In a bid to meet the supposed security challenges of the Indo-Pacific region, leaders of the three largest Anglophone countries on three continents jointly announced on Sept. 16 the formation of AUKUS, a new geopolitical and security partnership of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. The idea is to coordinate on cyber issues, advanced technologies and defense.
The most significant piece of this new partnership is a nuclear submarine deal in which the U.S. and UK would help Australia build and maintain nuclear-powered submarines. Australia would become the seventh country in the world to operate such powerful underwater toys, after the five United Nations permanent security powers, plus India. This would represent a major boost for Canberra’s military arsenal, greatly elevating its stature in regional security matters.
As expected, the partnership immediately drew an angry response from Beijing. A Foreign Ministry spokesman called it “extremely irresponsible,” as it “seriously undermined regional peace and stability, aggravated the arms race and hurt international nonproliferation efforts.”
From Beijing’s perspective, these statements go without saying, of course. But even from Washington’s perspective, it is yet one more example of an utterly bad foreign policy, following on the heels of the Biden administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal debacle. The name itself, AUKUS, sounds like “aw-kiss,” an awful kiss with hell. It fits the definition of a saboteur in every possible way.
First, AUKUS sabotages America’s own global security framework. By banging together only three countries of the Anglo-Saxon lineage, and in particular by conferring Australia with nuclear-powered submarine status, AUKUS essentially builds a mini super alliance on top of Washington’s existing security arrangement in the Indo-Pacific, which has been largely based on the Quad quasi-alliance framework (U.S., Australia, Japan and India), effectively creating a new caste system within it.
For a long time, politicians in Washington have touted the special American-British relationship. And that special relationship, as we all know, arises from the historic and cultural Anglo-Saxon connection. As Washington’s strategic interest pivots to the Indo-Pacific region, the other Anglo-Saxon connection — a connection originating from a penal colony full of British convicts — now takes the front seat. AUKUS spells out loud and clear the importance of the Anglo-Saxon commonality in the Indo-Pacific: Australia is special; India and Japan are not. But at least India already has a nuclear submarine in operation — just one. Japan, as a perpetual second-class citizen, as usual, when it comes to Tokyo’s dealings with Washington, lies at the bottom of the pile.
AUKUS also sabotages Washington’s transatlantic relations as the single most brutal example of perfidy toward a major NATO member state in recent history. The nuclear-powered submarine deal is premised upon Australia’s ditching an existing $66 billion contract to purchase 12 attack-class conventional submarines from France’s Naval Group. That deal was once hailed as the deal of the century in France, but now Paris is left cruelly swinging in the wind.
Within NATO, it has been pretty clear that there also exists a caste system: The UK is special; France and presumably other continental member states are not. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the deal a “stab in the back.” And he further characterized it as a “brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision that reminded him of former president Donald Trump.” In retaliation, France recalled its ambassador to the U.S.
AUKUS also sabotages the nuclear nonproliferation cause that lies at the core of America’s national interest. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970 does have a loophole for non-nuclear-weapons states to develop nuclear-based capabilities for nonexplosive military applications as long as there are safeguards in place from the International Atomic Energy Agency. This loophole was inserted into INFCIRC/153 (IAEA 1972), the basic safeguards agreement between the IAEA and non-nuclear-weapons states in 1972.
What it means is that there are indeed risks of nuclear proliferation that need to be checked by the IAEA, when a non-nuclear-weapons state — Australia in this case — intends to invoke INFCIRC/153. When China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said the AUKUS deal hurts international nuclear nonproliferation efforts, he is obviously referring to these risks, which stem from two aspects.
One is that such a country may need to develop its indigenous uranium enrichment capability, raising the question of how to make sure the enriched materials are not diverted to nuclear weapons development. For example, Brazil, which at one point was trying to build nuclear-powered submarines with French help, did indeed also build a domestic uranium enrichment factory.
The other possible source of nuclear proliferation risk stems from the fueling cycle on a submarine reactor. Zhao, the ministry spokesman, said the international community does have reason to be concerned about Australia’s sincere commitment to nonproliferation. That is why for both types of risks there is a whole set of cumbersome safeguard procedures involving the IAEA.
Is Australia really committed to nuclear nonproliferation? Asked another way, will a country that has indeed developed uranium enrichment technologies, or has access to an adequate supply of enriched uranium after spending tens to hundreds of billions of dollars, going to only stick with the wonderful materials to power a few underwater ships and avoid being seduced into developing something that bestows tremendous global and regional power and status? That is a hard question to answer, and so far there is no precedent in history that gives a positive answer.
AUKUS also sabotages the regional power balance by stimulating other countries to develop their own access to nuclear-powered submarines, potentially spurring an arms race among the regional powers. South Korea openly expressed interest in acquiring such a capability in the past. During ex-President Donald Trump’s November 2017 visit to Seoul, South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked about the possibility of purchasing a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine.
Canada, another Angloshpere workhorse, also openly explored buying nuclear attack submarines with both France and the UK as early as 1987. This was later vetoed outright by Washington. And what about Indonesia? It may feel the need to have a new toy, given Australia’s future access to it. What about Japan? Given Uncle Sam’s past record with Canada, it looks as though Washington would be the only possible supply source if Tokyo indeed harbors any ambition for nuclear-powered submarines.
Is Washington going to do it? That would be a horrific irony that the world’s only nuclear victim would have to buy nuclear-powered killers from a country that once created mushroom clouds over it.
And finally, believe it or not, AUKUS would also sabotage Australia’s own national interest in that it is not even clear if or when nuclear-powered submarines would ever be operational with the Australian Navy, given American defense contractors’ track record of ravenous milking of Uncle Sam.
It looks like the way they are going to do it will be a tedious and capricious process for the U.S. and UK defense contractors to “help” Australia build nuclear-powered submarines without allowing Australia to develop uranium enrichment capabilities. And there will be a whole series of steps and procedures in place to comply with the nuclear nonproliferation requirements involving multiple parties and the IAEA.
Further, this complexity rides on top of the fact that Australia has never built a decent conventional submarine in the past. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said these ships may not join the fleet until 2040, which in my amateurish judgment is optimistic. The voracious defense contractors in the U.S. and UK will enjoy at least two decades of comfortable fleecing of probably $100 billion of Australian taxpayers’ money. And at the end of the day I am still not sure Australia will indeed have these powerful submarines as promised. And even if it has them, Australia will be essentially beholden to Washington for future supplies of enriched uranium and fleet maintenance. I wish Canberra good luck that it can pull this off.
In short, AUKUS not only negatively affects regional peace and stability from China’s perspective but it also appears to be a sucker deal from Washington’s perspective. So why, then, does Australia still want to do it? Behind all the beautiful but obviously hollow rhetoric of Joe Biden, the real purpose, in my view, is money. AUKUS tore apart a $66 billion existing contract involving a major ally in Europe, supplanting it with a deal worth about $100 billion for American defense contractors by replacing diesel engines with nuclear reactors. That is a lot of money, and it means a lot of jobs in Connecticut and other parts of the U.S.
Whether this deal is in the national interest of Australia or even whether these wonderful submarines will ever be delivered as promised are entirely different issues, and the current administration in Washington couldn’t care less.