Why AUKUS is changing the game in the Indo-Pacific

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AUKUS puts the seal on three overriding geopolitical truths in the emerging regional and global order.

First, it signifies the firm conviction of the main democracies of the Anglosphere that China, as a formidable global national power, has replaced a severely diminished Russia as the main strategic competitor. Second, he recognizes that the strategic rivalry has shifted from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Third, nuclear propulsion for the navy will represent the greatest projection of Australian military might in the Indo-Pacific region. The ramifications of these developments will reverberate for decades.

AUKUS is both a recognition and a concession to the loss of American strategic primacy. Under the administration of George W. Bush, the objective of American policy was to prevent any power from dominating its own region. It is now well and truly ancient history.

Suddenly, the rationale declared by the Biden administration for the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan – so that it can better focus on strategic rivalry and trade competition with China – becomes more credible and takes on new meaning. China and other interested spectators around the Indo-Pacific will once again need to quickly recalibrate U.S. capacity assessments and will remain a strong presence and player in the region.

AUKUS has taken even seasoned military observers and security analysts by surprise. It involves vast issues of security, defense industry, high tech, cyber warfare and digital warfare that bind Australia together in a “partnership forever” with the United States. It is both a strategic bet on a fundamental reorientation of American attention and resources from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific as a real theater of geopolitical competition in the emerging but still unfinished world order. And it is also a drastic shift in Australia’s military capability that increases the remotely controlled military footprints of the other two allies in this region.

AUKUS relocates post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ to the Indo-Pacific as the beating heart of the emerging world order with economic dynamism, international trade and diplomatic center of gravity all pivoting from the Atlantic North towards this region. Wolfgang Munchau describes AUKUS as “an implicit geopolitical catastrophe for the EU” which had treated the UK “as a strategic adversary”.

London has freed itself to become an actor in the variable geometry of the new international order while the EU remains stuck with its 27 members paralyzed by their veto power. Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer writes that the Anglo-American decision to help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines is a substantial contribution “to the stability of a balanced Indo-Pacific region”.

But China is likely to see AUKUS through a Taiwanese prism. What if a provoked and angry China decides to reclaim Taiwan before its strategic equation escalates further?

Even without the bomb, the nuclearization of the Australian Navy could create waves of unrest in neighboring Southeast Asian countries and spark a regional race for nuclear naval propulsion. The 15-20 year time horizon provides an opportunity for countries such as Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to understand the implications of Australia’s enhanced naval defense capability and to reflect on the possibilities. of their own security needs in the face of foreseeable threats within that time frame.

Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa warns that AUKUS represents an escalation in regional “stealth submarine capability” and “adds to the perception of an Indo-Pacific lacking nuclear stability and prone to costly miscalculations “. Along with the revitalization of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) Forum, AUKUS strongly reminds ASEAN “of the cost of its hesitation and indecision over the complex and rapidly changing geopolitical environment”. He calls on ASEAN “to reaffirm its relevance”.

The development will also leave Japan as the intruder in the Quad which brings together the four regional democracies of Australia, India, Japan and the United States in an informal maritime grouping. With benign origins in the impromptu coordination between the Four Marines in humanitarian relief operations following the Great Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004, despite some hiccups along the way, the Quad has been revitalized and acquired increasing content. in recent times with combined exercises and institutionalized discussions. Will Japan be tempted to imitate Australia to adopt nuclear propulsion for its submarines? Will the relationship between the Quad, the UKUS, and the US-Japan and US-South Korea bilateral security treaties be based on a set of mutually reinforcing diplomatic and military arrangements, somewhat like the EU-NATO partnership?

Nuclear analysts are divided in their immediate reactions to the announcement.

This is the first time that a Nuclear Weapon State (NWT) as defined by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has assisted a non-nuclear weapon state in the acquisition of submarines nuclear powered. Sharon Squassoni, former senior official with the United States Agency for Arms Control and Disarmament, warns that “expanding the club of states that use highly enriched uranium to fuel submarines would be wrong for many reasons. “.

Unlike Anglo-American submarines, French nuclear-powered submarines use low-enriched uranium (less than 20%) and their rental would have represented an upgrade of the current contract without cancellation, avoided upsetting France. and disturb the NATO alliance, and diminished proliferation problems.

The NPT allows non-explosive military uses of nuclear material, subject to standard safeguards measures that are suspended as long as the material is used for military purposes, but are reapplied as soon as the military use has ceased. In the meantime, the non-explosive use obligation remains in force.

Australia will seek an arrangement to keep the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) informed of the matter and ensure its eventual return to safeguards. British and American ships use around 95% highly enriched uranium (HEU). It is military grade. But because it will be used for non-weapons-related naval propulsion, significant amounts of HEU would be outside the IAEA safeguards system, making it difficult to certify that all Australian nuclear material remains for activities. peaceful. Critics of the deal like Tariq Rauf, a retired senior IAEA official, worry less about Australia than the precedent it sets to open a ‘proliferation Pandora’s box’ for others more problematic countries.

Gareth Evans, Downer’s predecessor as Foreign Secretary, points out that the AUKUS announcement absolutely ruled out any interest in Australia’s nuclear weapons capability or even fissile material production. The pact should be read as nothing more than “to build a more credible Australian defense capability for many decades to come” to reflect its particular geography. Meanwhile, Australia could use the next 10 to 15 years to lead efforts to establish an internationally accepted verification standard for all military reactor fuel.

Ramesh Thakur is Professor Emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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