The AUKUS military alliance: Manifold implications
On September 15, Australia, UK and the US made public an arrangement termed AUKUS intended to ramp up three-way cooperation in new and emerging technologies for defense, including the provision of sensitive technologies and equipment to Australia for building nuclear powered submarines.
Although these submarines are not to be equipped for carrying and delivering nuclear weapons, they would vastly extend Australia’s naval reach. Australia has opted to become overtly a nodal point for carrying the military burdens of the US Indo-Pacific strategy.
In the shadow of the Quad, AUKUS constitutes a tangible step at extending the military dominance of major western powers in the Asia-Pacific with an unstated but implicit objective of containing China.
The deal on the submarines was reached quietly and that has upset France, which lost a $60 billion project of building 12 diesel powered submarines for Australia. France has described this as a ‘knife in the back’ and recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, as a sign of annoyance.
Viewed from a regional perspective, AUKUS signifies a steep escalation of the contest for maritime dominance in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The US dominated security architecture in the Pacific is being reinforced, somewhat akin to extending NATO’s reach to the Pacific.
On the global plane, trends toward sharpening of political divisions on the pattern of Cold War 1 are becoming more visible. The key maritime powers are responding by hard power to the geoeconomic continental integration initiatives of China and Russia on the Eurasian mainland.
The global strategic contest for primacy based on technological superiority has gained pace. All of this has costs for the international system as a whole.
Faith in the efficacy of multilateral institutions, norms and rules governing conduct of states within the framework of an international order underpinned by the United Nations is being eroded.
As geopolitics races ahead, international cooperation suffers and so does the vision of the UN Charter for peace. Although at this point AUKUS is more optics than substance as the envisaged nuclear submarines may take a decade or two to be built and become operational, the trends are worrisome.
In providing Australia with High Enriched Uranium and nuclear power propulsion technology for military purposes, a notable exception has been made, in spirit if not in letter, to the NPT regime and nuclear non proliferation norms.
The US-India cooperation in sensitive defense technologies is already ongoing and seriously tilting the strategic balance in South Asia.
India has already fielded nuclear powered submarines. The US-India cooperation in sensitive defense technologies is already ongoing and seriously tilting the strategic balance in South Asia.
Ongoing trends may presage a full blown nuclear proliferation in the Indo-Pacific. Hypothetically, Japan and South Korea besides Australia may at some point no longer feel constrained from developing their own nuclear weapons and related delivery systems.
In South Asia, India will intensify its programs in this direction, compelling Pakistan to respond. A chain reaction may ensue in other regions thus seriously escalating concerns about a nuclear conflict.
China has already criticized the AUKUS. Malaysia and Indonesia have expressed concern that this may fuel an arms race. The Malaysian Prime Minister has said that this will be a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region... as a country within ASEAN, Malaysia holds the principle of maintaining ASEAN as a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality.”
Significantly, the centrality of ASEAN in managing a cooperative environment in the region is also being diminished. The ASEAN sponsored South East Asia Nuclear Free Zone could be marginalized. These developments may compel or provoke other powers to act more aggressively in the region.
Most Asian states do not want to take sides in a global strategic contest between the major powers. Their autonomy of action and choices to balance their economic and security interests will be compromised by these trends.
The intra-regional tensions, disputes and conflicts such as between Pakistan and India will become more prone to volatile eruptions. The Korean peninsula could get further inflamed by the spectre of nuclear dalliance.
Elsewhere, notably Iran and some Gulf states may intensify efforts to develop their own nuclear deterrence capabilities as an option of choice.
All of this is bad news for international stability and peace. The trend lines are becoming ominous. Much more is at stake for the world than just a few Australian nuclear submarines patrolling the waters of the Indo-Pacific.
The US aided by UK and Australia is now on a collision course with China- or so it seems. One wonders if there is still some room for cooperation, given the US-China interdependence and the imperative global need for substituting competition with cooperation across the board.
- Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.