On a bright and warm day in mid-March, U.S. President Joe Biden stood side by side with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and declared, “[I]t’s my honor to welcome you both to the United States as we take the next critical step in advancing the Australia, U.S., UK partnership — AUKUS,” Perched behind them was a USS Missouri, a Virginia-class attack submarine. There was no shortage of historical symbolism here: It was a USS Missouri warship, which sailed across the Pacific to Sydney at the turn of the 20th century, while a successor namesake battle ship oversaw Imperial Japan’s surrender by the middle of that particularly turbulent century.
On that fateful day, the three anglophone allies marked a “historic trilateral decision to support Australia acquiring conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs)” in a bid to consolidate their burgeoning alliance. Under a whopping $368 billion deal, Australia is expected to access several U.S.-made Virginia-class submarines in the near future and, within two decades, acquire next-generation nuclear-powered submarines based on mainly British technology.
As The Economist puts it, the agreement “will intensify American and British involvement in the Pacific and bind the three allies together in unprecedented ways, into the 2040s and beyond.” Simultaneously, the U.S. is also engineering a parallel trilateral alliance, namely the Japan-Philippine-U.S. (JAPHUS) alliance, with a particular focus on Taiwan and the broader First Island Chain, extending from Okinawa Islands all the way to Vietnam’s eastern shores.
Since China is too big and too pivotal to the global economy to be “contained” a la Cold War era, the U.S. is primarily interested in “constraining” the Asian superpower’s rise in tandem with allies. Both trilateral alliances are part of the Pentagon’s ‘integrated deterrence’ strategy against China. And both are controversial. On its part, the AUKUS deal has invariably been criticized across Asia as, inter alia, "risking a new arms race and nuclear proliferation", "[g]oing down a dangerous road", and "disregarding the concerns of the international community." On its part, the proposed JAPHUS is expected to face fierce resistance in both Manila and Tokyo, where there are either fears of unwanted geopolitical escalation and/or belligerent militarization.
The circumstances of the effective birth of the AUKUS, just over 18 months ago, is crucial to a proper understanding of its purpose and long-time trajectory. On one hand, it’s a response to the West’s growing frustration over the seeming inability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to hold the line, namely check China’s expanding strategic footprint in adjacent waters, especially in the South China Sea.
Moreover, AUKUS has gained ever greater geopolitical urgency amid growing divisions within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, as continental European powers such as France advocate for greater defense self-reliance after more than half-a-century of strategic dependence on Washington. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also exposed major faultlines within the Quadrilateral Security Alliance, better known as the “Quad”, especially because of India’s adamant opposition to sanctions against Moscow, which also happens to be a top source of energy and military hardware to the South Asian powerhouse.
Against such backdrop, AUKUS has become the primary vehicle for U.S. ‘integrated deterrence’ strategy against China in the Indo-Pacific. After all, both the UK and Australia largely share America’s vision for the region, including threat perceptions vis-à-vis an ascendant China. The problem, however, is that AUKUS has proven to be deeply controversial from the get-go. Felt ‘stabbed in the back’, France demanded formal apology from Australia and temporarily downgraded diplomatic relations with Canberra and Washington after perfunctorily losing its “contract of the century” submarine deal with Australia in 2021 in favor of the AUKUS nuclear submarine alternative.
The ensuing diplomatic crisis even undermined ongoing EU-Australia trade deal negotiations, while the European Union (EU) openly accused Biden of Trump-style unilateralism and contempt for transatlantic allies. Meanwhile, major Indo-Pacific players such as India and New Zealand, which prefer a more nuanced approach to China’s rise, also refused to openly back the AUKUS, preferring to double down on their own defense relations with the EU.
Against the backdrop of AUKUS, Japan is in the midst of its own historic defense buildup. Over the past few months alone, the Northeast Asian country has made major moves, including the release of a National Security Strategy (NSS) document, which openly extols the value of developing Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) development of “counter-strike capability,” as well as increasing defense spending by US$315 billion (43 trillion yen) over the next five years.
Uncertainties and Opposition
According to the political scientist Gerald Segal, a “constrainment” strategy combines economic, diplomatic and military counter-measures, which intend to tell [China] that the outside world has interests that will be defended by means of incentives for good behavior, deterrence of bad behavior, and punishment when deterrence fails.”
AUKUS and JAPHUS, which are directly tied to the Pentagon’s ‘integrated deterrence’ doctrine, are far from uncontroversial. In Australia, there are growing worries about the fiscal burden as well as strategic risks attached with the AUKUS. No less than former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating has lambasted the nuclear submarine deal under his party mates as a way to “scre[w] into place the last shackle in the long chain the United States has laid out to contain China,” while questioning whether a few Australian nuclear submarines “could have more than a token military impact against China” in an event of full-blown conflict in the future.
Invoking the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality in Southeast Asia (ZOPFAN) initiative as well as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), Key ASEAN players also remain skeptical. Earlier this month, Malaysia expressed concerns over the new AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal, calling on all regional powers to refrain “from any provocation that could potentially trigger an arms race or affect peace and security in the region.” On its part, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it’s “closely following” the issue, underscoring the need for “[m]aintaining peace and stability in the region is the responsibility of all countries” and that it is “critical for all countries to be a part of this effort.”
Meanwhile in the Philippines, former President Rodrigo Duterte as well as presidential sister and Senator Maria Imelda “Imee” Marcos have publicly lambasted the current leadership’s decision to expand defense ties with America, which could potentially drag the country into an unwanted conflict over Taiwan. As for Japan, the country’s pacifist constitution, which is unlikely to be amended anytime soon, proscribes any offensive military alliance-building, thus complicating plans for deeper defense ties with neighboring Philippines. Not to mention, the country’s militaristic past is bound to raise concerns over any massive military build-up in the near future.
Overall, the U.S. is clearly determined to coral allies and likeminded powers to constrain a rising China. What’s unclear is how sustainable and effective this strategy would be in the coming decades, especially given the Asian superpower’s growing economic and diplomatic influence in the Indo-Pacific.