We no longer need to recall the days of the Cold War for the drama of secret pacts, talk of nuclear proliferation, and threats to a rules-based international order. On September 15th, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and U.S. President Joe Biden jointly announced a trilateral security pact by the name of AUKUS, born out of concern over what Press Secretary Jen Psaki called “emerging threats” in the “Indo-pacific” region. Although no one country was named, with its impressive military power, increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and Xi Jinping’s foreign policy rhetoric, it is clear the pact is a strategic arms dissemination to balance power with China. This move elevates Australia on the global stage as it becomes the unquestioned home-base of U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific. In doing so, the U.S. undercut a previous deal with France to provide Australia with submarines, prompting a row between Biden and Macron that seems to have subsided.
Security alliances are nothing new in the Indo-pacific region. However, AUKUS is an audacious step further, building on the most recent Five-Eyes intelligence alliance and the QUAD to promote cooperation and create intelligence networks between Pacific maritime democracies.
The security alliance outlines a return to multilateralism for the United States. Included in the pact are the intentions to strengthen diplomatic, defense, and security ties, develop nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, and increase “interoperability,” all while maintaining the standards of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The NPT entered into force in 1970, banning the dissemination and construction of nuclear weapons, but not of nuclear-powered technology, including submarines. Nonetheless, it can be expected that China will try to push the envelope on this. Interestingly, there are features of the deal, like increased access to airspace, that will broaden the US’s ability to operate strategically through Australia.
It is difficult to overstate the gravity of providing these submarines to Australia, which will be only the seventh nation in history to possess nuclear-powered submarine capabilities. This technology is shared only in extreme circumstances. The last time the U.S. shared nuclear submarine technology with another country was amidst the cold war under the U.K.-U.S. Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958. Recently in 2020, the US denied Seoul’s request for nuclear-powered submarines on NPT grounds—clearly things have changed.
America’s pivot to Asia under Obama has become a convergence on the Pacific. As the US ramps up its presence in the region, countries will begin to side with either US or China. A recent meeting between ASEAN nations made clear that the region is divided on the security pact. In a return to traditional liberalism, Biden is trying out the diplomatic route, timing the public release of AUKUS with the U.S.-ASEAN Summit that Trump chose to skip, and a recent meeting with the QUAD. Engaging in inclusive alliances are a critical part of legitimizing America’s increased presence in the region. However, militarization is likely to increase tensions in the Indo-Pacific. Building trust will require a commitment to investing and solving problems in the region, such as those presented by climate change and inequality, that undergird political strife.
Parallels with the Cold War are striking but should not be taken as indication of a devolution to the same forms of competition. The geostrategic landscape has shifted, economies are more interwoven and reliant on the global production chain than ever, and ideological differences, while they do exist, are far more complex and play a smaller role than in relations with Soviet Russia. However, over-militarization could be the spark that sets off the Indo-Pacific powder keg—for one, China is already ramping up military flyovers in Taiwan’s airspace. Should China make an advance on Taiwan or other territories in this region, U.S. strategy will need to lean heavily on security alliances to respond effectively.⬩
Read more on Taiwan: Aaron Meuser dives into China’s escalating aggressions toward the island, the ambiguous role of the U.S., and how the conflict might continue to unfold.