AUKUS reveals much about the new global strategic context

The new AUKUS partnership as well as the furore in Paris surrounding its announcement says a lot about the new geopolitical landscape.

Expert comment Updated 19 September 2021 Published 18 September 2021 3 minute READ

The growing diplomatic drama surrounding the announcement of the new Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) risks concealing rather than highlighting what the deal reveals about profound changes in the global strategic context. Several elements stand out.

First, Australia’s decision to break off the $66 billion contract it signed with France in 2016 to purchase a new fleet of diesel electric submarines underscores the heightened level of concern in Canberra about China’s growing naval capabilities.

Despite all the industrial, legal, and diplomatic disruption, the Australian government has decided only the stealthy nuclear-powered submarines developed by Britain with US support can provide the genuine naval capability it needs long-term.

Next, in helping Australia resolve this conundrum, the British government has revealed the versatility of its new foreign policy. Part of the reason UK prime minister Boris Johnson eschewed the concept of a formal foreign policy and security treaty in the post-Brexit deal with the European Union (EU) was to pursue freely new ventures such as the recent ‘G7-plus’ summit in Cornwall, and enhanced cooperation among the Five Eyes allies. AUKUS reveals that this approach can produce real results.

Europe or the Indo-Pacific

During this week’s Polish-British Belvedere Forum in Warsaw, one of the main Polish concerns was that this ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific could overstretch Britain’s scarce resources when it should be focusing on Europe, where they are most needed.

While the US is stepping up, the UK has shown it is in the mix, leveraging opportunities as they arise

But AUKUS does not over-extend Britain. There is no military commitment involved in the agreement. The UK also remains outside the Quad – made up of the US, India, Japan, and Australia. And the ongoing stately voyage of its new aircraft carrier from the Mediterranean into the South China Sea provides better insight into the substance of the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt.

Much derided for not carrying enough of its own aircraft – and for depending on US and Dutch escort vessels – the UK has in fact managed to coalesce a flexible group of allies around the Queen Elizabeth while enabling it to fly the British flag in Asian waters and strengthening interoperability with its allies for future joint operations.

Despite the hype, Britain’s main defence investments and deployments remain firmly focused in Europe, as laid out by the recent Integrated Review. And the decision to draft a new NATO Strategic Concept – midwifed by Britain at the 70th anniversary NATO summit hosted in London in December 2019 and confirmed during Joe Biden’s visit to NATO headquarters in June – will give Britain’s role in European security a new purpose and focus in the coming years.

Alone on the strategic landscape

For France, of course, the cancellation of its submarine deal is a painful humiliation, and a severe blow to thousands of workers in its hi-tech defence industry. It also comes at a sensitive moment politically, with Emmanuel Macron keen to demonstrate his international standing ahead of the 2022 presidential election. Instead, France now looks rather lonely on the strategic landscape alongside the more homogeneous and collectively powerful AUKUS trio.

AUKUS does not over-extend Britain. There is no military commitment involved in the agreement

But, rather than take the high road, a furious French reaction has compared Biden to Donald Trump and argued that this defence industrial failure for France should drive an acceleration towards European – for which, read EU – strategic autonomy.

This implies France sees European strategic autonomy as protecting and extending its own sovereign power and industrial interests rather than as a process for EU members to achieve more together in security and foreign policy than they can alone – thereby undermining rather than enhancing its case.

The gap between European strategic rhetoric and practical action was further highlighted by the AUKUS partnership being announced the evening before the EU launched its own Indo-Pacific strategy, and on the same day as China refused to allow a German frigate its first planned port visit to Shanghai.

America is still back

There is still a long way to go before the new submarine deal becomes reality. Australia needs to extricate itself from the French deal, decide how to secure the highly enriched uranium to power its new nuclear submarines, decide with the US and UK the division of labour and technology transfer of production, and assuage the International Atomic Energy Agency’s concerns about the precedent this deal sets. The fruits of this dramatic announcement will, therefore, be a long time in coming.

But, however the details play out, 15 September 2021 was a consequential day. The AUKUS announcement showed that China’s growing hard power is now eliciting a genuinely tough and structural political-military reaction.

Across the Atlantic, it also allowed President Biden – flanked ‘virtually’ by the British and Australian prime ministers – to send the global message that America is indeed back, just three weeks after the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan and chaotic exit from Kabul. And it offered him the opportunity to remind the world that the Indo-Pacific is where the US will be putting its main effort in the future.

For many in China, AUKUS now confirms their belief that the US and its principal allies are determined to contain China’s rise in its own ‘backyard’, where it believes it has the right to flex its muscles. For others, it will confirm Xi Jinping has overreached and China is now paying the price of his more assertive strategy. Either way, the Chinese are on notice that the ambivalent nature of the Obama pivot to Asia has given way to a more determined pivot under Biden.

While the US is stepping up, the UK has shown it is in the mix, leveraging opportunities as they arise. For example, the goodwill the UK has generated in Tokyo with this new partnership with Australia could help its case as it pursues membership of the Transpacific Partnership trade area in 2022.

The EU looks like a bystander in comparison and ill-equipped for the geopolitical competition inherent in this new strategic context. It is essential, therefore, once the dust has settled from these fraught few days, that the US and UK reach out to find ways to involve France and its EU partners in a meaningful, shared transatlantic approach to the Indo-Pacific.