AUKUS and its Implications
Written by Lucasta Bath, Editor-In-Chief, Libertas
On 15th September 2021, the new AUKUS defence pact was announced, sending shockwaves around the world. As well as the short-term diplomatic fallout, the pact will carry long lasting and highly significant regional and global consequences, which this article will seek to analyse.
What is AUKUS?
AUKUS is a tripartite defence and security agreement between the USA, the UK and Australia, announced in September 2021 after several months of covert negotiations. The pact covers a broad range of areas such as artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, underwater capabilities and long range strike capabilities, as well as nuclear defence infrastructure. The most immediately striking part of the pact is of course the agreement by the US and UK to provide Australia with the technology and assistance to develop and deploy nuclear powered submarines: this agreement led to the cancellation by Australia of a previous deal (worth around €56 billion) with France, a move which shocked and angered both French and European Union officials. The pact’s long-term significance however lies in the fact that it will heavily bolster the US military presence in the so-called Indo-Pacific region, as well as its potential to shape a new era of military and defence alliances among Western powers.
What is the Indo-Pacific region?
As is often the case in geopolitics, the term ‘Indo-Pacific region’ carries different connotations in different contexts. In its recent strategy document, the EU describes the region as including everything from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island states, including South Africa and Northeast Asia. For the US, the term implies a narrower focus on India, Australia and the Pacific Island states. Russia and China both reject the concept entirely, seeing it as an attempt to reframe the power dynamics in the region and thus check their territorial ambitions. Notwithstanding these semantic difficulties - or indeed, perhaps because of its flexibility, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ has become increasingly widely used in diplomatic and political spheres, edging out the old designation of ‘Asia-Pacific’, a term which was criticised for its marginalisation of India.
By any definition, the region is of huge - and growing - strategic importance. The EU estimates that the Indo-Pacific is home to three-fifths of the global population, and produces around 60% of global GDP. It includes, by the EU’s definition, seven G20 members (Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Republic of South Africa) as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a highly influential economic union. Naturally, such a large area is significant for many reasons: it has vast trade and investment potential; it will play a pivotal role in combatting climate change; and its internal politics can be volatile and highly varied. Moreover, the region is rapidly becoming an arena in which the latest geopolitical power struggles are played out. The past decade has seen an increase in military spending by multiple Indo-Pacific economies, including China. Military skirmishes have broken out over contested territories and maritime zones, and displays of force have become commonplace. However, few things could have underlined the importance of the Indo-Pacific region as decisively as the announcement last week of the new AUKUS defence pact.
What does AUKUS mean for the UK?
AUKUS is undoubtedly a victory for those proponents of ‘Global Britain’, a phrase steeped in the kind of imperial nostalgia which has become a feature of political discourse in Brexit Britain. The pact accomplishes two major feats: first, it gives Britain an interest in the Indo-Pacific region which, if not actually tangible, is certainly real and consolidated. Greater defence integration appears to be just one of the strategies which Britain is using to shore up its influence in the region: it has also been aggressively pursuing trade deals with Australia and Japan, while rolling over existing deals with the Pacific states, South Korea and Singapore, among others. In August 2021 the UK became ASEAN’s first new Dialogue Partner for 25 years, with then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab lauding the UK’s ‘tilt towards the Indo-Pacific’.
The second feat accomplished by the AUKUS pact, from the UK’s perspective at least, is that it signals a clear pivot away from Europe and towards greater integration with the so-called ‘Anglosphere’ - a loose community of predominantly Anglophone countries, with shared cultural ties and broadly complementary political aims. The early foundations of the Anglosphere have already been laid with the Five Eyes network, a grouping which has existed since the Second World War to share intelligence between the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. As tensions between the US and China continue to escalate, the US is likely to draw its trusted allies ever closer — AUKUS may well prove to be the first step in a consolidation of the Anglosphere.
What does AUKUS mean for Europe?
AUKUS has put the European Union in an awkward position. For France, the loss of a lucrative contact at short notice (reportedly, the French government was informed about the pact only an hour before the news became public) is highly embarrassing. However the loss of face is small fry compared to the loss of potential geopolitical influence in the Indo-Pacific region: a region that is especially significant given that it is home to various French overseas territories, including Mayotte, La Réunion, New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna. French analysts are undoubtedly outraged at the decision by Canberra to turn to London, which has proven itself an unreliable partner (to Europe at least) and which has no territorial interest in the Indo-Pacific, and Washington, whose shortcomings were brutally exposed in the disastrous Afghanistan exit in August.
On the EU level, the AUKUS pact has led to heightened anxiety about where exactly the bloc stands on issues of defence and security. The current Commission has emphasised the goal of creating a Defence Union by 2025, with Commission President von der Leyen explicitly referencing the plan in her latest State of the Union address and calling for greater cooperation both within the Union and with external partners. The Commission has even gone so far as to unveil a new Directorate General for Defence Industry and Space, and some leaders, including France’s Emmanuel Macron, have called openly for a policy of European strategic autonomy. However, these steps have done little to counter the underlying perception (both internal and external) that EU Member States are simply too divided on defence and security issues to be able to meaningfully cooperate with one another. This, in turn has led Washington to question the reliability of the EU as a partner on such issues, a situation which is only exacerbated by the EU’s recent signing of an investment treaty with China. Both Germany’s Angela Merkel and Macron have spoken against the potential building of blocs, calling instead for multilateralism and open dialogue. Although the years of the Trump presidency and America’s continuing political instability may prove, in time, to vindicate European leaders’ caution, there can be no doubt that it played a role in the EU’s exclusion from AUKUS.
What does AUKUS mean for the world?
Speaking about the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden offered an insight into the new direction of US foreign policy. His speech made clear his reluctance to commit US troops and resources to ground wars in distant countries, and hinted instead at a strategy guided by economic and technological competition with China and Russia, but one which avoids direct combat. Concretely, the US is now highly reluctant to engage in the arena-style geopolitics of the Middle East. Some analysts see this sudden withdrawal as highly tactical in itself, arguing that the creation of an effective power vacuum in the Middle East may have the effect of destabilising and undermining Chinese (and Russian) influence in Central Asia and Pakistan. In any case, the US is clearly committing itself to a strategy of trying to contain China, focusing on undermining its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, and pushing back against programmes such as the Belt and Road Initiative.
Undoubtedly, AUKUS will provoke some anxiety in Southeast Asia: analysts fear that it will cause the region to become a new and unwelcome arena for global strategic competition, thus ending its prized strategic autonomy. Indonesia and Malaysia were quick to express fears over the stoking of renewed military aggression in the region. In general though, there appears to be broad acceptance of the move, with Singapore, Japan and India among those responding positively. Attempts to remain truly neutral in the long term may prove fruitless, and in any case, AUKUS may offer cooperation opportunities in areas such as cybersecurity and quantum computing which are particularly attractive to rapidly emerging economies such as India, Thailand and Taiwan.
Finally, to China, AUKUS is a clear challenge, although, given its longstanding poor relations with the AUKUS members, not an unexpected one. The Chinese government has reacted furiously — calling the pact “highly irresponsible” and claiming that it represents a move towards a Cold War style arms race.
The full implications of AUKUS will not be known for some time, but certain interim lessons can be drawn. The pact illustrates the new path which a post-Brexit UK is hoping to tread; it also represents a new direction and strategy in US foreign policy. It poses difficult questions for the EU and its geopolitical priorities, and will force many Indo-Pacific nations to re-assess their strategic priorities. Finally, for the world as a whole, AUKUS represents a significant and troubling escalation in US-China tensions.
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