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AUKUS Warms up the Taiwan Straits

Apr 18, 2023

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) laid out the sail plan for Canberra's $368 billion, multiyear program to acquire its own nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) fleet. It is Australia's biggest defense buildup since the end of World War II and will induct it to an elite club of six countries that have such capability. But the trilateral technology sharing club’s chronology also bears a lot on Taiwan. And while much attention will be on Australia, Taiwan also stands to benefit even earlier, diminishing restraint by foreign partners to help the island's indigenous submarine program. Indeed, AUKUS will warm the waters of the Indo-Pacific, but the narrow strait may post the highest temperature rise. 

Submarine access, not the subs per se 

AUKUS is part of a web of minilaterals rising to respond to the rapidly changing security landscape, including China's massive naval buildup and simmering flashpoints. U.S. President Joe Biden., UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, met last month at Point Loma Naval Base in San Diego, California, to outline the next steps for the tripartite. It is an ambitious undertaking to make Canberra the first non-nuclear weapons state to operate nuclear-powered subs. 

Although it will take time before that happens, interim measures agreed upon by the three leaders show that AUKUS' impact can be felt sooner. Though the Virginia-class submarines will not arrive until the early 2030s, American SSNs will begin increasing port visits to Australia this year. British SSNs will follow suit by 2026. By early 2027, both the U.S. and UK aim to have a rotational presence at HMAS Stirling near Perth. Washington will commit four Virginia-class boats and London will allocate one Astute-class ship to the so-called "Submarine Rotational Force-West (SRF-West)." 

Curiously, 2027 - the final year of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s third five year term - is the projected time frame floated by several U.S. officials, notably Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns and retired U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Philip Davidson, as possible dates by which Beijing may take action against Taiwan. U.S. Air Force General Mike Minihan estimates hostilities to come as early as 2025. So while the first units of SSN-AUKUS will not enter service in the British and Australian navies until the late 2030s and early 2040s respectively, basing access in western Australia will already be secured. That - not the submarines per se - may be the more critical near-term priority. Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles confirmed that the first boat will be a secondhand unit, though will still have 20 years left in the tank. It remains to be seen whether such an arrival could change the game in such a fast-evolving security environment. 

Trouble in transit 

And to reach the Taiwan Straits, allied subs may have to transit Southeast Asian waters, including the South China Sea, which is another hotspot itself. This requires soothing the apprehensions of ASEAN capitals. The meeting of the three Anglophone leaders and the joint statement released afterward renewed debates on what AUKUS means for the region and its implications for an already tension-packed neighborhood. Canberra has been more forthcoming this time around and made serious efforts to reach out to relevant countries, but undercurrents of concern persist. Then and now, Indonesia and Malaysia remain the most perturbed. 

Because it is viewed as part of the broader contest for maritime power projection in the region, opposition to the passage of AUKUS ships resonates in Indonesia, a country with a longstanding tradition of nonalignment. Former army general and senior member of the ruling Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) Tubagus Hasanuddin argued that the country's archipelagic sea lanes "cannot be used for activities related to war or preparation of war or non-peaceful activities." A member of the country's parliamentary committee overseeing foreign affairs, defence, and intelligence, he said that AUKUS "is not a [forum] for training, it is like a defence pact, just like NATO but of a smaller scale, [created] to face the Chinese activities in the Pacific. It means the vessels are the inseparable parts of AUKUS." In addition, Jakarta, in the August 2022 review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, also spoke against "the transfer of nuclear materials and technology for military purposes from nuclear-weapon states to any non-nuclear weapon states." 

Malaysia likewise reminded operators of nuclear-powered subs in its waters to take into account the country's national regime, including adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Southeast Asia Nuclear Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, and the ASEAN Declaration on the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality. 

Spurring the underwater race 

Naval buildup in the region is already underway, but AUKUS will take it even deeper. Not only will it accelerate the underwater race between the three Anglophone allies vis-a-vis China, but also between and among other regional navies. In the South China Sea littoral, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam already have subs in their inventory, as do Singapore, Thailand, and even Myanmar and its neighbor Bangladesh. Being the odd man out, the Philippines may revive its bid to develop a similar platform, potentially in partnership with France, which was sidelined by AUKUS. If Manila calculates that the only way to have a say in the game is to have its own undersea wherewithal, no matter how modest, then it may go for it. If AUKUS can open doors for allies to acquire possibly more affordable asymmetric uncrewed underwater drones, that may be worth looking at. 

Australia's precedent may also bear on regional navies aiming to upgrade their subsurface arsenal - probably making the switch from conventional to faster, stealthier and far-ranging nuclear-powered boats that can go for months without surfacing. Indonesia and U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, could be candidates. AUKUS may present Tokyo and Seoul, closer to tense hotspots than Australia, a case to lobby for access to one of America's best kept military secrets. 

Make noise in the south, propel to the north 

Finally, AUKUS may give a boost to Taiwan's indigenous submarine modernization program. As AUKUS heads of state met in California, Reuters ran a report about the UK ramping up submarine parts and technology export to Taipei last year. The licenses were valued at £167 million ($201.29 million), more than the past six years combined. This suggests London is shedding inhibitions about transferring crucial defense capabilities to the democratic island. Whereas SSN-AUKUS will not be online until the 2030s at the earliest, Taiwan is already gearing up to test its first indigenous sub this September and expects delivery of eight units by 2025. AUKUS may have emboldened the UK and others to take the big leap. Hence, as AUKUS propels Canberra's underwater aspirations, it, too, is declogging bottlenecks in Taipei's long-running subsurface project.   

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