciation of the Aukus pact as increasing the geopolitical risks in the region, as the Aukus is aimed at countering rising Chinese belligerence.” New Zealand too continues to preach the centrality of Asean and nuclear non-proliferation.
China is playing on those fears, in hope of inserting an unlikely wedge. China’s deputy chief of mission in New Zealand, Wang Genhua, recently told Australia’s pacific neighbours to be careful, saying Aukus was out to supplant Asean.
“Australia is going to own nuclear-powered submarines. It will be almost necessary for them to equip nuclear weapons as the next step. The step just couldn’t be prevented,” Wang told the Wellington thinktank Diplosphere. “There will be more of a nuclear arms race across the Pacific region, more nuclear tests, and nuclear pollution.”
He said this would be the first time in history that a country without nuclear weapons would receive technology with the precise isotope used to enrich uranium, offering new access to the technology used in atomic weapon construction.
The main players in Aukus appear to have recognised they have at minimum a comms problem on their hands, and not just in Paris and Brussels. Both the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, in recent days travelled to Malaysia and Indonesia offering reassurance that the Aukus alliance was neither bent on war with China, nor an exclusionary project. Tim Barrett, the former chief of the Australian navy, admitted the concept needed clarifying. John Richardson, former chief of US naval operations, tried to reassure allies saying Aukus would be more palatable if it was less exclusive. It would “have to have tentacles and intrusions to be successful,” he said.
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, also tried to woo doubters in the region, telling the Lowy Institute the US goal was to create “situations of strength”, Campbell went so far as to suggest Aukus could be extended to other powers and this required “building a latticework of alliances and partnerships globally that are fit for purpose for the 21st century”.
He said: “All of this talk of the United States and China going into a new cold war, or that we’re on our way to conflict, or the Thucydides trap – we have the choice not to do that.
“We have the choice, instead, to move forward with what President Biden has called stiff competition. Where we are going to compete vigorously across multiple dimensions, including economics and technology. Where we’re going to stand up for our values.”
Ultimately, according to Rory Medcalf, author of the definitive Indo-Pacific Empire, the health of any Chinese containment security pact may come down to the French reaction, since France is not going to leave the region.
Medcalf told the British foreign affairs select committee: “In a strange way, the real test for France is now. France was serious about the Indo-Pacific well before the submarine contract that France secured from Australia in 2016. In 2015 France was a heavily committed Indo-Pacific partner for Australia, so it should be now. In time it will be again.
“In the meantime, it is important for the three Aukus powers to work with Europe and work with France where we can, to help them to fulfil the commitments of their Indo-Pacific strategies,manage the damage and try to help France help itself.”