Peter Jones is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
The new Australia-U.K.-U.S. agreement, referred to as AUKUS, represents a significant milestone. But it is the least powerful member, Australia, which has made the biggest (and the least certain) bet. For the U.S., AUKUS requires it to share sensitive nuclear submarine technology in return for a strengthened regional stance against China. Britain, searching for post-Brexit relevance in the world, gains further ties to the U.S. and a role in an area it has not been a significant actor in for decades, in return for occasional deployments to the region.
Australia gains access to nuclear submarine technology and a security guarantee against a surging China. Both could well be useful. But, in return for these, Canberra has signed on to play a minor role in the U.S.-China rivalry for decades to come, a role which is unlikely to give it a significant voice when Washington decides what to do about Beijing. Australia is also betting that Washington’s determination to stare down China will remain firm for many decades. If America’s resolve wavers, or the U.S. makes poor choices in its confrontation with Beijing, Canberra will be out on a limb.
The public centrepiece of the deal is the sharing of nuclear submarine technology. Australia will be joining a small club of countries that operate these lethal vessels. But how independent will Australia’s capability be? Australia has no nuclear industry and will not be able to maintain these vessels, or even really operate them independently – both will require enormous amounts of ongoing U.S. support. The Royal Australian Navy is thus set to effectively become an appendage of the U.S. Navy for decades to come.
This is a dramatic change. Until recently, Australia was extolling the virtues of maintaining a “sovereign” defence capability and of not having to choose between China and the U.S. The Australian government believed that avoiding the need to come down on one side or the other between China and the U.S. (and other regional countries also afraid of China) was the best policy. China is Australia’s biggest economic partner even as it is also the region’s biggest threat.
Given China’s stepping up of pressure tactics in the region, including against Australia itself, the latter no doubt reasoned that a policy of avoiding sides was no longer workable. This is not an unreasonable calculation, but the response – the AUKUS deal – sets Australia’s course for decades to come in a way that cannot easily be undone if the Australian government ever has second thoughts.
What if the U.S. approach to China changes in some profound way? In an era when the U.S. body politic appears set for many years to vacillate wildly between increasingly extreme political actors, this could easily happen if another Donald Trump-like figure takes office and decides on a radically new course. Dramatic shifts in U.S. policy on significant issues are quite possible. What if a future isolationist president decides that confronting Beijing is not in America’s interests? Where will Australia be then?
What if, on the other hand, the U.S. decides that its regional requirements necessitate a much harder line against Beijing then Canberra wants, perhaps in response to a provocation against Taiwan or Japan? Will U.S. officials listen to any Australian concerns (or even British ones, for that matter)? Not likely. Washington, whether under Mr. Trump or Joe Biden, appears less and less interested in paying more than lip service to the concerns of its allies when it believes that its interests require that decisions be made – the unilateral and arbitrary withdrawal from Afghanistan is a case in point. “Consultations” between the three countries may be a part of AUKUS, but the Americans are likely to do what they want when push comes to shove – and the two others will have no choice but to follow along.
Of course, Australia can argue that it will be dramatically affected by any moves the U.S. and China make over the coming decades no matter what. In an era where Beijing appears determined to bully the region, it’s clear Australia deems it better to have the AUKUS relationship than not. For all the talk of AUKUS being an equal partnership of sovereign nations, there is no doubt that hard-headed analysts in Canberra knew exactly what they were getting into and simply reasoned that the benefits outweigh the uncertainties. The alternative – facing the prospect of perhaps having to stare down China relatively alone – isn’t particularly appealing either.
All of this will play out over several decades. For better or worse, Australia has laid its cards on the table.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.